Icy and Sot in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, N,Y. Photo by Ilana Novick

* This blog was inspired by Shalana Serafina Bharath as emails between us developed my thinking over the course of a few weeks. I have her consent to share our conversations.

I sit at my school desk reading an email from a former student…

I am writing to you today, following the recent death of George Floyd, an African American man who was murdered at the hands of a white police officer in Minnesota on the 25th of May 2020. For the first time in my existence, I have found a confidence within me to address the distressing issues that I have felt, and am still feeling as a person of colour, due to the triggering exposure that George Floyd’s death has created within the media.

I pause… wondering where this letter will take me, immediately feeling out of my depth. Though I have had a blessed career working in diverse communities such as Brick Lane in Tower Hamlets and Easton in Central Bristol and I have been a trustee for charities such as Think Global and Young Citizens which schooled me through first hand experience in fighting for justice and advocacy… I realise I am not comfortable discussing race with people of colour. It is not something I do… ever. What I do not realise, as I begin reading these emails, is what a profound impact having this conversation would have on me.

When it came to my race, I was unsure as to who I could turn to when I was upset at school. All my friends were white, all my teachers were white, all my dinner ladies were white, so as a child, I felt my racial experiences couldn’t be discussed on a one to one basis. I accept now, that this was because I didn’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable. Unfortunately, this feeling of not wanting to make anyone feel uncomfortable or embarrassed followed me through into my adult life. I think it’s rather worrying that at the age of 27, I now feel ready to talk, but I want to use my voice today, because I do not want fellow Brookside school students to feel the same way that I did at primary school.

I begin to compose my reply…

“As a white working class boy growing up on a Somerset estate I had always thought I understood how hard it was to succeed in life. I have been shocked to my core by what happened to George Floyd, not because it surprised me… but to think I was also shocked by Rodney King’s beating at the hands of the LAPD when I was a young teenager and yet… here we are, nothing has changed. It is only recently in these last few weeks that I can now see the difference that white privilege has bought me. I was poor, my mother had me at 16, both my parents left school with no qualifications… but still I had white privileges. I did not grow up in a system that was set up to make my life even harder than it should be.”

I immediately feel that my words have little meaning – What am I trying to say in my reply? Am I trying to justify my place in all this by saying, ‘Hey, it was tough for me too?’ What has that got to do with anything? Having read, ‘Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race’ by Reni Eddo-Lodge wasn’t that the point about most white people? “They’ve never had to think about what it means, in power terms, to be white, so any time they’re vaguely reminded of this fact, they interpret it as an affront. Their eyes glaze over in boredom or widen in indignation. Their mouths start twitching as they get defensive. Their throats open up as they try to interrupt, itching to talk over you but not to really listen, because they need to let you know you have got it wrong.”

I continue to write my reply, trying to shape the – I’m not that guy – response but it hits me that my words hide a simple truth – What have I done to change the narrative? In all my years of education what have I got to show that has made a difference to children of colour? As I am distracted I deflect the enormity of this question with a question of my own.

“What would help would be to think what would have made a difference for you when you were here?”

Shalana’s reply, so simple and yet so profound, left me feeling emotionally swamped and pleased, for once, to be socially distanced in my bubble-office. You see, I should have never needed to ask that question. Why does something so fundamentally easy to understand have to be explained?

White teachers not being afraid to have a sit down, one to one discussion with a child from a minority background.

Not being afraid… I realised just how afraid I was of getting it wrong, upsetting others, seeming to be uncultured, ignorant, stupid… or even worse – at heart a racist. I remember the earliest days of my headship in Tower Hamlets; the last day of term and everyone jubilant, handing out presents and saying goodbyes for the summer holidays. The Teaching Assistants were all hugging and, feeling the love in the room, I approached my female Muslim TA who had been the most amazing person to work with… I stepped forward to hug her, arms out wide… and she stepped back, shock in her eyes; then the terrible and awkward silence. I had learnt nothing. I should have known that what I proposed was wrong on many levels, but still I stumbled into this mistake as though I could change the rules. It was my mistake but everyone was embarrassed. How could I be so foolish?

The letter continued to open my eyes and make me reflect on some uncomfortable truths.

I understand that, especially in today’s P.C society, most white people are scared to start a discussion about race with a person of colour in fear that they may offend, or say the wrong thing. At school, children were always told off or punished for throwing me casually racist comments, but I was never then approached by a senior member of staff to see if I was okay. Most of the time they probably thought I was, because I’d been conditioned to brush comments like that under the carpet, but deep down I would have loved for some to reach out and just check in on me. I don’t know if it was assumed, but I don’t think teachers should assume that we would have gone home to our parents to discuss racism, or nasty comments at school.

The power teachers have is so evident in these words. It was also clear that by ignoring the issues through a potential fear that we could get it wrong was a bigger crime. A crime of ignorance. As a teacher, the fear of being accused of racism, or being culturally ignorant is a terrifying one. I have very rarely met a teacher who does not want to do the best they can but, how much do many of us know about black history, how well read are we? What do we know about the fundamental issues impacting upon the contextual realities for families in the areas we teach in – including the wider national ones? I was very well read in poverty or Working Class culture but that is clearly not the same. As teachers we should be educated in our real history and then we can be a little more confident speaking to others about race.

We’re always told from a young age that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’, but words do hurt, as much as you pretend that they don’t. In reference to my last email, as a young child I probably felt that I couldn’t have approached a white senior member of staff about my upset with racist comments because I would have been worried that I would have made my white teachers feel uncomfortable.

I dig a little deeper into my memory… and then it hits me. I did grow up on a council estate and things were tough for me but, on my council estate there was one family of colour. The eldest son was the local postman – known to everyone as Sambo. I recently found out his real name was Alan Robinson. His younger sister, Samantha Robinson was a kind, funny and gentle child who I remember really liking whenever we played at the local ‘Wreck’ (Risk adverse playground)… Well like – as much as any 10 year old boy could like a girl. Years later, walking home from Secondary school, a group of boys shouted out, “Walton LOVES Robinson!”. I remember my reaction was extreme, far greater protests than if they had said I loved a girl from a white background. It was as though I had to prove to the community that I didn’t love Samantha, and the community had already conditioned how this response should be. Nothing short of being versed in a racism bred from ignorance. The emails had begun to make me go much further back than I had ever imagined I would. We soften our past because of who we are now – rather than face up to what it really was and learn from it… learn why it was so wrong. Sometimes we find ways to defend our past as though it was, of its time – 1970’s and 80’s council estate England were hard places… I cannot even begin to fathom what they were like for Alan and Samantha.

By this point I was emotionally burnt out. I don’t want to play in to the white guilt narrative but the next part, as someone who has dedicated their career to education, knocked me for six.

At Brookside, when I was in Year 6, we did an end of school show. The show was Snow White and our teachers held auditions for each of us. Being a budding performer I would have killed to have the lead role, but I distinctly remember not auditioning for Snow White because I knew there would be no chance of me getting the role of a character that had, ‘skin as white as snow’. I remember causally saying this to a friend in front of a teacher. Looking back now, I wish that the teacher would have been brave enough to sit me down and discuss the comment that I had just made, even though it was a flippant remark. To perhaps tell me that I could have still auditioned for that role despite my race would have taught me to think outside the box and not limit myself because of my skin colour.

For any teacher to allow a child to limit themselves must be the cardinal sin of our profession. There can be no worse edu-crime. Just because we think we are doing what is best for a child by either believing we are protecting them from hurt, avoiding the embarrassment of a unfamiliar discussion or just not skilled enough; teachers, by our very nature, must want the children they educate to be the better versions of our selves. Not some children – ALL children. We must think beyond our own limitations to make this happen. We must think big at all times – that has got to be our goal – more so in 2020 than ever before. By avoiding talking about experiences outside of our comfort zones or really listening to the experiences of others- we go nowhere, backwards. We just continue to accept the status quo rather than be the key lever for change in a child’s life.