OUR LIVES MATTERAn Education in Institutional Racism
In the first of Byline Times’ new series dedicated to giving a platform to new voices of colour, Cheryl Diane Parkinson shares her experiences of confronting structural prejudice within schools
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the collective eye is fixed on race relations in America. The oppressive systemic racism African Americans have faced for the past 400 years is exploding into the foreground through global protests and violent riots. Disillusioned and angry people are expressing age-old frustrations that echo through time. Images on television screens draw stark parallels with a divided history that most do not want to relive.
We have come a long way both in the US and the UK, but racism and inequality still have their knees firmly pressed on black necks without any sign of letting up.
As an educator, I have encountered institutional racism multiple times. A classroom display detailing “the good side of slavery”, a racist petition and the loss of jobs to inexperienced, under-qualified white counterparts are just three incidents of many.
The display contained articles written by students stating that slaves “enjoyed singing in their free time and liked going to church”. I forced a meeting with the headmistress who defended the teacher who organised the display, claiming that “he was a nice man”. All too often, the institutional racism within schools is implemented, sustained and reinforced by people who are “nice” – but how likeable they are isn’t the issue.
Another situation occurred over a job application. I had years of relevant teaching experience and a proven track record of raising the standard of literacy. Students in my class exceeded their targets and my exam pass rate was good. I was also a member of a nationwide reading association. Measured as an ‘Outstanding’ teacher, I had a Master’s degree in Literature, was near completion of a PhD in Writing and was a published writer. But the ‘better candidate’ who secured the position was a white trainee teacher. The informal feedback I received was that I sounded “too eloquent”.
During an interview for another position, I noticed that the school’s leadership was all white and that the students were predominately black. When I was asked if I had any questions, I asked if they were doing anything to ensure that the leadership team reflected the cultural diversity of school’s cohort. I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t get the job. The post was, again, given to a white trainee teacher who had interviewed in jeans.
The incident, however, which stays with me the most was my introduction to racism within schools. Whilst teaching the national curriculum, my all-white class organised a protest at having me as a teacher. A signed petition was presented to my line manager to remove me, on the premise that they did not want to be taught black issues and did not want a black teacher. The outrage I expected from management didn’t materialise. Instead, how well the students had organised themselves was noted and they did not receive any punishment.
After a cooling-off period, I had to continue to teach them. I believe the argument at the time for not acting was to demonstrate how ineffective the protest was. This was supposed to highlight to the students that they were wrong. Both the students and I interpreted me having to continue teaching them a punishment.
In 2020, we like to think we have made vast improvements. We no longer have black-faced minstrel shows. Racist gangs such as skinheads and the National Front are less of a visible presence, particularly on our streets. And we have black representation on television. But we continue to live with the harmful ideas of a system which places the white people at the top of a racially categorised pile.
This systematic racism was arguably started and propagated by the British, through their role in the slave trade and Empire. The system used skin colour as a visible marker to reflect status reinforced by pseudoscience – black was synonymous with the status of a slave. This idea of imposing a person’s value based on a hierarchical colour system is a legacy of slavery that still exists today and is being challenged by movements such as Black Lives Matter.
The mindset of white Britain needs to change. Until it does, people of colour will continue to face prejudice, racism and inequality unchecked because of an internalised bias. It is no wonder we are crying out in one voice, “we can’t breathe”. The continual fightback leaves us exhausted, frustrated and angry – but it is this determined, stubborn anger which fuels us to resist and persist despite being suffocated.
Black people’s dream of rising up from injustice and attaining freedom is still a dream. Through biblical tutelage, black people were sold the idea that Jesus can help us attain freedom through death – a conformist ideology that the system supported. Freedom in this life means to fight and we are still fighting with that knee on our necks.
Although our ultimate goal is freedom, our most immediate goal must be to breathe, survive and get out from under that knee.