November 2019 blog - Why ignoring racism doesn't tackle racism

By Chelsea McDonagh, Education Policy & Campaigns officer with the Traveller Movement   

Yes I am being serious. If a child says the teacher is being racist, back the teacher. Whatever the child says, back the teacher. If you don’t, you are letting the child down and allowing them to play you for a fool.”

You wouldn’t be wrong if you thought that sort of commentary was assigned to the history books, especially when the person saying it is the Head teacher of a secondary school. To assume the position that children are innately deceitful, and that teachers are free from biases and will always do the right thing, is inherently flawed. There are many cases where teachers have been the perpetrators of racist or discriminatory behaviour and attitudes towards pupils. In the Traveller Movements own research in partnership with the Advisory Council for the Education of Romany and other Travellers (ACERT) it was found that 67% of Gypsy and Traveller students experienced behaviour that can be described as bullying from teachers, and that is often a factor in early school leaving. This is damning, especially when we consider that Head teachers play an integral role in creating the culture and ethos of a school, which then dictates the tone and behaviour of an entire school.

This sort of commentary is in line with the meritocratic discourse which tells us that if we just worked hard enough, if our (Gypsy & Traveller) parents just settled down, and if we deserved it, that we’d be just as successful. As an Irish Traveller female currently reading for a Master’s in Education at King’s College London, and the current Education Policy and Campaigns Officer at Traveller Movement, I’m often told that I must have got where I am because I worked hard and overcame the obstacles that were placed in front of me. But that is only partly true. The ethos and tone set by my secondary school Head teacher (and teachers) meant that I knew issues of bullying or discriminatory commentary based on my ethnicity would be tackled. I was made to feel confident that these issues could be raised and would be dealt with. I was empowered. This empowerment came not only from my teachers, but from my parents. Parents who knew what discriminatory bullying from teachers felt like having experienced it themselves growing up. My parents didn’t stay long in school and their stories are marred by these experiences, experiences that they did not want repeated for us. So they equipped us not only with coping strategies but the confidence to speak up and to speak out.

If schools are to be the training grounds where young people are equipped with the knowledge and skills for their adult life, then we must equip students, especially those from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds to be able to recognise and call out racist and discriminatory behaviour. And to know that their calls will be listened to and acted upon. That they will not be silenced. When these young people are silenced, they group up to become adults who will continue to face issues of racism and structural racism, yet not be equipped with the tools, nor the confidence to tackle it. To not equip students is to do them a disservice and ultimately for schools to fail in their role of preparing young people for adult life. They shouldn’t be preparing students to just deal with it, they should be preparing students to tackle it, and to do so they need to acknowledge that the people and institutions who hold this power, are not always free of individual biases and structural inequalities.