Updated: Jul 22
In light of what has happened in the US and all around the world following George
Floyd’s murder, I felt I needed to put down in writing some of my thoughts. I have never really talked about my own experiences with bias and racism, so writing this article hasn’t been easy and as I post it, I feel a mix of dread and relief.
As a mixed race woman, racism has been around me my whole life. From the outright shocking to the more subtle acts. However, I’ve always wondered what we, as teachers of English, could do when faced with it. After nearly 10 years of teaching, I don’t think I have ever come up with a solution, however, I believe there needs to be a place for these discussions and topics in the classroom.
In my first year of teaching, still fairly inexperienced, I remember teaching a lovely class in a beautiful sunny room in the height of the summer. It was a speaking class for intermediate students and we were all discussing how lovely it was that the sun was shining, especially in England, joke, joke, laughs, laughs. We were also talking about what we could do to protect ourselves from the sun because of its danger on the body, such as sunburn, sun stroke, etc… Words and expressions I was trying to elicit to explain and then move on to the rest of the activities. One of the shiest students in the class put her hand up. I was pleased, it never felt like she was comfortable enough to participate so I was happy to encourage her speaking. She then said: “when it is very sunny in my country, I like walking around with an umbrella to protect my skin’. I was impressed with how good her sentence was. I was ready to move on when I could see she hadn’t finished. She went on: “because when the sun is on my skin, it goes brown and it is disgusting”, well to be fair she made a ‘disgust’ noise rather than using an adjective, but you get the idea. And there I was a mixed race teacher in the height of summer with a very brown skin because of the sun and a student who probably didn’t think there was anything wrong with what she had just said. At that moment, I absolutely had no idea what to do.
When we’re training, we’re told to religiously avoid PARSNIP in our lessons (no talks about Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, -isms, Pork). We need to stick to homogenised coursebooks and therefore topics. There is nothing wrong in talking at length about family and friendships, but shouldn’t our lessons reflect the real world, the good, the bad and the ugly? The student mentioned above wasn’t directly insulting me, but what she had said was very insulting. My lack of experience and training as well as concerns of what would happen if the topic of race came up in my class all contributed to my reaction. I just stood there, not knowing what to say, highly unprepared for this. Someone then asked something and I had to move on. I didn’t necessarily think this student was racist, but my lack of reaction certainly made me think about my own history with these kinds of comments.
You see, one of the biggest problems we have is the lack of discussion on the subject. Well, maybe not lack, we speak aplenty about racial injustice. It is the lack of comprehension when racism does not equal to being verbally abused, beaten up or killed. Let me explain. In a bid to be supportive, people use expressions or words that could be seen as voiding the original sentiment being expressed. For example, once in a pub someone called me disgusting because I was mixed race. When they saw I was visibly shaken by it, my friends’ reaction was to tell me: ‘don’t worry. He’s an idiot!’ Well yes, I think that was established! However, telling me not to worry about it implies that because the person is an idiot, the message is not important. Or the time a parent at my children’s school took me for the nanny ‘oh I’m sure they didn’t mean anything by it’ or the time I was taken for my father-in-law’s carer ‘I’m sure it was just a genuine mistake’.
In the examples I used, I would have liked my friends to realise that being taken for your child’s nanny (when said child looks exactly like you) is more than a genuine mistake. It highlights the misconception that a person of colour on a private school grounds can only be the nanny. It was only one person (well at least saying it out loud), it’s true, but it was one too many, in my opinion. Funnily enough, I have never been mistaken for the CEO of a bank, even in my best clothes and most business-like manners.
I know that my friends meant well, but their responses let me down. I also understand that it can be difficult to know how others feel, and it can be even more difficult to react in a sensitive and appropriate manner. It would have been more helpful and supportive if they had asked me to express how I felt and why. This would have helped them better understand my position. It would have also sparked a conversation that, although difficult, needs to take place. When people witness racial bias, they need to call it out. Challenging injustice and unfairness is everyone’s business, that’s the only way these issues can be resolved, everyone needs to believe that it is their responsibility to speak up.
My point is that when someone talks about the racial bias they have encountered and the first reaction is incredulity or a ‘he’s an idiot’ comment, that undermines the importance of what has been said and what the person is feeling as a result. What is heard is: don’t make a fuss, it wasn’t that serious anyway. So after years of hearing this, my lack of reaction to the student in my speaking class is almost understandable. Now, being more experienced, I would take the student aside at the end of the class and explain that what she said could be considered racist and that she needed to be more careful with how and what she says. Would it make a difference to her mentality? Would it erase years and years of believing that a lighter skin is a synonym of beauty? I don’t think so. As we deal with students for a fleeting time, what is our responsibility as teachers when faced with racism? What tools do we have available when faced with racial bias and outright racism?
Talking about race is uncomfortable, especially for white people. More than ever, the discussion needs to happen, people need to break down their discomfort. Moreover, people like me need to speak up without fear of making waves or being that person, whoever ‘that’ is. As teachers, we need to approach these topics in our classrooms. We need to stop training teachers with the idea that these controversial topics should be avoided. We are educators and, as such, we need to educate.