For decades, race equality work has predominately focused on the black experience of racism and strategies for enabling the black community to overcome huge systemic injustices and inequalities.
However, increasingly, since the death of George Floyd in May 2020, the education world has come to understand that white educators also have a role to play. The onus of responsibility for addressing racism can no longer lie solely with the black community.
If our schools are to change and if they are to become the places where our children learn to be true global citizens, then to be effective allies in the battle against racism, white educators need to be able to demonstrate agency as anti-racist practitioners and undertake their own race and identity work.
However, it is my observation that while making the mental commitment to become anti-racist, many white school leaders have absolutely no idea of what is being asked of them and the deep psychological and emotional task that awaits.
Exploring one’s racial identity has proved to be new territory for most white educators, partly because understanding whiteness as a social construct and how it impacts efficacy, agency and the shaping of both personal and professional identities has not been a prerequisite for teacher training, the ever-growing range of NPQ qualifications or movement into senior leadership.
Unfortunately, little within the education sphere appears to be cognisant of the ‘Psychic wound of racism’. That anti-racist work has a profound psychological element that is concerned with piecing back together the fragmented parts of personal identity so that divisions within individuals and society can be healed.
Healing the psyche and developing a new understanding of one’s racial identity requires a shift from one concrete sense of self to another. Cognitive and emotional dissonance are all a part of this liminal transformation process. It is deeply personal work that requires individuals to develop the capacity to live with ambiguity, uncertainty and a high degree of paradox; stay with the uncomfortable and trust that something better is on the other side of the process.
However, because anti-racist work in schools has never been addressed in this way, we have a majority white school task force (According to 2021 DFE census data, 85.7% of teachers in state-funded schools in England and 92.7% of Headteachers identify as white) that is ill-equipped to undertake anti-racist training that has a focus on identity work. This approach to anti-racism requires a deep excavation of race socialisation and all that has been suppressed as a result. What has been pushed into the unconscious must be made conscious if white school leaders are to become effective agents for change.
Identity Work: A New Way Forward
The American author and social activist Parker Palmer states, “Seldom if ever do we ask, ‘The Who’ question. Who is the self that teaches? How does the quality of my self-hood form or deform the way I relate to my students, my subject, my colleagues, my world?”
I believe that within the sphere of anti-racist education, this is the question that many white school leaders must ask. The fractured white racial self has shown up in our classrooms for far too long. An over-emphasis on the ‘how’ and ‘what’ of teaching has neglected the ‘who’; An individual’s core sense of self and how this has been projected into their learning spaces and ultimately onto the children they have taught.
To be truly anti-racist, white educators need to be involved in the type of identity work that enables them to:
– Understand how they have been racialised
– Engage with the uncomfortable feelings that will inevitably arise
– Begin to see how race has shaped their lives and their own racial identity
– Grow in confidence and understanding of the emotional and psychological permutations of anti-racist work
– Honestly, answer the “The who am I?” question from a race perspective
What’s in a Story?
Generally, teachers are very good storytellers. Teachers know that stories capture the imagination and can reveal aspects of ourselves or our subject that can add depth and meaning in a way that is simply impossible with abstract facts and figures. The power of a story can sometimes be even greater if the subject is ourselves.
Australian academic Glenn Martin argues that the “Who am I” story “gives others an insight into who you are” better than a list of facts and figures…These stories are an act of self-disclosure.”
In becoming the strong anti-racist leaders that society needs, I believe that exploration of the ‘Who I am?” story can help white educators in three critical ways, by helping individuals to:
1. Better understand themselves
These biographies help individuals identify the factors that have shaped their lives and the sense of who they are in terms of their racial identity. Within the context of race, reflection on critical events, encounters, and relationships will help them identify where there have been misalignments between their values and the anti-racist leaders they aspire to be.
2. Find their own sources of wisdom and paths towards healing and wholeness.
By applying an in-depth reflection process that appreciates the narrative arch of one’s life, a more profound psychological perspective can be fostered. Individuals will be able to identify the deficiencies in past schemas for engaging with race. In the hope that insights gained will support the development of new schemas for supporting more positive expressions of their racial identities as anti-racist educators
3.Create New Narratives
These biographies also help individuals to be active in creating new anti-racist narratives for themselves and the communities they serve. They are encouraged to see anti-racist education as a movement towards wholeness, building connection at both the intra and interpersonal level, and creating what the recently deceased social activists bell hooks and Desmond Tutu both described as ‘beloved community’.
Undoubtedly, this is work that requires courage commitment and passion. It requires a willingness (no matter how difficult the terrain) to stay at one’s growing edge and not to turn away from the uncertainty, anxiety and ambiguity that naturally accompany the growth process. And to know that abiding in this place and staying with the uncomfortable is exactly what is necessary if white educators are to grow and become wise, centred, whole anti-racist school leaders that our children need.
Through the Black Lives Matter Movement racial equality and social justice have now been firmly placed back on the agenda and schools must be at the forefront as agents for change.
Black children and black teachers need to know that in the UK education system their lives really do matter and see this evidenced as part of their lived daily reality. Headteachers and senior school leaders have a key role to play in making this happen.
Together, you shape the culture, the vision, the ethos for your school. Together, you determine in practice what racial equality and social justice look like. And together, you must decide the leadership that is needed for these times.
This is a courageous path that you will have to travel, because it will require you to explore issues of identity and integrity and what they truly mean in the context of your own school settings. It will require you to have difficult conversations and face uncomfortable truths.
Yet it is these sorts of conversations which truly define leadership and are fundamental to growth and positive change. What’s more, it’s only by leaning into the uncomfortable spaces and finding with help and support that something new, something better can be brought to life.
That’s why we have now developed our new ‘Race, identity and School Leadership’ Programme to provide a safe spaces for reflection and discussion for school leaders to explore the implications of recent events and begin to unpick implications for themselves and their schools.
The programme will provide spaces for school leaders to explore:
– Identify key principles of racial equality and social justice and what best practice looks like in individual school contexts
– Question and reflect on the prevailing narratives that have shaped the discourse on race, identity, education and the achievement of Black pupils
– Use a narrative enquiry framework to identify how to create personal and organisational narratives that support the achievement of Black pupils
– Equip senior school leaders with the necessary psychological and emotional tools for engaging in difficult conversations about race
– Increase leaders own sense of personal agency and ability to act as an agent of change