Don’t be a silent statue: How to talk about racism in schools

#BlackLivesMatter has spread beyond Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the issue of police brutality towards black people. Across the globe, in South Africa, and in many South African educational institutions, it has become about raising awareness and dealing with racial injustice of all descriptions.

In some parts of the world protests have been accompanied by fires and the tearing down of statues. In South Africa instead of fire there has been heated debate and, in some cases, social media bonfires. No statues at schools have yet been toppled, but you would be forgiven for thinking that some of them might be looking a little nervously over their shoulders.

The murder of George Floyd has highlighted the hurt and anger caused by the evil of racism. It’s not new and it’s something we should have been speaking about already. As Will Smith says, “Racism isn’t getting worse, it’s getting filmed”.

The role of educators

Staff in schools cannot just leave this issue to their students, standing silently by like the statues in our quadrangles. Remaining in mute denial while the argument rages and the cockerel keep on crowing. To do so would be a betrayal to the young people we are called to educate.

Neither can white staff leave this fight to their black colleagues. Such silence would say so much. This is something we are all in together.

Love is the antidote

Oz Alashe, a member of the leadership team at Holy Trinity Brompton, says that ‘love is the antidote to racism’. Paul’s letter, to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, echoes this. His peerless passage on love begins, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a ringing gong or a clanging cymbal.”

Oz suggests that love, in this instance, is characterised by listening. We need to have conversations that lead to understanding and then action. Here are some do’s and don’ts to bear in mind when you have these conversations with your students and colleagues on this topic.

Some do’s…

  1. Do check yourself – Where have you allowed prejudice and intolerance to influence your perception and actions? Perhaps you haven’t been overtly or explicitly racist but what about implicit bias or aversive racism? We all have our blind spots, so be prepared to have the log taken out of your own eye before pointing out the speck in someone else’s.
  2. Do check in with your students – It may be necessary to create formal spaces for dialogue between staff and students. Teenagers are hyper-attuned to hypocrisy; they will pick up what you may have missed when it comes to you or your school’s faults. Be open to hear criticism. This is a time to listen. To understand. To love.
  3. Do check out the concept of systemic racism – An environment that might appear completely normal to one person may be an exhausting or even toxic landscape for another to navigate. Read some of the literature on this (see below) and talk to your colleagues about how structural racism plays out on your campus. Not all schools have level playing fields.

…and some don’ts.

  1. Don’t say ‘all lives matter’ – Of course, they do but this is not about that. If a house is burning and someone suggests calling the fire brigade, it would be ludicrous to say, ‘but all houses matter’. This situation is no different and the topic needs focused and urgent attention.
  2. Don’t be neutral – It’s not enough to not be racist. Given what’s at stake in this debate, where what we say can be amplified all over social media, it sometimes seems easier just to stay quiet. God calls us to more than that. As teachers we need to be anti-racist.
  3. Don’t virtue signal – You don’t need to signal your credentials to the world. Neither is this issue going to be won by the keyboard warriors. Post what you want but know that it must be backed up by action that exemplifies love. You don’t want your angelic words, posted or spoken, to be mere ringing gongs or clanging cymbals.

Finally, we need to remember that this is about something bigger than ourselves. I suspect all teachers are feeling somewhat apprehensive and vulnerable about tackling the issue of race and racism in school. If we remember that as educators, we are called to build a learning community, then criticism, even if it is directed towards us, can help move us closer towards our aim.

We can’t act like mute stone statues, nor sound like the strident clash of clanging cymbals. Instead we want to speak out the chord of truth, gained through understanding, and in love.

Further reading/viewing

After the Protests and Riots, What?

Overcome Implicit Bias

The Difference between being ‘not-racist’ and anti-racist

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race

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