We raised our children to understand the importance of justice and accountability, also leading by example in helping to shape their mindsets, attitudes and behaviours around controversial issues like race. The house was always well lit with debate from the start of parenting. As a result, if we stepped out of line as parents, even momentarily, we are held to account by our children, which meant having to explain any deviant opinions and comments uttered, even in jest. I once described this rudimentary form of mutual accountability as being like living with morality police. Therefore, it was not surprising when Lauren braved Covid-19 restrictions to attend the Black Lives Matter protest in Hyde Park. It was also not surprising when she followed up this protest with tangible action by writing to her previous school Bishop Stortford College (BSC), to highlight her experiences of racism as a pupil. Lauren wanted to raise awareness about the harms of racism and present recommendations on what the school could do to institutionalise positive change.
I travelled with Lauren to Bishop Stortford, which for her was like going back in history. Interestingly, this was also the birthplace of the controversial 19th century imperialist Cecil Rhodes (the founder of Rhodesia) whose statue at Oxford University has for some time been the subject of widespread calls for removal because of what he represented. After six formative years, Lauren left the school four years ago with very complex thoughts and emotions about the experience. It was clear that racism had undermined what was otherwise a positive experience. However, racism had not stopped her benefitting from the commitment made by the school to instil confidence for life. Ironically, this is partially why she now felt so emboldened to speak her truth.
During the train journey Lauren was obviously a little apprehensive. I sat opposite her on the train, face mask on and head phones in, listening to the audible book Why I am no longer talking to White People about Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge. I agreed wholeheartedly with most of what the author was saying, particularly about black feminism, but on this occasion, a conversation was necessary as Lauren needed her moment to clear the decks. I could see it was a healthy apprehension, which indicated that she was taking the matter very seriously with specific objectives in mind. She had prepared well, consulting with peers who had also experienced racism, in developing her list of points to make. She had also drawn me into these consultations, but I had little to add to her well-structured and comprehensive presentation. I was confident that she was clear sighted and composed around the issues to discuss, rather than emotionally charged. I could see that she had spent some time processing these negative experiences both mentally and emotionally and had reached a good place. She was well prepared to take this important step in exercising agency in reconciling her relationship with the school.
Being thorough, she enquired about what I was going to say in the meeting. As black parents, sending our kids to boarding school was a bold decision. I had done extensive soul searching over the years, but never once doubted whether this had been the right thing to do. As I would highlight later during the discussion with teachers, the option of boarding school is not common within the West Indian community and viewed quite negatively. We were bucking the trend to the disapproval of some friends and family members. Understandably, overriding concerns are how black kids will cope being so submerged in a white environment and coping with racism. My view has always been that racism can be encountered anywhere and it is therefore impossible to shield black children from this negative reality of life. Our role as parents is to ensure our children have the required coping skills to deal with racism, as one of many challenges in life. I told Lauren that this was her show and I was there primarily in a supportive role. I expanded to say that my main priority was to share my perspective as a black parent. Over the past few weeks, there had been many discussions at home about race and racism as we processed the George Floyd incident as a family. Lauren was already aware of my views about the critical role of educators in fighting racism, which I thought was taught at home and either reinforced or neutralised at school. This placed great emphasis on the integrity of teachers, who needed to be enlightened and aware of the harms they could exacerbate in interacting with children. Lauren had often heard her father’s references back to his school days including being called a “chocolate coloured coon” by one of his teachers! Whilst such overt racism would not be permitted in the class room today, unconscious biases and stereotyping still prevailed, and these covert attacks were just as harmful. Young black kids needed the emotional intelligence; general awareness and confidence to figure this stuff out, alongside everything else. I told Lauren that my vision was for a better curriculum where a truer depiction of history was presented, following the miseducation of my own generation at school. Education could help to shift some negative mindsets about black people, borne out of fear and ignorance. She nodded which I interpreted to mean that our views were well aligned.
The teachers we met at the school were very open and receptive. As the school was closed, they had travelled in from home specially for the meeting. They were very upfront which helped to create an environment to discuss racism frankly, without discomfort or diversion. They wanted to hear how Lauren could contribute to the thinking and planning already underway to increase the school’s emphasis on promoting racial justice and more attention to diversity. They were keen to hear Lauren’s experience, warts and all. If those we met were representative of the school’s faculty, I was more impressed by the school at that moment, than I had been at any of the report evenings and events I had previously attended.
Lauren’s presentation focused on immediate, short and long-term measures. She talked through the following:
- compulsory training for all staff, pupils and as an option for parent. Compulsory orientation for new prospective parents about anti-racism, to set clear standards and values for the school.
- Reforming the curriculum to include black and other minority histories and literature, as well as highlighting the positive contribution of Britons from diverse backgrounds. Resources include: https://www.theblackcurriculum.com
- Including a section in the schools Annual Report on how the curriculum and pastoral work supports the inclusion of black and other minority ethnic groups.
- Creating a clear anti-racism policy for pupils, parents and staff outlining disciplinary procedures and punishments for racist behaviours.
- Improving reporting structures and introduce stronger sanctions.
- Producing an anonymous termly survey for all students, staff and parents to document their experiences (including racism and other forms of prejudices).
- Providing access for all black pupils to a black counsellor, with direct reporting to the headteacher and governing body. Instructing the counsellor to proactively reach out to each black pupil on a half-termly basis so that pupils are aware that independent support is available.
- Creating an African-Caribbean society primarily (but not exclusively) for black pupils and staff to bond at least half-termly, with alumni guest speakers.
- Creating an African-Caribbean alumni Group for former pupils to foster a vibrant cross-generational community that engages with the school and current pupils.
- Appointing at least one black representative on the Board of Governors.
- Establishing a Steering Committee for Diversity and Inclusion chaired by a selected school governor.
- Committing to broadening the diversity of applicants and appointments in teaching roles.
Lauren was strong and upfront in her presentation. I observed with pride, but without surprise because I had seen her stand on social justice issues from a very early age. Memories sprung to mind of a 12-year-old Lauren arguing fiercely with her grandmother (a staunch Christian) one evening after school about the importance of diversity in religious beliefs. I also recalled a 6-year-old Lauren confronting a man who she thought had kicked a dog. As I thought then, there was something quite strong and compelling about her delivery. Her posture was certainly not that of a victim of racism, but more a champion of anti-racism policies and actions. I observed my daughter walk through what I can only describe as an uplifting and cleansing experience. She took us with her on this journey, describing how her feelings of exclusion at the school had impacted on her identity. She named individual pupils who were particularly abusive and teachers who thought themselves more aware and worldly than they actually were. Those we met were not only keen to listen and learn, they also thought it fitting to apologise to Lauren on behalf of the school.
I found a brief moment to chip in on the need to build a better understanding about the root causes of racism and the importance of history in this regard. I consider Black in Britain, by David Olusoga a valuable history lesson and a means of understanding world events, including the two world wars from a different perspective. The role of black people at key points in history had been deliberately whitewashed. This book had given me a strong feeling of empowerment through history, previously denied by “miseducators”. In my view, the adage “..history is written by the victors..” attributed to Winston Churchill, does not apply, unless this is an admittance that there was in fact a race war. Much earlier in 1891, Missouri Senator George Graham Vest, a former congressman for the Confederacy stated, “for history is written by the victors and framed according to the prejudices and bias existing on their side.” Regardless of who said what, these statements are framed around major wars where the victors rejoiced, and the losers were annihilated. Black people as still here and striving alongside white counterparts, despite the barriers posed by institutional racism. I could only imagine the situation if there was equality and we were all operating from a level playing field. I told the teachers that regardless of race, I would like to see every child leave their history lesson feeling how I felt reading what I considered to be a more balanced representation of history – empowered.
We discussed how Germany had dealt with its dark history following the second world war, by recognising the horrors of Nazi Germany and focusing on peace building and reconciliation. Jewish people had the chance to speak their truth and represent their history. Britain had not done this with its colonial past, which is glaringly obvious even from the school curriculum, which perpetuates a biased representation of history, rather than seeking to teach the truth. It was time to fix this. Black people also wanted to speak their truth about racism and its negative impact on our lives. I feel overtime these long overdue conversations may enlighten the mindsets of some racists. In my mind, the fruit does not fall far from the tree which means behind every racist child, there are racist parents. Drawing parents into a discourse on history is therefore essential. In the meeting, we talked about confronting racist behaviour upfront by having the perpetrator(s) hear how their deviant actions have harmed the person (s) on the receiving end. This is the first level of accountability. The speed at which racism is tackled in school, and indeed the workplace, makes a huge difference in building trust and confidence in the system.
We were told that the school was looking forward to welcoming a new Head in September, coming from a school in Wolverhampton with much greater diversity. The teachers suggested that Lauren should speak to the Faculty and students at the school and that she could also play a mentoring role on an on-going basis. Lauren is very open to helping because BSC will always represent a very important part of her history and identity.
Lauren said she felt lighter on the way back to the station. It was not about breaking the silence and speaking out because she had done this whilst at the school. This was more about contributing to the school rising to the challenge of promoting racial justice within its corridors to improve the experience of those who would follow in her footsteps. This was also about Lauren reaching closure on some negative aspects of her school life. Whilst these experiences were not as corrosive as the perpetrators may have wished, they were harmful and totally unacceptable. Lauren is the fruit of parents who promote the importance of accountability and on this occasion, regardless of what actions the school eventually take, she had won her first personal battle in the war on racism.