Aditya Chakrabortty’s article on racism in the education system (There’s a hidden epidemic of racism in UK schools – but it’s finally coming to light, 22 July) brings back vivid memories of growing up in the 1960s and 70s in the UK and facing daily verbal abuse for being brown-skinned. But it is the subtlety of racism in adulthood that has worn me down: the question “But where are you really from?” (I’m really British); the ticking of boxes that put “white” at the top and divide everyone else into various categories of colour (with black at the bottom); the use of the term “non-white” to remind us that we lack something; the knowledge that if you are dark-skinned you have to work harder to prove yourself trustworthy and intelligent – the list could go on.
People may counter “black lives matter” with “all lives matter”, but it goes without saying that white lives matter. The rest of us can feel our existence genuinely less valued on a daily basis. It is this ingrained racism that is hard to name and tackle.
• As a young schoolboy recently arrived in London from British Guiana in 1957, I was subjected to daily verbal and physical abuse for being ethnic Indian and speaking with a Caribbean accent. That was from children in a junior school in Finsbury Park, north London. Unfortunately, racism does not stop at school.
Britain had an open-door policy in the 1950s, whereby immigrants from the Commonwealth and other countries were encouraged and invited to come to the UK in order to staff the new National Health Service, London Transport and London Underground, and provide many other services.
Enoch Powell was sacked by Edward Heath for his “rivers of blood” speech in 1968, and some 400 meat porters and 2,000 dockers protested in support of Powell. One only has to look at that period of immigration, and the reaction to it by a minority who held xenophobic attitudes, to understand where modern-day racism is rooted and why it still persists in the UK.
Immigrants came to the UK with enthusiasm, looking for a better life. Most experienced racist attacks but took the abuse and ventured onwards and upwards with hope in their hearts that soon it would be better. Sadly, there shall always exist the xenophobic minority, encouraging their own to use derogatory language and to beat up foreign children.
• I spent nearly 40 years teaching in England’s schools. Two things were clear. First, racism is not innate, it’s learned. Second, a school cannot stop racism in the child’s home context. However, a school can and should do everything it can to eradicate racism within its own four walls. This has to be led from the top and be an active preoccupation of governance.
Racism in schools should be rooted out and exposed for the foulness that it is. School leadership must have the moral courage to confront it and make this confrontation an integral part of the way the school operates.
• Aditya Chakrabortty raises an issue that is particularly important this year. GCSE and A-level results are being set by individual or small groups of teachers with no external checks. They were asked to rank order their pupils, and now grades are being downgraded. But teachers are human and have subconscious prejudices.
These results affect children’s futures – whether they are said to have passed or are labelled as failures; whether they can study the subjects they want at A-level and follow their chosen career into university; and how they will be judged every time they complete a form asking for their exam results for the next 50 years. Yet the system, as it is structured, is going to reinforce favouritism, racism, sexism and scapegoating.
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