Inclusion - Let’s talk about race
Dr Stella Louis
Tuesday, July 28, 2020
To open up conversations about race, and challenge racism, we need to understand the central issues and overcome barriers of language, says Dr Stella Louis
How do you feel about the anti-racism protest/Black Lives Matter movement? Have you found any of it shocking? Has anything made you feel hopeful? Was it something you were aware of before?
It is pretty common to feel uncomfortable talking about race and recent events. But it is worth remembering that it is a privilege to be taught about racism, rather than experiencing it. Talking about race involves us unlearning certain things, and it might be hard to reflect and find that you have contributed to or benefited from the system that has oppressed others. That is uncomfortable. But it is the first step of getting to grips with the problem.
I often hear colleagues and parents say that language is a huge barrier to them feeling comfortable talking about race. Such feelings often stem from a fear of getting it wrong and causing offence. So, let’s consider a selection of words and phrases that people often feel uncomfortable about.
LANGUAGE OF RACE
BAME stands for ‘black, Asian and minority ethnic’, and BME stands for ‘black and minority ethnic’. The terms are widely used by Government, local authorities, institutions such as schools, the media and others when referring to ethnic minority groups. But BAME people are not a homogeneous group. We do not have the same lived experience. And so, if we are talking about an issue, my view is that it is important to be specific in our choice of language.
If I am talking about an issue that affects black children, it is important that I say black. The A stands for Asian, so it includes Pakistani, Chinese, East Asian, South Asian, Sri Lankan, Thai and Vietnamese. Without being specific in my choice of language, it is harder to identify a meaningful solution to the problem. It can also muddle the issues.
‘Minority ethnic’ appears as ‘ethnic minority’ in the Oxford English Dictionaryand is defined as ‘a group within a community which has different national or cultural traditions from the main population’. This group includes Roma Gypsies and the Jewish community.
Person of colour
‘Person of colour’, like BAME, is a bit of a tricky one as it elicits mixed reactions. It is a very American term that is starting to be used more frequently in the UK as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement. For me, it’s about considering what it is you are trying to say.
‘I don’t see colour’
For a long time in the 1960s and 70s, people were encouraged not to ‘see’ race. It was as though noticing someone’s race meant that we were racist, and there was a whole movement towards being ‘colour blind’. But the reality is that race is an ingrained social construct that, unfortunately, often defines people’s lived experience.
So, the problem with such statements is that they pretend race does not exist, and to pretend it does not exist means we erase the experiences of BAME children – and that is a huge barrier to understanding the issues and, ultimately, fixing them.
In the mid-1970s, Janet was teaching in a 30-place nursery in East London, where the children were initially all white working class. After two years at the school, a mother told her she was taking her child away. When asked why, the mother replied, ‘Look around you. She has no-one to play with.’
Janet was shocked as the child was a very social little girl. The mother added, ‘Are you blind or something?’ Janet realised that the mother was talking about the increasingly diverse ethnicity in the nursery. Janet had not seen this as being a problem. Instead, she thought they all needed cherishing.
Half-caste v mixed race
Half-caste is a dehumanising and derogatory term used to describe people whose parents are from different races. The word ‘caste’ is associated with the word ‘purity’, so it is easy to assume that ‘half-caste’ implies someone is in some way impure. John Agard’s poem Half-Caste explains it perfectly. A better phrase to use would be mixed race or dual heritage.
A white girl in a Reception class refused to play with a mixed-race girl for no other reason than the colour of her skin. I had a similar experience aged four. A girl in my class called me a Nig-Nog. I did not know what a Nig-Nog was, but I knew it had something to do with my skin colour. When I told my teacher, I was told off for being a tell-tale.
Structural racism refers to all of the polices and practices entrenched in established institutions that harm certain racial groups and help others. Structural racism is dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of people with the same biases joining together and acting accordingly.
It is an impenetrably white workplace culture, where anyone who falls outside the cultural norm must conform or face failure. Certain traits are viewed as professional or unprofessional.
In 2014, by three to one, British people thought the British Empire was something to be proud of rather than ashamed of, and a third said they would like it to still exist. More recent polls show similar results. But the British Empire was a dominant slave-trading power and it was underpinned by the idea that the superior white race needs to conquer and civilise other nations. The British Empire treated people of colour with disdain.
Alison’s dad is Sri Lankan and was the only non-white person in their community in the South of England until Alison was about eight years old. Alison recalls how her father spent years keeping her, her siblings and himself out of the sun so that they would be ‘white’. She was always being called ‘Paki’ at school and excluded from some circles.
She remembers asking her mum what a ‘Paki’ was. She replied, ‘Someone who comes from Pakistan. Your father is from Sri Lanka. Their skin is brown because they are from a very hot climate.’
White supremacy is the belief that white people constitute a superior race and so should dominate society, typically to the exclusion or detriment of other racial and ethnic backgrounds. Such a view supported the idea of Empire.
Five-year-old Bobby told his teacher that he had been looking at history books with his granddad. In it, African people ate children and other people in a large pot.
‘White privilege’ seeks to highlight how race is a barrier that being white means you are free from. If you are white, you are likely to benefit from society in a way that non-white people cannot. That does not mean that you will not have your own struggles, or escape class prejudice. However, it does mean that you have one thing that you do not need to worry about that is a significant cause of concern for others of a different race.
You see people that look like you in successful positions on TV shows and as the heroes of your favourite books. You live in a society where white is the ideal, the norm. Ignoring this because it makes you feel uncomfortable, angry or defensive is part of the problem. Accepting it enables you to become a better ally to children. We cannot overcome any injustice until we accept injustice that is not our own.
As educators, we have a vital role to play in educating and guiding young children’s learning about equality, diversity and social justice. It is clear from the case studies above that cherishing all children is not enough. We need to challenge children when they say racist things to others, teach children more than basic geography and challenge racist resources.
We need to think about how we have conversations with children and parents and how our polices support our everyday practice in promoting equality and dignity for all children and their families.
It is important to note that while I have experienced racism throughout my life, I am not a spokesperson for every black or BAME person in early childhood education, and not every BAME or black person will have the same lived experience as me. I hope this article will help to support meaningful conversations about race.
All names have been changed
Stella Louis is an early years consultant, trainer and author
- If you would like to join one of Stella’s webinars on ‘Let’s talk about race’, contact Early Education, www.early-education.org.uk