Racial Literacy: What does it mean?

This blog comes from educator at The Black Curriculum and Head of Equality, Inclusion and Culture at the British Medical Association, Aishnine Benjamin (@aishnine).

What is your first memory of racial difference? Mine is when I was 5 years old. My family had recently moved to Brighton from a small town in Surrey, and I was the only black child in my school. Some of the other children called me names (like ‘poo face’). I cried a lot. I was very sensitive.

What is your first memory of racial difference? The diversity of responses always fascinates me. I am amazed at how different people’s experiences of ‘race’ are.

It ranges from white people who went to multi-cultural schools. Who, are very racially aware and confident in the language they use and their knowledge of cultural difference. To white people, who didn’t encounter racial difference until they interacted with people from different cultures in university or their first city-based jobs. To black Africans, who also didn’t experience the concept of ‘race’ until they moved to the UK and were othered for the first time, no longer in a black majority.

What Is Race?


Literacy is defined as knowledge or skills in a specific area. The legal definition of race as defined by the Equality Act 2010, can mean your colour or your nationality (including your citizenship). It can also mean your ethnic or national origins, which may not be the same as your current nationality. That sounds simple, but it’s not really. Firstly, because all these things are not the same. Nationality is completely different to ethnic origin, and colour is completely different to citizenship. But somehow – ALL these things are ‘race’.

If you imagine what happens when someone is racist. Probably some kind of verbal abuse comes to mind. And for someone to be racist, there has to be the notion of race.

This brings to light the second problem with this term of “race” – that is, that it doesn’t really exist. The history of the concept that we have of race is based on a pseudo-science of racial difference with a very problematic history. Also, it has been proven that there is only the ‘human race’ in biological terms.

So how is it that we can talk with such passion and conviction about something that does not exist? Simply, because the impact of the creation of the concept of “race” (on geographical and historical grounds) does exist. Everyday racism, systemic racism and institutional racism are real. The concept of race was created as a societal construct, and today we live with the consequences of that.

What Does Racial Literacy Mean?


Unfortunately, our education system doesn’t include a standard explanation to our young people of the history of the creation of the concept of race (or critical race theory). The implications being that we are all often fuddling through with concepts that we don’t understand, with no knowledge of why race as we know it exists. And then we are expected to just get on with things. To tread sensitively around appropriate language, ‘BAME’, ‘black’, ‘BME’; ‘minorities’ but not ‘non-white’; ‘person of colour’ but not ‘a coloured person’. And, one I quite like – ‘the global majority’.

A recent Channel 4 documentary, The School That Tried To End Racism, gave some race theory experts (including Dr Nicola Rollock, an academic and consultant who specialises in racial justice in education and the workplace) the opportunity to use methods used in schools in the USA to make children in a UK school racially literate. One method being creating affinity groups, where all the white pupils and all the black and minority ethnic pupils went into different groups and discussed their ethnicity. The difference in the conversations between the groups was notable because this was the first time the white children had considered having a race.

Critical race theory is studied by academics across the world. And while there are some academics who have studied race extensively (often not recognised as part of the mainstream canon of academia), the really interesting studies that would push thoughts of race to a new and modern way of thinking, are the studies of whiteness.

The most well-known is now Robin Diangelo’s White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism, written by a white woman in the USA exploring a discussion that is often missing about what it means to be ‘white’. Particularly thought-provoking for white people who often don’t see themselves in racial terms.

What are the implications of not being taught racial literacy? As an adult, do you feel comfortable talking about race? Would you avoid saying ‘black people’ to a black person? Have you ever said ‘I don’t see colour’ or ‘I don’t see race’ in order to make a person of colour feel comfortable? Perhaps the reason for this is because you aren’t racially literate. Perhaps you aren’t aware that by saying ‘I don’t see race’ you are inadvertently putting a negative value on that person’s race by suggesting it’s not important to you.

It’s patronising, ignorant and ill-informed. And if this is your position then it probably isn’t your fault – because no-one taught you how to be racially literate. This idea of being colour-blind is explored by Renni Eddo-Lodge, in Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (with accompanying About Race podcast) and in Afua Hirsch’s book, Brit(ish).

The Benefits Of Being Racially Literate


Imagine if your starting point was positive, that you saw a black person and your first thought was positive. Perhaps because you understood the history of the creation race linked to slavery, trade and colonialism. Perhaps you had some knowledge of the history of the continent of Africa, its riches, culture and resources.

Of the reason why there are black people in the Caribbean and the Americas and the role of western European countries in this racial geography. Of the rich intellectually advanced history of the African continent and their current blossoming economies.

View racial literacy the same way you view literacy of reading, writing and numeracy. People who lack these basic literacies do struggle in later life and in work. Sometimes it can be dangerous, for example, being unable to read warning signs. Without some racial literacy being taught to young people, they too are at a disadvantage in how they engage with people from different cultural backgrounds. Racial literacy is an essential skill for work and everyday life.

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


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