As teachers, not only have we been thrust into the world of virtual teaching, but we have had to pay more attention to the wellbeing of our students - without seeing them at all! We have all been concerned for the students who will have less support and encouragement to work at home, and for the loss of curriculum time on the long-term educational attainment and outcomes of many. The widening gap between students from different backgrounds could not be of greater concern. Additionally, there is concern over one group of students, who have had the triple trauma of lockdown, Covid19 vulnerability and the value of their lives brought into question. Supporting Black students is going to be crucial over the next few months and after lockdown.
As a starting point, I would like to set the scene to paint a picture of the racial experience of Black students of school age living in the UK today, by drawing parallels with previous generations. Take my own experiences for example. I grew up in Harlesden, born to parents who accompanied my grandparents to England during the Windrush era from Jamaica. Growing up in an area many dubbed as “little Jamaica”, I was not oblivious to ideas around race and inequality, but I was to some extent insulated from the harsh realities of day-to-day racism, which I knew many were enduring. As a teen in the 90’s, it was normal to wear Malcolm X t-shirts and for racist “skinheads” to chase us down if we strayed too far from certain postcodes. The ‘multicultural Britain’ rhetoric had not yet taken hold and I even recall the elation of my parents when apartheid was lifted. As for police brutality, I recall hearing my father and elders recount stories about the police, who would routinely brutalise black boys and men, not to mention the added constant clashes with “teddy boys”, which essentially became tick-for-tack, race-infused violence. This racialised existence in Britain is important, as it would without doubt impact conversations currently being held in many Black households today.
Fast forward to 2020. The murder of George Floyd and the phrase Black Lives Matter has led to conversations about race. We are seeing white people on national TV making an effort to talk openly and honestly about racial injustice, white supremacy and the impact it has on everyone's lives. This change in narrative is new and refreshing. I informally interviewed eight black students, four boys and four girls between the ages of 13 and 16 to capture their perspective and mood about the recent events. All except one student felt far more hopeful - because this dialogue was happening.
Black students in the UK have quite a different journey to my generation. This younger generation have been brought up in a society with the dominant narrative of ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘inclusion’. Black teachers no longer repeatedly tell Black students they must work twice as hard, as my teachers did with me. This would be a violation of the equal opportunities policies in schools today, and would probably lead to outrage as opposed to gratitude. Furthermore, Black students in London have more diverse friendship groups, and many live in more diverse family setups, and areas that could be described as melting pots of culture.
Paradoxically, most Black students are still experiencing today what has been labelled “the talk”. The talk, in an ideal society, would not be required, and it’s thought that this has been necessary as far back as trafficking and chattel enslavement of Africans, with different perils to warn of. The talk, is a dialogue parents reluctantly initiate with their children which aims to prepare and equip the child for a society which is systemically racist. This is both the duty and burden of parents raising Black children. The talk includes an acknowledgement of the love held for their child alongside the explanation that, one day the outside world may view them as a threat, and are likely to assume the worst of them compared to their white peers. It is a dialogue, which parents often delay until it is absolutely necessary, but can be drip-fed over years. Consequently, young black children today, are not as surprised by the disproportionate police brutality experienced by black people, or any other one of the disproportionate disadvantages experienced across numerous sectors of society. Although softening the blow, being prepared does not shield them from the disappointment and trauma of recent events. This was routinely expressed by the young people I spoke to. Three actually said, “I was not surprised”, whilst expressing sadness.
Young Black people today can be far more apprehensive and, in some ways ill equipped to speak about race, particularly outside of their homes, compared to their parents. They have grown up in a time that has invalidated their unique experience of race and, as one student mentioned from the survey I completed, sometimes he is left questioning “if maybe we are all just crazy”. With school being their primary contact with wider society, as teachers we have an absolute duty to address race in the current climate from a place of understanding. To support Black students by facilitating a healthy discourse about race to promote positive self-esteem, racial esteem, engagement and outcomes at school and beyond. As educators we know that vulnerable, confused, isolated teenagers would find it incredibly challenging to achieve these positive outcomes.
Speaking to the eight Black students, the greatest pressure seemed to materialise as…”what will my non-black peers think about the BLM movement?” Many had also commented on the historical Black ‘suffering and abuse’ they have been recently exposed to via social media posts documenting past events, with two young people saying they had found it too distressing and emotional. One student told me, she had censored the information quite heavily, abandoning her phone to maintain her wellbeing. Being 16, she is able to apply self-care in such a way that some adults would struggle to do. She said “It's just upsetting because I had been trying to fight for the same thing [equality] in my own school, and it feels like no one cares, or they pretend to not see it. It feels pointless!”. I got the feeling that this was emotionally draining for her. The third concern was one student who just felt that nothing will get better , despite the conversations. They anticipated that race relations would be ‘worse’ when they returned to school, with students from other backgrounds possibly making light of the situation.
Below are some suggestions for how schools may approach the issue and open dialogue surrounding race.
Recommendations for schools:
1. Create a safe space
Provide opportunities for conversations about race with peers in a group which is ‘safe’. By this I mean, not culturally diverse. Allow Black students the space to speak on how the recent events have affected them. Please be aware that BAME is not an identifiable group, but a label to indicate a lack of whiteness, and thus the group should compose of Students of African heritage. Of course, permission and agreement of parents and students would be necessary. The benefits of such a bold approach will be to reduce their sense of isolation, ease anxiety about what their other peers will think and start a dialogue, which will help to build their confidence. This will be essential to ease them back into school life. Some students, especially boys, may or may not have engaged in a real dialogue with their peers. It is not uncommon to share mounds of social media posts with nothing more than reactionary emoji’s, which are not sufficient tools to unpick the turmoil of recent experiences. As always, some students may simply just opt out.
2. Remote Safe Space
This could be done with a google meet and could be led by the students, depending on their level of maturity. Your role would be to let them know that you have been wondering how they are getting along (which shows interest) and you feel it’s been an emotional time. This shows empathy and lets them know they do not need to downplay their experiences, which is another pressure they may feel.
The questions I asked students may be a good place to start.
- What do you think about the phrase Black Lives Matter? Is it necessary?
- How do you feel about the protests?
- What do you think will come out of this?
- Are you optimistic? Why or why not?
3. After lockdown
Optional Black student group sessions with a culturally competent adult, to continue discussions around whatever they may choose, not excluding race. As with all group development sessions, set ground rules for engagement to maintain an appropriate tone. Keep the door open.
4. Giving context
An overview of Black history is essential, as is a greater historical trajectory than is commonly presented for Black history. It's important for schools to recognise that the abuse suffered by Black people can have negative psychological impact for students. Therefore, an emphasis on what Black people did to empower themselves is essential to their racial esteem. Speaking of the Great Wilberforce and ignoring the Haitian revolution, other revolts and other Black people who fought to abolish slavery is one such example. To actively take an anti-racist stance, schools should be squashing the myth of black savage / white saviour, which underlines much of the ideals of dehumanisation of African people today. It was once a commonly held belief that Africans were ⅗ human, and in parts of Europe, they even had human zoos in the 1950’s. All students benefit from learning that Black people were not born into slavery, and can exist outside of the struggle against white supremacy, abuse and oppression. It's important to stress the successes of African Empires and civilisations, in much the same way European civilisations are taught. Contributions to science and technology can be acknowledged and a pure focus on individuals who may be thought as ‘exceptional’, ‘lucky’, or a patronising spectacle of the royal family does not build a view that Black people have contributed as equal world partners to civilisation, which they have. Black history does not include athletes, as I have never learnt about a white athlete during European history lessons. The message you send to all children is that athletics is the extent to which Black people have contributed to the world. This assumption fuels stereotypes, a low sense of worth and should be challenged. In short, aspects of taught Black history need to empower Black students, and educate all students about the self determined existence of Black people with in societies, in Africa before chattel slavery. Aspects of history which enhances the humanisation of Black people should, where possible, be emphasised. Indeed, the very existence of Black History Month is testament to the extent that Black history has been omitted from world history and misrepresented.
Recommendations for parents:
1. Open conversation
The most comprehensive, highly referenced overview of African history before the slave trade is ‘When We Ruled’ by Robin Walker (Study guide available). Listen to the audio introduction to the book by Robin Walker at www.whenweruled.com, and you will get a sense of how vast pre-slavery African history is. Beyond this core text, there are other less comprehensive, but more accessible books such as “If You Want to Learn About Early African History, Start Here” also by Robin Walker. This book covers 50 questions and answers about the history of Black people. Other places to find work on the Black experience, race and fiction with black representation can be found below.
www.noordinarybookshop.com - online book shop, fiction with Black representation.
www.newbeaconbooks.com - bookshop taking orders - lots of non fiction books on race and history.
www.bcbooksandauthors.com - lists of books for black children by category for a few more ideas.
2. Share and inspire
Sharing resources that offer a historical overview. The whenweruled.com chronology PDF is a good place to start. Black parents have the sole responsibility of exposing Black children to their true history, which lays a foundation for their confidence. Parents will have varying knowledge, information or interest to be able to start their children on the right path. Culturally confident children are happier, more motivated to succeed and far more ambitious.
3. Optimism can gauge wellbeing
Gauge how young black people feel about their futures and the future of race relations. You may find that, like many I spoke to, they are optimistic in the long term.
4. Promoting reflection
Recent events have been overwhelming, and with so much conflict, it’s important to encourage a balanced view. An activity that gets students to think about what’s been difficult and what makes them hopeful about the future would work well. A simple table will do. Start with what’s been difficult so they can end with a positive. Remind students that it is OK to turn off their phone for a day. In fact, encouraging a no phone / social media day and getting them to feedback how they felt afterwards may be an interesting challenge.
5. Promoting wellbeing: To enhance wellbeing, remind students of self-care
- Getting rest
- Limiting information exposure
- Spending time doing things they enjoy
- Trying to eat a healthy diet
- Talking to someone if they start to feel overwhelmed / unhappy. The Samaritans number 116 123 is free, open 24 hours and never shows up on a phone bill. You do not need to give your name when you call.
Krystal Rubie is an experienced Science Teacher, pastoral leader and Special Education Teacher.