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#BLM: Thoughts as a BAME educator

Posted by Mr Alhassan

I have a strange relationship with race, but suffice to say that it doesn’t really register with me day-to-day. By and large, I surround myself with people who are like minded, and I honestly believe that the vast majority of people in the UK really don’t give a damn about your skin colour – or, at worst, will trot out ‘actually, I don’t even see skin colour! In fact, I hadn’t even realised you were… brown? Is it?’ Overt racism is few and far between, thankfully, and one could be forgiven for thinking we live in a multicultural wonderland.

Clearly, we do not live in a wonderland, as recent news has shown us. It’s important to note that this isn’t new. There is nothing new about the systemic racism and bias that riddles a lot of institutions in the UK and abroad, and before you harrumph your way to a reply on that, then just do even the World’s tiniest bit of research on it. I will say that I think massive strides have been made, and that – functionally – there is the access to institutions and acceptance in today’s society that I feel there was sorely lacking even a generation ago. I am not called a nigger while walking down the street like my father (a doctor) was when he arrived in this country.

I am not an expert on race, nor am I particularly schooled in the issue of race differentials in schools in the UK. However, I am mixed race, I am a maths teacher going on to be a Director of Learning for maths, and I feel that it is important to say something at this juncture of my experience. I do not claim that I can provide solutions, nor do I claim that my experiences are universal. However, I suppose one thing that all of this has raised is that it is important to listen. Far too often, when BAME people, or people from lower SEGs speak, no one listens – although plenty of people are often on hand to patronise.

Far too often, when BAME people, or people from lower SEGs speak, no one listens – although plenty of people are often on hand to patronise.

  • Explicit racism hurts, but what hurts more is the inaction of those around you. This lesson I learned when on a night out with my now-wife and her teacher friends, in a pub in North-West London near her school. I didn’t really know any of them, and most of them were, fairly enough, a bit tipsy at this point. There was this absolute waster of a man (not in our group) who kept yelling loudly about how he HATED PAKIS, and FUCK PAKIS, while making purposeful, gloating looks in my direction. A smug grin on his face saying “go on mate, hit me and you’ll end up in jail”. Now, that was obviously a bit upsetting, but the biggest thing was that no one spoke up about it. I don’t really know what I expected – but at the least someone to come up to me and go ‘hey, you okay?’ Instead, it just seemed that he could do whatever he wanted and get away with it. Which he did. If you see explicit racism happening then don’t sit there and do nothing. Where safe to do so, try to intervene – or at least check in on the victim. In a school setting, if you see racism in the class or on the playground, act publicly, decisively and follow it up all the way to the top and all the way to the end. Do not pass it to HoY and wash your hands – like it or not, you are part of that now, see it through.
  • The subtle racism of lowered/raised expectations is real and we have to be constantly on guard for it. I’ve heard staff members in various schools say sweeping generalisations about groups of pupils – “all the black students are in bottom sets”, “the chinese pupils work so hard!”, “what do you expect, she’s from a traveller family”. Look, the thing that I’ve noticed being a teacher is that you can’t lump all kids sharing a common characteristic together. “Like BAME, you say?!” you might smugly retort, before cocking your eyebrow and sitting down of your throne made of pure right-all-the-time. Sure, like BAME. The idea is that a group of pupils may share a common feature and that feature may be linked to adverse educational outcomes, so that’s a reason to be vigilant about the student. However, humans vary massively, and they vary massively even when given the exact same conditions. That is not the same of being shocked every time a black student solves an equation correctly. It works the other way – not every student with Asian heritage works incredibly hard or is interested in STEM. That’s fine, and it’s wrong to barrel in there and go ‘huh, I thought X would do better than that’ because they only got y% on the test.
  • Representation is important. I have spent the majority of my life in incredibly white environments. Environments so white that you could imagine that, at any given point in my upbringing, I could have been in a boozy prosecco brunch talking about the sourdough starters. I grew up in Canterbury, went to university in Durham and then started a career in the civil service as an economist before moving to Oxford as a maths teacher. I basically have never really had a huge amount of interactions with people who look like me, or have similar ethnic backgrounds to me. At school, none of my teachers were BAME – they were all undulating white and middle class. Now this isn’t necessarily an issue – they were, by and large, good teachers and I am grateful that I got to receive their instruction. However, it made it difficult to imagine myself there. Trying to articulate it, it felt as if I wouldn’t belong in that position. One thing I can hope that I’m passively doing as I teach is just show BAME students that, look, you can be here too. There are mathematicians who look a little like you, and that you are welcome in this profession if you want to be here.
  • There’s always the ‘do you think it mattered that I’m not white?’ train of thought. I recent was interviewing around for positions. I’m going to say that, on paper, I’m a pretty good candidate for any maths teacher job – I have very good qualifications and a good track-record. I’m relatively eloquent and my references are really good. There’s been a couple of times where I never heard back from a position that I was very well qualified for (particularly at private schools, although this was only my experience and I really do not wish to get into private vs state – that’s something I simply do not have much experience with) and you just can’t help but think … was it my face? Was it my name? Was it because I disclosed I’m muslim? Imposter syndrome is real and experienced by a great many people for a great many reasons and I think it really manifests itself in me. I would like to think that I simply handed in a rubbish application, but I just don’t think that’s true.
  • Please do not play on stereotypes. I once saw a white person talk to a black person and their opening gambit was about how they loved Beyonce, so please just don’t do that ever. For the record, I love emo music (2000-2010 era) and video games, and I can’t dance to save my life.
  • Please do not say you are blind to race. Look, I get it – it’s very well-meaning. I understand that you mean to say that you don’t think of me as different. But I am different – I have a different bank of lived experiences and that is partly because of my mixed race heritage. That is absolutely fine and it shouldn’t be played down. The World is a little richer because of our differences if only we talk about them.

I am different – I have a different bank of lived experiences and that is partly because of my mixed race heritage. That is absolutely fine and it shouldn’t be played down. The World is a little richer because of our differences if only we talk about them.

Again, these are just my own thoughts. Yours may differ, BAME or not, rich or poor, and it would be great to hear those thoughts. I hope that the vast majority of BAME students have really positive experiences at school and that race isn’t an issue directly. I think the conversation about income is very different, and is inextricably linked because the socio-economic ties between race and income, however I can’t really speak to that as a person who has not gone through poverty myself, thankfully. I don’t really have a pithy summation of this post, but just have your eyes open, be aware of implicit bias on a personal level and do your best to just be there for everyone. Have a lovely day!

-Hisham

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