I thought long and hard before I become the umpteenth middle-aged, white man in a well-paid profession with a good life to pontificate about privilege and the events, both current and historical, that necessitate the Black Lives Matter movement.
But I keep coming back to the fact that it’s always worse to stay quiet. Collective silence didn’t create injustice and inequity, but it certainly ensured that it endured for hundreds of years.
Black Lives Matter
If you are going to argue that “all lives matter”, or talk about the mistreatment of women, the inequity that transgender people constantly battle, or centuries of anti-Semitism then you have significantly missed the point.
By diminishing the Black Lives Matter movement with such criticism is just another way of marginalising the very people that are protesting the injustice.
This is not a zero-sum game, we do not have to choose. My life matters, your life matters. Of course all lives matter.
So, let’s just agree. Black. Lives. Matter.
History is Written by the Victors
I am neither qualified nor learned enough to talk about black history - which in itself speaks volumes of the bubble of privileged and ignorance I was brought up in - but the links between modern racism and European Imperialism are strong and their impact is oftentimes subtle but endures to this day.
Even when that history is retold today, no matter how well meaning and constructive the intent, it often has an uncomfortable perspective.
Historic England, a largely government-funded public body, rightly provide information about English involvement in slavery. However, without attribution, they have this to say about early slaver, John Hawkins (with my emphasis):
John Hawkins (from 1532 to 1595) of Plymouth is acknowledged as the pioneer of the English slave trade.
In the context of the British Empire, and that Imperialist “spirit”, I suppose it could be argued that Hawkins was indeed a pioneer - but that word has almost universally positive connotations. The language that we choose to use when describing the actions of the perpetrators of horrendous acts is key. I can only imagine that anyone descended from the victims of slavery would have a very different view of Hawkins and might therefore choose many different words to describe him.
University College London have a project that aims to “explore and document some of the ways in which colonial slavery shaped modern Britain”. No doubt a worthy attempt to put into perspective the scale of slavery perpetrated throughout the world by our ancestors, and I think this kind of project is crucial to understanding our history. I would suggest, however, that the Legacies of British Slave-ownership project abuses the privilege of language in its very title. The enslaved were not, in any meaningful modern way, owned. Despite the prevailing view at the time, we can choose how to frame our history.
… history is written by the victors and framed according to the prejudices and bias existing on either side.
Let us choose wisely how we choose to frame our history.
The Need for Leadership
The tragedy about systemic racism is that is entirely socio-political, and it therefore too often gets treated as a party political issue - one in which opposing views can be promoted as equally valid. There is no biological notion of race.
Race does not provide an accurate representation of human biological variation. It was never accurate in the past, and it remains inaccurate when referencing contemporary human populations. Humans are not divided biologically into distinct continental types or racial genetic clusters. Instead, the Western concept of race must be understood as a classification system that emerged from, and in support of, European colonialism, oppression, and discrimination.
– American Association of Physical Anthropologists, Statement on Race & Racism
School leaders have a vital role in the development of our children and the future of our society. They hold the key to unlocking an honest exploration of our collective history, as well as promoting tolerance and understanding, in order that we can collectively recognise and counter “colonialism, oppression, and discrimination.”
I understand that schools, and those that lead them, are typically nervous about getting involved in politics - but we need to wrestle this issue back from party politics, and demonstrate our intent publicly and clearly. Our children need strong role-models to serve as a baseline for their own individual world views.
The Need for Curricular Change
The curriculum must provide an honest account of history. It is, of course, critical that we look at the events of the past that created the cultures and societies that we live in, understanding the conditions and decisions that led to past events. But we need to do so with the values that we now hold and aspire to.
We also need to ensure that the voices that are heard by students of the curriculum represent a diversity of culture rather than the homogeny of European white men that have dominated the curriculum of modern schooling.
The campaign to decolonise the curriculum has being gaining momentum in recent years, and a number of universities, such as Bath, are now making moves to broaden the reading lists demanded of their courses to foster inclusivity.
So much more can be done, and it will take time. But it’s an investment in diversity and equality. It’s an investment worth making.
The Need for Teachers
I will be the first to admit that I am complicit in the lack of diversity in my classroom practice. In the Computing Science classroom, as well as more widely in the tech industry, I have long been aware of the issue, but when I have taken action it has focused on gender stereotypes and role-models.
You do choose how you demonstrate the curriculum to your students. You do pick the viewpoints and protagonists from the history and development of your subject that you share. You do curate the knowledge and perspectives that surround your curriculum and package it for your students - so take the opportunity to do so in an inclusive way, demonstrating diversity, and encouraging open, tolerant discussion.
You have a voice, so stand up and be heard.