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How to lead whole-school discussions about racism and whiteness
Find out how to develop your understanding of racism and whiteness so you can increase awareness of these issues and encourage productive discussions in your school.
A note on terminology: we use BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) throughout this article as a succinct way to refer to the many ethnic groups in England. However, we recognise that some people are not comfortable with the term.
When talking about this topic in your school, we'd encourage you to think about what terms will work best in your own context and community (other widely used terms are "ethnic minorities" and "people of colour") – and note that individuals should always be referred to according to their own ethnicity, rather than grouped in this way.
You should discuss racism, whatever your school's context
Your school might be less inclusive than you think, even if your pupil and staff bases are diverse. Leading whole-school discussions about racism is a vital step to making your school a more inclusive environment for your non-white staff and pupils.
If your staff and pupil bases aren't diverse, it's still important to discuss race because:
- Modern Britain is incredibly diverse, and your pupils will need to have an understanding of racism and whiteness to engage with others respectfully
- Pupil demographics can also change quickly, so it's best to start taking steps now to increase awareness about racism
Whether your school is primary or secondary, you can lead discussions about racism. You can talk to pupils about race at any age, as long as you adapt your approach. We're working on guidance on how to talk to your pupils about race and racism, but take a look at these tips from Equaliteach to get you started.
Re-frame these discussions if you're worried about resistance
You can frame these discussions so they're more about what you want to include more of (like anti-racism or inclusivity) - rather than focusing on the thing you want to get rid of (racism).
Start by working on your understanding of how racism and whiteness affect your school
Racism is a complex issue, and no one's expecting you to understand everything. However, a good place to start is with the core concepts, and how they impact your school, like:
- Racism and anti-racism
- Unconscious bias, conscious bias, and systemic bias
- Whiteness and white privilege
Particularly if you're white, it's reasonable to worry about not doing these issues justice when speaking about them. Reading more about racism, anti-racism, and whiteness will increase your confidence.
If you haven't done much reading yet on this topic, or just want a refresher, first take a look at this guide to talking about racism as a teacher. You can also share it with your staff when you're ready to bring them on board.
Read as many of the books from our anti-racist reading lists for staff as you can, and share this list with your staff.
Understand what white privilege is
Particularly if you're white, you might not be aware of white privilege. The definition isn't entirely concrete, but it generally refers to the advantages that a white person has based on their dominant race - usually at the expense of people who aren't white.
White privilege affects all of society, including schools. When recruiting staff, this might take the form of a white applicant receiving preferential treatment because their interviewers were also white.
If you want to learn more about white privilege, and see some examples, take a look at:
- My white friend asked me to explain white privilege, so I decided to be honest by Lori Lakin Hutcherson (contains some strong language)
- White privilege: unpacking the invisible knapsack by Penny McIntosh
It's okay not to have all the answers, as long as you're striving to understand more and can be a good role model for your staff and pupils. Make sure you're honest with them when you don't know the answer.
Form a steering group of staff to spread awareness and get feedback on your approach
Before you start raising awareness about racism in your school, you need to educate your staff. You can start by making a small steering group, which you can expand over time.
This group should represent:
- Staff across your school, including senior leadership team (SLT), middle leaders, teaching assistants, and admin staff
- As many BAME groups as possible, alongside white staff
You should still form this group, even if none of your staff are BAME. In this case, be mindful that it's unlikely that anyone in this team will have first-hand experience of racism.
Help this group educate themselves
Hand over some reading to your team (you can base this on what you've read so far) and offer to answer their questions as best as you can. If possible, you should order any books that you want them to read.
This reading should help your team to:
- Get an understanding of concepts like racism, anti-racism, white privilege, and unconscious bias
- Learn how to have productive discussions with other members of staff, about how to have these conversations with others
This team should then start to talk to other staff members about racism, and feedback to each other and SLT on their discussions. This will help you figure out where the gaps are in your staff's understanding, and you can find appropriate reading to match them.
Prepare to talk about whiteness in non-combative ways
Discussion about concepts like white privilege can make white people uncomfortable, especially disadvantaged white people who may not feel privileged themselves.
While you need to be direct when speaking about whiteness and white privilege to support understanding, it's important that you consider your school's circumstances.
As well as any other reading you're doing, take a look too at the Anti Defamation League's guidance on talking to white pupils about white privilege (specifically section 6), for support with how to do this effectively.
Many thanks to:
Sufian Sadiq, director of teaching school at Chiltern Learning Trust, who spoke to us about why you should talk about racism in your school, how you can get an understanding of racism, and how to approach discussions about white privilege in non-combative ways.
David Tungate, principal at Nottingham Girls Academy, who told us about his steering group to help the school become more inclusive and promote anti-racism.
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