Wednesday, 20 November 2013

I'm a Primary Teacher... a white one.

Alongside my noble duties as an educator of 8 year olds, I am also studying for a Masters and tonight was our much anticipated lecture on Race and Education.

It had the same galvanising effect of generating excitement that Sex Ed lessons or 'Puberty Talks' once did - it was mentioned in the weeks preceding it, there was a certain expectation that in the process of vocalising that which is not to be discussed, we were going to be tiptoeing towards a deeper level of self-knowledge. This wasn't to be a lecture about how black kids compare academically to white kids; instead, it was pitched at explorning the essence of what race and ethnicity meant for us/

Yesterday I was talking about the upcoming lecture with two other (white) students on the course - one was mentioning how he was feeling apprehensive and slightly combative, as he felt he had no authority to discuss the issues at hand. He spoke of the overpowering need for 'political correctness' acting like a bit of a gag - out of his awareness that a misplaced word could lead to him being shot down or misjudged, he felt a pressure on himself to say nothing.

As this was going on, I felt very different to him. I felt that I was kind of an ally - a good white - since I spend so much time working in a 'non-white' community. I have studied about race and about whiteness, and I am living in an area in which there are next to no white British people.

But as soon as I entered the room today, I felt this suffocating feeling, as the discussions continued around me. I am never a shrinking violet, but I ended up devoting my energies to avoiding eye contact, trying desperately not to be seen or invited to contribute.

This is good and necessary, and by talking about how unpleasant it felt, I am not saying it wasn't worth it or that I didn't need it.

My mind wandered not off-topic but deeper into the topic, and as I was listening to my colleagues discussing their own varied experiences across the world and as the lecturer presented a range of provocative, sad and insightful videos, I found myself remembering the first time I visited my school.

I am from a white-working class family in a white working class town, and I stayed there from birth to 18. For university, I then moved to a bastion of white privilege rather than one of white deprivation, but it was very white, nonetheless.

It was only when I got my first - and so far only - teaching job in London that I encountered different ethnic groups. On my introduction day, I got off of the tube, walked onto a high street full of hijabs, saris, shalwar kameez and Halal butchers and felt a wave of shocked excitement.

This, I now see, was the similar shocked excitement that any old white 18 year old feels when they go to work in an African orphanage, or volunteer home-building in some other destitute far-flung place. There were different races around me, different ethnic groups, but there was only one in my head - white.

For a long time, my whiteness was the only lens through which I saw my school community and, for the first term, probably even saw my children. They were my 'Asian children'.

I have not fallen into that trap of 'colourblindness' but rather, as my knowledge of the values, beliefs and practices of my local school community have changed, I have a more multi-dimensional view of what constitutes the 'Asian communities'.

The realisation I had though, that struck me into silence in the lecture, was the way that I see myself in the community with a certain self-celebratory reverence. On some level, I had begun to convince myself that I was an ethnic minority, as White British. In that community, in terms of population statistics, I certainly am.

But my realisation was that I will never ever be an ethnic minority, no matter where I go, because as tonight's lecture edged me towards realising, I have the privilege of never having had to view myself as 'raced'. The difference-in-mind between me walking through the Muslim community in which I work and between a Muslim man walking through my white working class hometown is huge, and the bridge between these two experiences is uncrossable.

On some level tonight, the realisation struck home that I have a normative understanding of the world which insulates me because it serves, first and foremost, to present white perspectives and practices as taken-for-granted.

Now, as I am starting to consider, the processes of my school as a 'whitening institution' seems overpowering - the children leave their home languages at the gate, neutralise their religious dress, receive an instruction into what constitutes the 'correct books to read', and the 'correct way to treat people' and the 'correct way to succeed'.

It is the 'correctness' that is troubling me, because I am starting to see the extent to which 'correctness' aligns itself to 'whiteness'.

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