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Diversity and inclusion in schools – How to talk to children about racism

How comfortable are you talking to pupils about race? Here’s how to ensure diversity and inclusion are embedded in your classroom, says Burhana Islam...

  • Diversity and inclusion in schools – How to talk to children about racism
Download a free UKS2 creative writing Scheme of Work on teaching diversity and inclusion from Burhana, here.

This academic year we find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic and reeling from months of on-going racial injustice protests.

Now more than ever, against the backdrop of Black Lives Matter and the BAME Covid report, prioritising diversity and inclusion is a step long overdue.

Coronavirus has impacted almost every part of our daily lives, exposing more publicly some uncomfortable home truths. Our relationship with race has been pushed to the forefront of social discourse and we need to ask ourselves, as teachers, how comfortable are we talking about race?

In a typical non-white household in the UK, the conversation of what it means to be black or Asian, for example, is usually a dinner-time topic from an early age. Systemic racism is an unfortunate fact of life.

The rules and regulations for children of colour are clear: you need to work 10 times harder than your white counterparts; you need to behave 10 times better, and you need to keep your head down because, like it or not, you are a representation of a race that doesn’t seem to belong here.

Those who believe that primary school children are too young to tackle the subject of racism, arguing that they don’t see colour, are adding to a rhetoric that invalidates the experiences of minority ethnic groups.

By refusing to acknowledge a person’s race, you refuse to acknowledge their identity; refuse to see the layers that have made them the person you see before you.

So yes, the discourse of racial diversity needs to be addressed in the early stages of school and there’s never been a moment more apt to look at the way we teach race in your classroom.

So where do we begin? For a child, teachers are the embodiment of truth. They look towards us for the answers. Before we even open up a discussion about race, we need to understand it ourselves.

Start with introspection

A part of learning is reflecting. Check your inherent biases by considering the following: What is race? What is prejudice? What is meant by discrimination?  What is meant by systemic racism? What does it mean to be white? What does it mean to be a person of colour? How do their experiences differ?

Have you ever been asked ‘Where do you come from?’ just because of the colour of your skin? What do these questions suggest about identity, belonging and norm? Remind yourself regularly: being white doesn’t mean your life is easy, it means the colour of your skin hasn’t made it harder. Educate yourself on all of these issues by learning from the experts (see panel, below).

Five strategies to try

Considering the above questions won’t make you an expert on race, but it should encourage deeper racial consciousness. This makes it easier to adopt strategies to ensure diversity and inclusion are part and parcel of your classroom climate.

Avoid a tokenistic approach
This is the practice of teaching a text or topic for the sake of identifying (then quickly dismissing) race. For example, is pupils’ study of black people limited to Black History Month or is it embedded in the curriculum beyond October? Are your classes, sets or houses named after diverse figures such as Mary Seacole or Ghandi, but your curriculum white-washed? Teaching diversity shouldn’t be a box-ticking exercise for Ofsted. Make your intentions meaningful.

Avoid the relentless victim narrative
When you teach about people of colour, is it limited to refugees, slavery, segregation and bullying? Have you considered incorporating more positive representation? Instead, use an ‘inspirational leaders’ topic to study notable Muslims who changed the world, for example.

Humanise humanities
When you teach about different religions in RE, do you study each in isolation or do you meaningfully interconnect the similarities between the three Abrahamic faiths, emphasising shared experiences instead of magnifying and dwelling on differences?

When you learn about different cultures in geography, do you draw parallels between our lives and theirs? Do you comment on how clothes, school hours and food simply reflect the climate, just like ours do, or do you use a voyeuristic approach reserved for zoo animals?

When you teach history, do you offer different perspectives of the same event or do you focus on the white saviour narrative? Do you teach your pupils about slavery, but dismiss Britain’s significant role in the infamous trade? When you tell them about Africa, do you generalise the continent or do you emphasise specific regions for their richness in our history?

Visually represent
Are your displays and books white-washed or do you represent a range of colours and creeds in your classroom so children of colour feel less like the ‘other’ and white children absorb their existence? Are the texts you study limited to white authors or do you have empowering main characters of colour to inspire your pupils?

Drop in facts
Are you aware of the cultural impact people of colour have had over the ages? When studying algebra for the first time, tell your students that the word is actually rooted in Arabic, deriving straight from the Islamic Golden Age when algebra was first seriously studied. Tell pupils that the number zero was actually an Indian invention and it was banned in parts of Europe for hundreds of years because they thought it could potentially hold a secret code.

The above strategies are merely five of many that work towards de-‘othering’ communities of colour – no doubt they’ve been adopted in many classrooms already.

However, the impact they’ll have in engaging pupils of colour, in raising achievement just because they’re finally being ‘seen’, and in ultimately honing a generation more comfortable talking about race, is invaluable.

If the British values of individual liberty, mutual respect and acceptance are meaningfully practised in schools, then society will reap the rewards of it in the years that follow.


Books

  • Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala
  • Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga
  • Me and White Supremacy by Layla F Saad
  • How to Argue with a Racist by Adam Rutherford

Programmes

  • The School That Tried To End Racism (Channel 4)
  • How Racist Are You? (Channel 4)
  • How ‘White Fragility’ Reinforces Racism (The Guardian)

Burhana Islam is the author of Amazing Muslims Who Changed the World, published by Puffin (RRP £16.99).

Find her at burhanaislam.com and on Twitter at @burhana92.

Main image credits: Noor Inayat Khan ©Reya Ahmend; Sayyida Al-Hurra and Sir Mo Farah ©Saffa Khan

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