I go to an all-girls school in the south of England, where about eighty-five percent of the student body is Brown. The teachers, however, are over ninety-five percent white. The disparity in the British education system between the ethnicity of its students and teachers is not limited to my school; it is a serious issue across the country that needs addressing.
Whilst I am fortunate enough to be in an environment where I feel comfortable with all the teachers at my school, this is not the case for many children, specifically brown and black ones. When younger children especially are put into a space where they are the only visible minority, it can have emotional, and psychological effects on how they view themselves; it isn’t uncommon for young minds in a situation such as this to feel ashamed of their culture, or experience an unwillingness to talk to other teachers and students about how they are feeling. After all, they become accustomed to seeing themselves through the lens of another.
Though the solution might seem simple—employ more minority teachers—this will not completely rid the institutional racism within our education system, but it will help dismantle disparities between teachers and students. If brown students have brown teachers to look up to, where they share the same languages, cultures and traditions, it can create a bridge of communication. Sadly, many ethnic teachers are reluctant to take on leadership roles in schools, which would enable them to create support systems for minority children, because the workplace is predominately white. Classroom politics and uneasy racial dynamics within the teaching profession can discourage ethnic teachers from taking on these roles, with fears of being ‘too loud’ or ‘causing a scene’.
Many white teachers are unaware of how they may be playing into these oppressive systems. Speaking from experience, in Year 11 (Grade 10), I was the first and only person to achieve full marks on their English language coursework. Yet when it came to our school’s annual awards ceremony, the English award was handed to my white, male peer. Though there may have been a number of factors that influenced this decision, one cannot deny that race plays an important part in these scenarios. Many minority children feel disconnected from their white peers in numerous classroom scenarios. They are expected to work twice as hard in order to gain recognition from their teachers because of deep-rooted colonial mindsets.
What concerns me the most about the discrepancy between teachers and our students is how this will impact Muslim children. To furnish my argument, I’ll turn to Prevent, a U.K. based initiative. Formed in 2003, Prevent is part of the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy to safeguard communities, and stop individuals getting involved in extremist activities. They play a large role in schools across the country to try and identify potential threats, but in reality, this is a program designed to discriminate against Muslim children. Pupils as young as three can be referred to the program for anti-radicalization. According to the National Union of Teachers, between 2007 and 2010, 67% of referrals were Muslims, and from 2012 to 2013, 57.4% were Muslims. If over half of the referrals made are about Muslim students, this exemplifies how Prevent is built upon Islamophobia to target vulnerable Muslim students.
In truth, white teachers cannot completely understand the cultural and religious differences between different children. Someone like myself might be flagged on a program like Prevent: I wear a hijab, have visited many countries within the Middle East, have lived in a Middle Eastern country, practice my faith openly within school (i.e. use the prayer room often), speak Arabic, and remain reluctant to participate in social activities (i.e. mixed balls with alcohol). Does this make me a threat? Hardly! It makes me different, and yet my differing religious and cultural norms may seem suspicious to my predominantly white teachers, simply because they do not understand the context of my behavior.
We can continue our own forms of education through talking to our white peers, taking on more leadership roles, and being open to reflective conversations about race and religion to dismantle prejudice within our society.
Similarly, an Afghan refugee with a mother who speaks English as her second language, and plays with toy guns in a classroom is more likely to be flagged up over a white boy playing with toy guns, simply because of preconceived notions. If there were more teachers from minority backgrounds and Muslim faiths, a clearer understanding of the children could be formed. There would less targeting of Muslim kids as there would be less misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding them.
Britain’s education system is highly flawed, with its oppressive government schemes and the majority of teachers and curriculums not being reflective of its students’ backgrounds. But how to go about fixing this? We can continue our own forms of education through talking to our white peers, taking on more leadership roles, and being open to reflective conversations about race and religion to dismantle prejudice within our society. As Angela Davis once said, “I am no longer accepting the the things I cannot change, I am changing the things I cannot accept.”