The Cost of Not Being Racially Literate

The government has recently published guidance on politically impartiality in English Classrooms. For me, the guidance represents a ‘teaching by numbers’ approach to the global challenges of today.
What’s more, I believe the confusion around the guidance (that many of the unions have come out in condemnation of) rather than strengthening race equality work in schools, will actively serve to undermine it.
Education is a moral and social endeavour and for this endeavour to succeed, our young people need support to develop the critical skills that will enable them (alongside the rest of us) to shape a more just and equitable society.
One of these critical skills is racial literacy – the ability to understand, talk and explore matters of race. For centuries, our education system has valorised approaches to teacher development, and classroom pedagogy that centre on acquiring knowledge, technical skills, and expertise.
As a result, we have educators who have been ‘trained’ to seek praise and affirmation for levels of pedagogical expertise and little else. Meanwhile, learning or development that moves beyond these narrow confines, particularly in relation to race, is rarely encouraged.
Consequently, within the arena of anti-racist work and developing racial literacy, we have a vast swathe of the teaching workforce that is ill-equipped to move from expert academic to novice inquirer. And … there is a cost.

The cost of not being racially literate

Becoming racially literate requires that, as educators, we can:
– Engage with the emotional content of any conversation that has a focus on race
– Welcome personal narratives and the lived experiences of all who are involved in the race conversation
– Talk confidently about our own racial identities
– Feel confident in creating and engaging in healthy and reciprocal cross-racial relationships
– Challenge racism at the individual, group and systems level
When teachers cannot display these skills, we all pay the price. Racism, social inequality and injustice continue to thrive, and our children are robbed of the riches that could come from living in a more equitable society.

Psychological and emotional vulnerability

As already detailed above, Western approaches to education have severely limited the development of racially literacy skills amongst teachers and School Leaders. This Illiteracy has been compounded by a dis-investment in the emotional skill sets necessary for successful dialogue about race.
Consequently, many teachers and School Leaders are psychologically and emotionally vulnerable when involved in race-focused discussions. Turning these vulnerabilities into strengths must be an essential priority for all who are committed to engaging in anti-racist work and creating better futures for our children.

Turning vulnerabilities into strengths

Suppose we no longer wish our children and subsequent generations to carry the cost of racism and the wounds it inflicts upon us all.  In that case, we must all be prepared to dig deep and within our spheres of influence, ask ‘What is ours to do?’
In asking, “What is ours to do?’ we must be prepared to share our vulnerabilities with others and collectively find answers to questions that, perhaps previously, regarding race had been ignored.
In spaces where deeper exploration is invited, we can explore such questions as:
– What are the various stances I have taken about racism at different stages in my life?
– How have these experiences shaped me and the person I am today?
– As an educator, how have my values influenced my behaviours in the face of racism?
– How attuned am I to the role my emotions and others play when I am engaged in race talk?
– To what degree does my racial identity allow me to fully express the truth of who I am?
– How has race influenced my personal and professional relationships?
None of these are easy questions to answer. It’d be a challenge to answer them ourselves and even more so with others. Yet, if we are to be courageous in the face of racism, we must accept that battle is not one that can be fought alone. We need others. We need to build relationships that are forged from shared vulnerabilities. As it is in sharing these vulnerabilities around race, strength is found.
This strength prevents silence in the face of injustice and gives voice to the racially literate, i.e., those who have found their agency through learning to speak about race and sharing their experiences with others.

Overcoming the cost of being racially illiterate

Once expressed, fears around the topic of race can no longer have a hold over you. They can no longer dimmish you and your sense of self. Our children need to know that race is not to be feared, and issues related to race, and racism can be openly discussed. They can only learn this from racially literate teachers.
Teachers who have engaged with the questions related to ‘What is mine to do?”  and have found the answers by staying with the questions and having the conversations again and again. With colleagues, friends, students, partners and family members. No matter where or with whom, these conversations matter. Through intentional and repeated dialogue, individuals will develop proficiency and know what it feels and looks like to become racially literate.
Educators who choose to take this path recognise that rather than being something to fear, the race conversation can be an opportunity to build deeper connections with themselves and others.
Over time, these conversations can lessen the psychic burden (that we all in some way carry) as one of the costs of racism and facilitate a more profound sense of agency and purpose.
No longer restricted by powerful social norms that inhibit successful race talk, teachers and School Leaders can step up as strong anti-racists.
They can help to ensure that racism stops exacting a detrimental toll on our children’s futures and that they are not forced to pay a debt that was never meant to be theirs to bear.
But this will not happen if the importance of racial literacy is ignored or a ‘teaching by numbers’ approach is taken. Nor will it happen if government guidance around exploring these issues in schools continues to confuse and subvert the efforts of those who believe in social justice and race equity.

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

Find out More



Leave a Reply