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The long, insidious, shadows of colonialism

The manifestations of structural racism are both dramatic and visible in education

English Teacher and author of Black, Listed

There’s a virus going around. You may have heard of it. It’s highly infectious and can infect whole swathes of the population at any given time. It is not known how susceptible children are to the virus, but it has been confirmed that they can carry it, even if they show no explicit signs of disease. Adult carriers of the virus can display dramatic signs of illness and complications that can develop into life-threatening situations, and even death. 

Many millions have been infected.

The virus can also lay dormant within an individual until activated by stress or other exterior provocations or aggravators. Many carriers display symptoms that are so common that they go unrecognised and undiagnosed, and thus untreated. A shortage of personal protective equipment has meant that transmission of the virus has reached epidemic levels. 

The name of the virus, of course, is colonialism. And if you were born, raised or educated in what is commonly referred to as ‘the West’ at any point in the last 400 years, you have contracted it.

The shadows of colonialism

Colonialism is not simply a matter of geography, economy and politics. It is an ideological trauma writ large across nations, but equally damaging to individual minds and personal identities. The crimes of colonialism are profound; the plundering of wealth, economic exploitation, and deep racism.

Racism, in particular the scientific racism of the 19th century, offered a perverse justification for crimes enacted by colonising nations, including, of course, the British empire. Without racism, it would have been impossible to justify the abhorrent actions carried out against colonised peoples. Slavery, murder, degredation, suppression and oppression – a dystopia of physical, economic and ideological crimes.

The shadows of colonialism are insidious and long. We live in a society that is often described as ‘post-colonial’, but this does not mean that it has outgrown its colonial past. Currently, we exist in a society that is plagued with racist biases, embedded into its structures and biggest institutions. Like toxic masculinity, social inequality, sexism and homophobia, racism is a disease that continues to infect our world at an intrinsic level.

One of our biggest institutions is education. In education, manifestations of structural racism are both dramatic and visible. We can list them: The pervasive whiteness of our curriculum. The lack of criticality towards Britain’s colonial past. The lack of diversity in texts, narratives and voices. And then you get to the human level: The disproportionate exclusion of black students. The lack of diversity among teaching professionals. The undermarking of black students. The increased likelihood of black youth to end up ensnared in an equally racist criminal justice system, compared to their white peers.

How do these injustices persist? Well, like any infection, they persist because they go untreated. Recent events have been an awful reminder of the lack of humanity afforded to black communities in Western nations, but there are no surprises here. If our system, our structures and our institutions do not tackle the underpinning beliefs that make these crimes possible, then what hope can there be of any impactful change?

No-one is old. No matter how many candles are on your birthday cake, it wasn’t long ago that you were a baby wailing your way into a world that you didn’t design. Our growth, survival and socialisation depends on our ability to assimilate with the status quo. When that status quo is corrupt, it’s obvious what happens to its members. 

So we breathe the oxygen of ideologies that came before us and believe what we are told to believe, imbibing values that flow through the central nervous system of our diseased world.

If you’re marginalised, by race, gender, sexuality, disability, and so on, you feel this in your lived experience. You feel the rub in those places where you don’t fit. You see the big picture and the frame, and eventually, the painter too. This is what it’s like to grow up black in a postcolonial world. This is what happened to me, a black boy reared in a white education system. I was forced to interrogate and navigate a world that does not historically see black identity as equal and social structures that have worked against the prosperity of black communities.

In all of this, there is no such thing as normal. It’s no exaggeration to say that racism has warped this planet into a dystopia of inequality and inequity. As someone who has spent a lifetime waking up in the dystopia, I would say that my biggest success, if you want to call it that, is having avoided annihilation.

Decolonising the curriculum

The curriculum needs to be a site of decolonisation. I can tell you from experience that it’s a difficult process to go through alone. I was born in the UK in the third act of the 20th century. My formal education has been as white and Eurocentric as you can imagine. However, I had a wealth of other influences and communities to tap into that exist outside of the dominant mainstream. I grew up with black family, and black culture, and a curiosity to learn more about heritages that were given zero air time at school. School taught me the myths of Empire, erased the unpalatable truths of this country’s colonial past and implicitly promoted ideals of white superiority. I had to actively seek out other narratives from other voices, in marginalised spaces. A small handful of individuals supported me in this, but the curriculum at large did not. I read authors who were not readily presented to me on my journey to adolescence and beyond. I discovered perspectives that were shielded from me along the way. I discovered heroes and heroines who were not, and still are not, on the national curriculum.

We teach because we do not own the future, and equally, we cannot be enslaved to the past. So now, I’m a teacher, and I want to do better. When I have challenged the curriculum by introducing texts, people, voices, narratives and ideas that go against the status quo, I see eyes light up. I see pennies drop and the gears of empowerment begin to creak into movement. Black kids need this. White kids need this. All kids need this. And the adults who teach them need to start by decolonising their own minds.

I’ve noticed the frustration on social media of late. White teachers, educators and parents wanting to act, appalled by yet another instance of racialised violence, but unsure what to do, where to start. I’ve also noticed the silences, which speaks volumes of the paralysis surrounding race politics in the mainstream. It’s very simple: most people have no language with which to enter the debate, no tools with which to start dismantling racist structures; immobilised by ignorance.

Black teachers cannot shoulder the burden alone

As a black teacher, educator and parent, I can’t afford to be silent. My skin won’t let me. It speaks on my behalf. My existence in a majority white context is an automatic provocation. I feel that it’s time for all of us to step into this role that black people have had foisted upon us and share the burden of collectively unding generations of lasting ideological damage.

Decolonisation is not simply a case of better representation and increased diversity. Those things are a start, absolutely, but to decolonise the curriculum is to recognise that it exists as part of a system that is rooted in racist soil. Only then can we begin to uproot, and plant something better.

There’s personal work to do too. White teachers must accept that they have been subject to those same forces that have allowed racism to persist. We all have. Teaching a curriculum that is not racist is not good enough when racism continues to erode our global community. We need to design a curriculum that is anti-racist and actively interrogate our spheres of influence. This is everyone’s problem. Black teachers cannot be expected to shoulder this burden alone, and we shouldn’t have to.

It’s easy to say black lives matter. What’s more difficult, and equally important, is to show that black lives matter, in a country where these lives constitute little more than three per cent of the overall population. Black lives matter because humanity matters, and the dehumanisation of blackness erodes the humanity of us all. Our kids need to be shown that black lives matter in word, deed and lesson, because they have been born into a world that implicitly suggests that they don’t matter quite as much as other, whiter, lives. Black lives matter. Black art matters. Black heritage matters. Black culture matters. And to turn these statements of intent into reality, perhaps black education needs to matter most of all.

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applications are now open for headteachers and senior leaders working across education. The programme gives leaders the opportunity to connect with your authentic self and equip you with powerful strategies to bring about the changes you believe in.

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