The General Teaching Council for Scotland

Opinion: Fostering counter-narratives

Encouraging the development of a critical understanding of racism in education

Mélina: When I first joined the teaching profession, I hadn’t given much thought to my racial identity and the curriculum’s potential to actively challenge, or passively reinforce, racism. It was only once I attended events for BME teachers that I realised racism was more than just isolated acts of prejudice perpetuated by ill-intentioned individuals. When I  undertook  an MEd research on anti-racist education, I began to understand the deeper roots of institutional racism.

Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a framework that caught my interest. It considers racism to be normal, endemic and a structural problem, as opposed to the more simplistic liberal conception which places responsibility on the individual and intent. CRT emphasises that good intentions alone will not end racism; a critical exploration of whiteness is needed. Racism does not only disadvantage people of colour, it simultaneously privileges white people.

While CRT was developed in the USA, many scholars have applied this framework to uncover the existence of white privilege in British education systems. In fact, the Scottish government report Teaching in a Diverse Scotland clearly documents the systemic disadvantage BME teachers face – by default advantaging white teachers. Other studies document the discrimination BME pupils face in Scotland.

Some of the blog entries on Theantiracisteducator.com confirm the scale of the problem. Dr Nighet Riaz’s research entry, ‘School as a Hostile Environment,’ discusses the racialised experiences of pupils of colour, from lower teacher expectations of ability to more severe sanctions for similar behaviour exhibited by white students. And our anonymous teacher’s post, ‘The Dehumanisation of our Young People,’ details their colleagues’ inappropriate staffroom jokes about pupils of colour resembling Shamima Begum, a British girl recently stripped of her citizenship for joining ISIS.

Critically examining whiteness in education

Hashim: At the Anti-Racist Educator, we facilitate anti-racist education training for anyone seeking to make a difference. In our public engagement meetings, we invite participants to reflect on their experiences, develop a critical understanding of racism in education and suggest solutions from our members and a rich history of anti-racist literature. At the NUS Black Students’ Conference, our workshop on ‘Decolonising Education’ explored the ways in which knowledge is presented and how relations are structured in contemporary Scottish education. The students from universities across the country considered the manifestation of racism in their own learning and examined the structures that keep white privilege in place.

It isn’t uncommon at this stage for someone to retort that we are the ones being ‘racist’ for noticing whiteness, or that racism is not really about skin colour. Granted, race is fluid and evolves over time. Xenophobia and religious discrimination can overlap with race. However, to believe that the colonial ideologies justifying the dehumanisation of people of colour have left no legacy in Scotland would be naïve. We deliberately employ the term ‘people of colour’ in our work as we recognise the importance of turning the gaze and critically examining whiteness in education. It is also worth noting that people of colour facing intersecting marginalisation (based on social class, gender, etc.) experience additional challenges, as is often forgotten when discussing Scottish working class pupils (as if all of them were white).

So what does anti-racist education look like?

Mélina: It involves a long journey of unlearning racism and some deep reflection on one’s own racial identity, along with its privileges and disadvantages. Pretending not to see race and merely committing to being a ‘good’ person is not enough. In fact, it is quite possible to unwittingly reinforce racism through microaggressions, implicit bias and an ethnocentric curriculum that places white people at its centre.

During my research scholarship in the USA last year, I learned from anti-racist teachers who constantly revisited their curriculum with a racial lens in order to provide a more diverse and liberating education for all (equally beneficial in schools with only white pupils). Their curriculum utilised the powerful CRT conceptual tool of counter-narratives: narratives told by marginalised groups and that turn dominant mainstream assumptions on their heads. The Anti-Racist Educator is an essential platform where people of colour have control over their narrative. These counter-narratives have an incredible educational value for anyone seeking to embark on a rewarding anti-racist journey. 

About the authors

Hashim Ul-Hassan is a probationer primary teacher based in Glasgow. He has spent time volunteering with migrant solidarity organisations around the city and abroad. He strives to make his teaching challenge oppression in all its forms.

Mélina Valdelièvre teaches English in a secondary school in Glasgow. Melina is a member of the Scottish Trade Union Council Black Workers’ Committee and of the NASUWT Scottish Executive. She is currently involved in the Reframing Race programme run by the race equality thinktank The Runnymede Trust, she completed a Masters dissertation on anti-racism in Scottish educational policy, and was awarded a scholarship to visit the USA and research positive racial dialogue in education.

The Anti-Racist Educator is an online platform aimed at providing a safe space for people of colour in Scotland to articulate their experiences in education. We work together to spread awareness of structural racism and to combat it.

Theantiracisteducator.com includes vital educational tools for white allies: a glossary of key terminology, an up-coming podcast and a blog run by our members. The blog covers various themes – anti-racist education, hidden histories, intersectionality and counter-narratives.

Thanks to the BME mentoring programme of the Scottish Association of Minority Ethnic Educators (chaired by Khadija Mohammed), we joined in an effort to create this platform for people of colour to connect, support one another, and advocate for anti-racist education, while also encouraging white people to stand up for social justice. We are horizontally structured to allow all a fair and equal contribution towards the group and we welcome new members from across Scotland.