Race Equality: "Why we need Uncomfortable Conversations"


“The national data in England confirms that Black Caribbean underachievement in education is real and persistent and they are consistently the lowest performing group in the country, and the difference between their educational performance and others is larger than for any other ethnic group “

(Demi and Mclean 2017)

This is a national picture that has remained unchanged for generations of children of Black Caribbean descent. Over the years there have been numerous enquiries followed by legislation and policy and yet… very little has changed.
If you were to look back on education initiatives designed to address racial inequality you might find a clue as to why our education system persistently fails to effectively challenge racial inequality in our schools.
Looking back (and I can say this with confidence, because over the past 30 years, I have been involved in various local and national race equality initiatives) you won’t find any work that specifically addresses conversations about white identity and white privilege. An unwillingness to have these conversations has meant that generations of black families have been let down by our education system. The real, the uncomfortable and yet potentially transformational conversations have not been had.

Addressing racism is not just a cognitive exercise

Addressing racism is not just a cognitive exercise. Past initiatives have treated it as such. Avoiding the uncomfortable white identity conversation. Instead there has been a heavy emphasis on analysing data, sharing the figures, delivering training and writing anti-racist policies. All important actions in themselves, but the sad truth is these actions have had minimal impact. We have to be courageous enough to not only ask “Why?” but “What needs to be done differently?”
We need to get better at having uncomfortable conversations about race and stop ignoring the emotional content of this work. When the emotional content is ignored so too are the real issues. The real issues are to do with us. They are to do with who we are as human beings. The relationships that we have with one another and how our individual and collective stories interweave to create a bigger narrative.
These uncomfortable conversations require deep work. They require us to connect with who we are, our own identities – black and white, and develop new ways of being in the world. As educators this is where we must go if we are to make this world a better place.
Moving forward, we need to understand why these conversations around race and identity are so uncomfortable (particularly for white teachers and School Leaders) as it’s only with an increased understanding can we then identify what more, long-lasting solutions might be.

Past experience has shown me that there are three key reasons as to why many find the race conversation so difficult…

1) Emotions overwhelm


Understanding feelings and talking about feelings – these are the two of the greatest challenges of being human (Stone etal 2010).

However, when it comes to the race conversation the challenge becomes Herculean. A vast array of emotions flood our nervous system; from guilt, anger, shame, frustration, confusion and sorrow.
They are all there in the mix. But an inability to admit that they are there and begin to consciously engage with them, means that the race conversation only takes place at a surface level. The deep dive into the swell beneath never happens and as a result no new levels of empathy, awareness or comprehension are developed.

2) Our Identity feels under attack

One of the reasons the race conversation is a particular area of taboo for many teachers and School Leaders is because at the heart it is a conversation about identity; about who we are and how we see ourselves. The race conversation asks us to develop new muscles for identifying and changing our own behaviour.
The ego resists such a request, and many give into its false protestations. As a result, individuals remain fixed to identities that shield them from further growth and development.

3) Energy is misdirected

Conflicted emotions and a protective ego often mean that in the race conversation energy is mis-directed. Rather than focusing on the conversation, seeking to listen and understand, energy is directed into defending oneself. A defended self cannot move forward in the conversation.
As a result, the individual remains stuck, the race conversation remains stuck and systemic practices that inhibit race equality within our schools remain.

Race Equality Work is Personal Development Work

If we are to bring about change, every single teacher and School Leader has to be prepared to accept that race equality work is personal development work. It is work that requires individuals to:
– Come to know themselves differently
– Learn how to have uncomfortable conversations
– Accept that feeling uncomfortable is part of the growth process
It is my belief that in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, every School Leader is called onto undertake this personal development work, after all this is what true moral and ethical leadership is about.
It is only by going on this journey that School Leaders can effectively model what leadership for racial equality and social justice really look like, and become part of a transformational process that accelerates the change that our world is crying out for.


If you are serious about undertaking this personal development work to accelerate progress for yourself, your colleagues and the communities you serve, I’d like to share with you details of our new ‘Race, identity and School Leadership’ Programme.

This is a year-long school improvement programme, designed to impact leadership policy and practice around race and identity in schools. It aims to provide a safe space for reflection and discussion, for School Leaders and their teams to explore the implications of recent events and identify the actions necessary for whole school transformation.

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

If you’d like to find out more about the programme and how it could support your school, please follow the link below…

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