Why white teachers must learn to talk about race in schools: the problem unpacked

Why white teachers must learn to talk about race in schools: the problem unpacked

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Why do white teachers have a problem talking about race in schools?

We have all learned to avoid talking about race in English schools. We can talk about it in deficit, this child can’t do this or can’t do that… this intervention is needed… but there is a gap in professional teacher discourse about the role race and identity have in everyday school situations and school structures.

Can you imagine if we didn’t acknowledge gender in schools?

What if professionals felt uncomfortable voicing the concerns they had about dynamics that masculinity or femininity were having on teenagers or reception children? Imagine if we chose not to be conscious of contesting, questioning and countering gender stereotypes of children and the impact of our own gender in situations as professionals? If we chose to ignore the different effects of gender when dealing with behaviour or in safeguarding? It would lead to multiple professional misinterpretations and mistakes. We would be neglecting to prepare children to become their future selves and not understanding the many layers of a child’s social reactions to teacher-student/student-student situations. Surprising then, that white teachers and leaders ignore the role of race in everyday school dynamics.

No Problem Here?

In fact, there is such silence about race in schools that it is now a gaping hole in our professional toolkit. It is rarely included in professional development because we don’t know how to talk about it or even voice that we can’t talk about it. Perhaps this is because there is an acknowledgment that most white staff feel so unequipped to unpick the role their own racial identity is having. Perhaps white teachers already know they are not neutral filters to question race in the classroom. Questioning one’s own assumptions and staying curious about race is a critical part of being able to manage conversations about race professionally. The role of white teachers comes with tremendous institutional power and learning how to handle talking about race carefully and with humility takes expertise, professional reflection and new learning. Particularly when our school structures are likely to be institutionally racist.

It is clear that there is often little community, racial and cultural literacy in teachers’ professional training making them vulnerable to making assumptions around race. Most teachers live outside of the communities in which they work. Unless teachers have taken the time to reflect on race and identity work themselves, the sector nor institutions are currently providing it, leaving teachers and leaders pretty exposed. Teachers are not saying “no problem here” anymore; teachers are crying out for their management teams to get external specialist support.

Where is the Funding?

It probably will not surprise teachers to know there has not been funding specifically ring-fenced in schools to raise attainment of children from ethnic minority backgrounds since the Ethnic Minority Achievement Grant (1999). This funding went directly to Local Authorities to support and challenge schools about the progress outcomes of pupils. As well as raising attainment and magnifying progress rates, this enabled and supported conversations about race and pedagogy. Outcomes were able to be monitored and the fund paid for experts who helped schools to raise questions about institutional structures holding children back.

There is money to support English an Additional Language (EAL) currently in schools. It is unlikely though that any school would be able to name the sum of that fund or what it is spent on, let alone whether it helps to meet the needs of pupils. It also doesn’t support the school to challenge structural racism impacting heavily on the lives and progression rates of Black and Asian children.

It is high time that questions should be brought to bear on the term ‘disadvantaged’ – a very loose, undefined and catch-all term, interchangeable in school vernacular, and can mean anything from being a ‘working class’ white boy, your parents being poor or having parents who speak a different language.

A profession dominated by people racialised as White

As a profession dominated by white people, teachers do know how some aspects of race function in context, such as their own whiteness, but have learned how to be silent about and hide what they see happening. Arguably, discussion about race is positioned in the complaints’ process or in discussions around under-attainment. For staff, discourse about racial identity is not welcomed in senior or middle management meetings, in discourse about wellbeing, in safeguarding, in the staff room or in discussions about pedagogy or designing strategy. Too often white people choose to be silent about race and ignore how structures are impacting different groups.

Socialised Colour Blindness

Part of the architecture of whiteness is colour-blindness which acts to silence discussion about race identity. It can be as simple as people pretending not to see their own whiteness or question and voice the role majority-whiteness is having. So often when white people talk about race and diversity, it is associated with Blackness, when actually it is their own whiteness that needs to be questioned and challenged.

Whiteness operationalises racism; by pleading ignorance of it, racism goes undetected and unchallenged (Lander & Santorro, 2017). The challenge for schools, as majority white organisations, is that structural racism is so entrenched that white people find it hard to see and name. The beneficiaries of and people privileged by structural racism are the ones making most of the decisions about structures, without challenge. If we want to change structural racism, we have to talk about the role whiteness is having. 

“We are just so useless and unskilled at safeguarding children; we don’t have any specialists here and we don’t include it in training so we just remain rubbish at it…”

If there is no accountability for, nor expectation to talk about race in schools, if there is no professional learning to teach staff how to be conscious of the role race has, together with a majority white workforce, it is no surprise that many schools are institutionally racist. Macpherson (1999) found institutional racism happens because of “unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping” and these can be “detected in processes, attitudes and behaviours” (Macpherson, 1999: 6.34).

If we ignore race in schools and avoid it in evaluation of our processes, attitudes and behaviours, how would we know if there was “unwitting prejudice, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping?” Schools will stay in a state of pretended ignorance whilst untold damage is generated through enactment, policy and processes. If we know that structural racism is in schools and we still don’t talk about it, it can be “unwitting” no longer but deliberately avoidant thereby active in its racism. It is difficult not to draw this conclusion from both the historical and current position within the sector. Just to emphasise “unwitting” is the definition of institutionally racist – it does not have to be acknowledged by white people for it to be understood as racist.

Whiteness and Collective Avoidance

Stock phrases like, “it was an “all-white” town, I didn’t know about race back then…” and “I don’t notice race, I treat everyone exactly the same…” are ‘colour evasive’ (Frankenberg, 1993:143) and actively deny the role race has played historically. Lander and Santorro (2017) argue ignorance contributes to an evasion of the effects of racism and helps white people “avoid discussions about their white privilege and power.” (2017: 1012)

Unproblematised ‘white ignorance’ about race, and specifically whiteness, leaves white people with dangerous, default thinking and assumptions based on majoritarian perspectives; it is up to white people to unlearn this. Can you imagine if school leaders lacked the ability to be critical of 1970s and 1980s safeguarding approaches?

Place those same people, ignorant of the role of race is playing, in positions of authority, and it poses considerable institutional risk and risk to the communities they serve; it is negligent. It is surprising that more people are not rushing to educate themselves in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, or reaching for expertise to help address such challenges. The structural advantage of whiteness in schools has enabled white people to succeed with these professional gaps and not to question them.

Collective Ignorance

Ignorance about race must be problematised, Leonardo (2009) urges, in order that white people challenge their complicity in structural racism. Without organisations problematising ‘white ignorance’, in a profession dominated by white people, inevitably there will be “a collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin.” (Macpherson, 1999) which is how Macpherson defines Institutional Racism. Dealing with it is not an act of activism or ethical libertarianism; it is the law.

What positive action can be taken?

It is dangerous for white teachers to ignore race. When questioning institutions, such as the police, Macpherson (1999) states, “It is incumbent on every institution to examine their policies and the outcome of their policies and practices to guard against disadvantaging any section of our communities’ (paragraph 46.27). Teachers can no longer ignore the impact of their own whiteness; they must take responsibility for learning about how it functions. They need specialists to help them talk about race and support functional and healthy conversations to question and contest institutional racism; to actively look for institutional racism and stop hiding and denying its impact. Schools need to reach out for help to build strategies and discourse to counter the impact that a majority white workforce is having.

There are multiple programmes nationally and national experts in race, identity and education who can support schools and teachers. It is incumbent on school leaders to act.

Claire Stewart-Hall is a researcher in race and education and works as a coach to increase equity in the workplace and in senior leadership. Claire works 1:1 with teachers and leaders to understand and reflect on equity and inclusion. She can be contacted at: claire@equitablecoaching.com



Lander, V. & Santoro, N. (2017) Invisible and hypervisible academics: the experiences of Black and minority ethnic teacher educators, Teaching in Higher Education, 22:8, 1008-1021

Leonardo, Z. (2009) Reading Whiteness Antiracist Pedagogy Against White Racial Knowledge in (2009) Ayers, W., Quinn, T. Stovall, D. Handbook of Social Justice in Education, Routledge; UK.

Sir William Macpherson of Cluny (1999) The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry: Report (London: Home Office)