Anti-Racist work: When you break the cycle of silence, you open a door for change

A recognition of racism; both its intent and impact is essential for developing anti- racist educational spaces. The biggest obstacles we often face in doing this work is encountering a culture of silence and/or denial.

Silence and denial from those that enact and those that experience racism, allows racism in all forms to be sustained in a space. When racist behaviours, structures and systems go unchallenged for so long that they become pervasive and normalised, it becomes our responsibility as anti-racist educators, to first and foremost, name it. Not just the ideological structures that underpin it, but the everyday, seemingly mundane enactments of racism that are ever present in our educational spaces.  

Breaking the cycle of silence is the first step to making change.

But where do these conversations need to start and how can they meaningfully translate into action?

In my work, particularly with schools, I find it helpful to start with developing a shared language and basic racial literacy. It is important to meet school leaders where they are, and some are more racially literate than others. You cannot name something you do not have the language for and so it is important that the concepts of racism and Whiteness are understood before any action- focussed conversations can begin.

It is easier to advocate for change with evidence, rather than concepts that can seem abstract (particularly to those who are already resistant), and so alongside developing a language around racism, we need to start with naming concrete effects of racism and then work our way back to understanding the root causes. The impact, before the intent.

It is important to break the silence and challenge the denial of the damaging effects of racism on individuals, families, and communities as well as the impact on the learning and working environment. Racism impacts visibly on educational outcomes, on school and community relations, on student behaviour and on staff experiences. Once some racial literacy has been established, you then have a lens by which a school can start to look at its data and school culture more critically.

I honestly believe equity work in schools is always contextual and no two schools are the same. It is important to empower school leaders to have the courage to look inwardly with a critical eye, so that they can identify and name the damaging effects of racism as it appears specifically in their school. For some schools, the indicators of racism may be as explicit as racist graffiti, hostility between groups, racist language etc. But for many schools, the indicators of racism that require a level of racial literacy to name and understand are often discriminatory practices that may include low educational expectations for some groups, disproportionate behaviour sanctions for some groups, and non- inclusive curricula that deny certain groups access to knowledges that reflect their lived experiences, to name a few. It is particularly difficult to identify and name these seemingly hidden, systemic effects of racism in majority White schools that have very few ethnic minority students and staff. Therefore, developing an understanding of Whiteness is an essential part of the racial literacy work that needs to happen.

Although meaningful change requires courageous and committed leadership, every member of the school community needs to develop racial literacy in order to be able to ‘name it’. It is essential that all staff, teaching and non-teaching, are able to recognise racism and its effects on the whole school community. Just as the importance of trauma informed whole schools are now being recognised, we must also recognise that racism does not just take place in the classroom that that change requires a whole school response.

Schools may differ in how they choose to engage parents, communities and young people in these discussions, but it is important that these discussions take place. Consulting with parents and community members (particularly from racialised and minority groups) can lead to increased engagement and stronger home-school partnerships as parents begin to feel more confident in the safety of their children. Having a shared language and developing a common purpose and drive, fosters a stronger community within and outside the school, ensuring change is sustainable and meaningful.

The silence and denial of racism permeates at all levels within and outside of the school and so our work must be to name it, to understand it, and to challenge it. These conversations need be driven by leadership but need to happen across the school community.  So some questions for us to consider:

  • What are the silences and denials within our schools?
  • How do we develop racial literacy amongst school leaders that are for most of our schools racialised as White?
  • How can we develop whole school approaches to racial equity work?

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