In this post I will continue an exploration of how to reform a school curriculum in the light of the Black Lives Matter movement and a critical consciousness about race and education. The question we will grapple with is how to make these changes without them being tokenistic. How do we deeply embed an anti-racist perspective rather then end up with a "holiday and heroes" surface attempt?
What is Tokenism?
Tokenism is defined as the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from under-represented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality within a workforce. When we reconstruct a curriculum with critical lenses, we want to avoid just tinkering with it so that it looks more diverse but is only superficially so. We need to find ways to honestly integrate new stories, perspectives and figures that are authentically representative of ethnic diversity.
Over the last few weeks I have continued to try to educate myself about Black history, Black experience and Black perspectives. It is a hugely challenging process, not least because, as a white person, it exposes your own privilege, biases and white superiority. As I have continued to read, watch and listen to all sorts of materials, I have been exposed to a whole new vocabulary. Let's look at three of these terms, because I think they are part of the reason it is so hard for us to move beyond tokenism.
Firstly, let's look at White Centering. Layla F Saad, in her book "Me and White Supremacy: How to recognise your privilege, combat racism and change the world", describes White Centering in this way: "Like a fish cannot see the water it is swimming in and like we human beings cannot see the air we breath, white centering is like an invisible net holding up white supremacy". Please note, that in using the term White Supremacy, Saad is not talking about the extremes of white nationalism we hear about. She is identifying it as "the dominant paradigm that forms the foundation from which norms, rules and laws are created. " This creates a white-centred society.
For those of you reading this and already feeling affronted, you are experiencing something called "white fragility". Listen to it and let it expose to you your own white centredness. To be honest, I have been shocked at mine. It was particularly exposed to me recently when I read an e-mail that said a meeting was just for black people or people of colour. I felt excluded and de-centred and realised that that is what Black people experience every day of their lives. It was right for the purpose of this particular meeting that I move over! We need to become aware of our white centering, as tough as that is, if we want to move away from it
and make space for the voices and perspectives and influences of those of Black heritage.
The second term it is worth getting to grips with is White Privilege. Peggy McIntosh defines this as " like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear and blank checks". For those of us who are White, we are steeped in advantages in life that we are hardly ever aware of. It is this lack of awareness that is so blinding because it means that when we do change something so that it reflects and represents Black people or people of colour it can feel like that is enough. White privilege and white centering slow us down, hold us back and inhibit us from taking the risk of going all the way to bring change. If we begin to see it and expose it perhaps we will be less apathetic and hollow in our attempts to rectify a white-centred curriculum.
Thirdly, let's look at the term White Exceptionalism. Saad writes: " White exceptionalism is the belief that you, as a person holding white privilege, are exempt from the effects, benefits, and conditioning of white supremacy and therefore that the work of antiracism does not really apply to you. " Let's just be honest here and say that this is how a lot of us feel a lot of the time. Most of us (ethnically white people that is) do not see ourselves as racist. We would be offended if someone told us we were. But we have probably not done the work we need to, to recognise the million little ways we perpetuate a system that benefits us and marginalises others. We also have not taken an active anti-racist stance and we have kept silent. We don't think we have harmed anyone, but by being passive we have not stood up to injustice or moved towards change. This stance is like saying racism is okay, when we know it is not.
Moving on from Tokenism in The Curriculum
This leads us then to have to ask, how do we reconstruct or enrich a Curriculum that means we are not using token props to demonstrate we are nonracism but where we are genuinely open to recognising, hearing, learning about and deeply integrating stories and histories of minority groups. For those of you still wondering why this is really necessary, particularly if you live in a white majority context; it is necessary because Black communities have suffered hundreds of years of abuse, disadvantage and systemic injustice. It is necessary because when children are represented in the curriculum they can begin to see more of who they are, to examine and define their own identity and to find a sense of belonging and home. It is necessary because maintaining the status quo to benefit just one section of society is dehumanising, discriminatory and incredibly selfish. After all, no one is free until everyone is free.
Returning to The "How To..." in practice
Seeking something deeper than tokenism then, one of the tools I have begun to use for topic planning is a framework that will help me pinpoint, within a given theme, which social justice issue I could incorporate. Inspired by some tools on the www.tolerance.org website, you can find two versions for your use here, one in colour and one black and white:
You can use this to explore ways to integrate all sorts of justice issues into a theme, or focus it on ethnic diversity and circle 'identity' and 'justice' as a starting point for your brainstorming.
Lastly, one other practical aspect to consider, is taking an appreciative inquiry approach for your curriculum review. This means starting from a point of asking "what are we already doing that reflects out diverse community?" This can enable a team of teachers to share what they already do in order to recognise where they are starting from, to celebrate what is already happening and to learn from each other and especially from Black colleagues. We have found this a very positive place to start.
In your context or nation, what is the dominant ethnic culture and who are the ethnic minority groups? Is everyone represented in the curriculum you teach and the pedagogy you practice?
How do you feel about the terms white centering, white privilege and white exceptionalism? Can you recognise any of them in yourself? How does that make you feel? If not, why is that?
How have you noticed or been a part of tokenistic representations of Black people? Why do you think that happened?
What could your next steps be to move beyond tokenism in curriculum reform at your school? Who would you need to talk to about this?
Black history teachers to follow on twitter: jushpreyegarry and Hannah Cusworth
For an anti-racist framework for schools: neu.org.uk
For the How We Got Here course about Black History: www.reachinghigher.org.uk
TV series - Black and British: A Forgotten History, BBC i-player
A book: "Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race" by Reni Eddo-Lodge. She also has a podcast: About Race.