“The cause is hidden, the effect is obvious to us all.” Ovid
I am quietly adding my voice to the Black Lives Matter protest and do so with some trepidation. I would not describe myself as “woke”. I am a white, heterosexual, middle class, Christian, male and have very limited experience of what it is to be in a minority.
For the most of my 40 plus years I have been a quiet supporter of the civil rights movement through the way I have conducted myself, the documentaries, films and books I have watched and read, prayers I have prayed, lessons I have taught and example I have sought to set to my children. For some reason, I have lived under the impression that white males should not speak for black people or women. I have always known that people who look like me are a large part of the problem. But that is not a sufficient response and yet effects of that quiet approach are obvious. Finding a way to speak on this issue with integrity and doing more than “liking” a comment is something that may take a while to get right.
In my role have the privilege of serving a school community that is liberal, kind, well mannered and multi-cultural. We have a tangible sense of togetherness both as a whole school and within the groups that make things work. But in this bastion of tolerance and acceptance, there are still some people who do not feel equal. This is not as a consequence of a dominant, hate filled, aggressive, flag waving culture but of a quiet tolerance of banter that reinforces stereotypes, of clumsy attempts to explain significant historical movements, a curriculum that touches on colonialism and slavery but is too reliant on one or two departments to cover that ground.
There have been and are pupils in this community who have not felt loved and pupils who have left with an insufficient understanding of who, what and why we are. In a Monday morning chapel service last year, Feyi spoke about the number of times she has been called the wrong name completely or simply misaddressed as Fey. I am not good with names, I regularly call my own daughters by the wrong name but I think they can shrug it off because they know they are loved. If it happens every day and if it fits into a wider narrative of inequality this becomes an issue. If the only time black culture is mentioned in the 900 or so hours of lessons a year, is on a 5 hour topic about slavery or apartheid, is it any wonder that some leave with a distorted view of what a black life really is. One starting place might be to ask – what is it to be black in the UK and where has that come from?
I do not think that the teacher who calls a black pupil by the wrong name is necessarily a racist. I would not leap to the conclusion that a teenager who makes a clumsy attempt to appropriate a word or phrase from a song that is not aimed at her is a hate filled bigot. Barack Obama said recently: “The world is messy, there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have their flaws. There is this sense of “The way for me making change is to be as judgemental as possible of other people.”” We will not bring about the necessary change, on a school level, by calling out every individual who takes a false step. We will bring about change by investing time to understand our unconscious biases, by realising the stereotypes that inform our unthinking responses, by looking at every subject through the lens of the complex community of pupils in our school. Right now, the priority is our black pupils.
We have a lot to learn, but we are a school so my real hope is that we will all be open to that.
The book of Proverbs teaches that “Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues.” (17:28). The door is wide open for this community to listen to each other’s stories but we cannot just sit like a silent fool in the corner, scratching our beards whilst looking wise and supportive. We may say the “wrong thing”, we may put our feet in it, but listening to the voices on the streets and from those within our community, conversations that lead to change must take place. It is so good to hear the first fruits in English lessons, online Chapel service and Assemblies already.