Connected: over-representation of white teachers in schools and #BLM events in Bristol?

Connected: over-representation of white teachers in schools and #BLM events in Bristol?

Image via Vecteezy

Do #BLM protests mean change has happened already?

Nationally, 14.3% of teachers are from minority ethnic groups (DfE, 2020). Statistically, fewer minoritized teachers are teaching in Bristol schools than white teachers: 9% of teaching staff and 15% teaching assistants are from ‘non-white minority ethnic backgrounds’ (DfE 2019). Elahi, Finney and Lymperopoulou, (2017) identify low numbers of minoritized teachers in Bristol schools and there is an emerging local media narrative of fewer minoritized teachers (BBC, 2018) than nationally. The population of Bristol is 463,400 people and it is the largest South West city, one of the ten ‘Core Cities’ in Great Britain. The white population is estimated as 84%, with 45 religions, 187 countries of birth and 91 main languages spoken (Bristol City Council, 2020).

Bristol became a focal point after the removal of the statue of Edward Colston in summer 2020. Bristol enters critical stages in its history by accepting and owning up to the ways it has benefited from its legacies of exploitation of human labour and its leading role in a mass genocide of thousands of human beings, further impacting on the oppression and disempowerment of generations of communities. The protest has prompted the removal of the name Colston from various venues and elicited statements of intent including, The Merchant Venturers, Colston’s former company, and responses from local schools about their contribution to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Arguably, the event is a ‘big bang’ happening, ripping off a plaster in order for Bristol to begin to question and talk about (rather than ignore) supremacist interpretations of its history.

The protest can be interpreted as an act of interest convergence (Bell, 1987): both removing the glorification of a slave-trader whilst simultaneously dismantling and jettisoning shameful evidence of white supremacist history. Thompson Dorsey & Chambers (2014) further problematise interest convergence, demonstrating a patten in legal contexts that following convergence (C) is C-D-R (pronounced Cedar): divergence (D) and finally imperialistic reclamation (R), from Harris’ property functions of whiteness (1993). This suggests temporary convergence will likely be followed by divergence then reclamation.

#BLM events will likely impact on the ways race is understood and talked about in Bristol schools. Renewed agency for anti-racism with senior teams publicly considering impacts of race may deepen. Senior leadership teams may seek to understand existing situations and institutions might already be developing discourse about whiteness.  Counter stories may have been reflected upon and voiced. There has to be a shift in the ways we talk about race – that not only do we recognise that our structures disadvantage groups and that structures have to rebalance contextually, but also that discrimination will continue until white people learn to talk about their whiteness and act to change systems that benefit white people first. It seems an ironic act of white supremacy that the dismantling of whiteness through the #BLM movement relies on white people in positions of authority to act.

However, signs of divergence are already visible, including local Bristol counter protests around monuments considered ‘white property’ (Harris, 1993) and death threats targeting Bristol’s mayor, Marvin Rees. Whilst protests reignite agency they do not provide institutional processes or support emotional investment that Matias (2016), Swanson and Welton (2019) postulate is necessary to sustain, dismantle and counter whiteness. Without such direct processes, Frankenberg (1993) argues, for some white people anti-racism becomes an ‘act of compassion’ (p.6), optional and not intrinsically linked to identity. It remains relevant therefore for schools to develop processes and examine to what extent senior leadership teams interconnect whiteness to role enactment.

There is an opportunity to change but the change must be deeper than a curriculum change or an optional half day inset training on #BLM. The summer’s events erupted because there has been such a lack of discourse about whiteness and its impact on everyday situations. We must find ways of talking about the cause of racism – why do white people consciously and unconsciously enact racism? Unless we are on the lookout for how and why this happens, we cannot evolve. I have argued in the past this root and branch paradigm shift is similar to the duty of care shown to safeguarding after the murders of so many children that could have been prevented. It changed how and who walked into school buildings, it changed when we safeguarded and with whom. It changed our school processes. If we want to talk about race, we need processes to do so.

As a former Head Teacher in Bristol, it is important because, as Picower (2009) notes, it is crucial to understand relationships between whiteness and schools in a hegemonic school workforce predominantly educating children of colour. In Bristol in 2017, 38% of primary and 34% of secondary students came from ‘minority ethnic groups’; 91% of Bristol teachers identify as white British (DfE 2019). However, structural racism will not change until whiteness is examined by white people themselves (Baldwin, 1963) therefore it is necessary to create processes for becoming cognizant of whiteness with educators of children of any racial background in order for wider society to become equitable. That means in majority white schools this deepening of discourse about whiteness is critical. Children in our schools, and the staff who influence them, will go on to be police officers, work for local authorities, work on public transport – enacting cultures they have learned at school. Let it be that they understand and can see how white supremacy functions, know and are confident about the ways to counter it and name it.

Without processes to develop discourse about whiteness the profession lacks and ignores fundamental knowledge and professional learning about race and its impact thereby institutions continue to enact and perpetuate dominant colonial ideologies causing damaging, emotional harm. I anticipate this lack contributes to systemic frameworks preventing more black and brown teachers accessing teaching and positions in school leadership teams.

Claire Stewart-Hall


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