Learning about Racism

So my 14 year old learner and I started reading ‘Noughts and Crosses’.

He’s been out of school for 2 years and wasn’t progressing well when he was there. It’s taken six months to get to the point where he can work independently and read aloud with fluency. In that six months, we’ve read war poetry, written an essay on his opinions about Ben Affleck’s ability to play the role of Batman, been to a Remembrance service, read Macbeth and been to see it performed live at a local theatre and done a whole host of mathematical work too. He now knows what the best deal is on the XBox One after working out percentage discounts and compound interest rates.

I was talking about these lessons at work with my colleagues and I explained why I had chosen Noughts and Crosses.

I’ll explain to you what I wanted to explain to them, but sadly I never got this far as you will see below.

My learner has a bit of a persecution complex (“the world is out to get me and nobody likes me and my life is doomed because I come from a council estate in the poor north of England”). This is not uncommon amongst the lesser educated working class people of the area (by area I mean ‘North of England’ not just one county).

My learner has a lot of advantages going for him which he is blind to.

He is white. He is (by his own account) straight. He is a cis male. He has parents who love him. He has family who love him. He has access to a free education in his native language.

He lives in a community surrounded by people who are just like him. And who all share the same view of the world which places them at the bottom of the ladder, and who all believe that they should be ‘entitled’ to more and that they have somehow been let down by a great system. Many of these people do not work. Many of them have only ever lived on benefits. My learner once innocently commented that is brother had got a job, working full time, which made him ‘a bit weird’ n their street.

He has never met a person of colour. He has never met anyone from a different faith. He has never met anyone from a different religion. Or from any religion. None of his friends or any of the people he knows attend any church of any kind. He lives in a very white washed world, and I want to inject a little colour (no pun intended) into his views and I feel this is even more important because he is not going to school and mixing with people from other backgrounds.

Don’t get me wrong – he’s a great kid and would be shocked to think of any of his views as being racist. Lennox Lewis is one of his heroes. So is Prince Naseem Hammed. So is Jay-Z. But he sees them as being emblematic of the success available specifically to people of colour in the wider world. He believes he is at a disadvantage for being white.

I decided to get him to read ‘Noughts and Crosses’ to put that view into perspective and also to bring in social studies, history and a bit of citizenship and legal history into our lessons and discussions.

I tried to explain this to the people I work with. By teaching this book I can bring in snippets about Nelson Mandela, about the ANC, about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, about the Civil Rights Movement, about Malcolm X. I get to bring in all of these things to show him about the wider world that we live in and to show him how far down things really go in terms of what people get and what they feel entitled to.

I was not prepared for the indignant dismissal and outrage (it should be pointed out this conversation happened in the week that Nelson Mandela died when news coverage was at its height).

People wanted to know why I didn’t teach him a classic text like Dickens or Austen (ie a book written by a white man, talking about white men and how powerful white men are. Or a book written by a white woman, walking about white women and how they should be grateful for rich white men who want to marry them.)

I got as far in my statement as saying ‘I want him to read about a world which includes people of colour…’ when I got cut off by a derisive snort.

Prior to this conversation I would never have thought that any of my colleagues were racist.

And then it started.

“Black people get all the attention these days.”

“There will be a black Prime Minister before we know it.”

“Nothing makes the news unless its about black people and what they want, I’m sick of reading about them.”

I dared to cut in and say that I didn’t just mean black people when I said people of colour…

“Oh don’t start about Pakis…”

“You can’t get a job in (blah town) if you speak English these days…”

“Bloody terrorists coming over here, ruining our white children”*

(* In a local town recently there was a well publicised case about a smashed paedophile ring – all of the victims were white girls, all of the perpetrators who were tried were Pakistani men)

“I don’t get why you have to do this stuff with him, why you choose it. Can’t you  do a nice story with him instead?” (The person in question has never read the book).

At this point, I slunk away disheartened and realised I was fighting a losing battle in having the conversation but more convinced than ever that I needed him to read this story and understand it. I was more than a little shell shocked. None of these people are people I would have thought of as being racist. Our work force is multi-ethnic, to say the least. I was reeling, in all honesty, and wondering how white washed my own vision had been and what on earth I had lifted the lid on.

As I was making coffee and pulling my thoughts back together, there was a tap at my elbow.

It was our visiting nursing specialist. A black woman, who was born in Swaziland and qualified as a nurse at university in Johannesburg. I hadn’t even realised that she was in the building, but apparently she had been in one of the side offices and heard the entire embarrassing pa-lava.

She said, very quietly “My country has come a long way since when I was born. Sometimes you see how far there is for the rest of the world to go. But we should all keep walking. And people who dig their heels in will be left behind. Let them shout and leave them there.” She smiled immensely, one of those enormous smiles that lights someone’s face suddenly. “I hope that he enjoys the story as well as learning from it.”

Today, I stopped in at the office for some files, and in my drawer was a slightly battered copy of ‘The Long Walk To Freedom’. There was a bright pink sticky note on the front with an enormous smiley face drawn on it.

No name.

But I know who it was from.

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