Handling incidents of racism

Language is powerful.

We don’t always think about the words we use and the impact they might have. When it comes to describing or addressing people of different race, ethnicity, gender or sexuality from ourselves whether it’s friends, family acquaintances, colleagues or strangers we might not always understand what those words convey to others.

A recent story in the Daily Mail got me thinking about how race is perceived in schools. The article focused on a seven-year-old boy who was allegedly labelled a racist after asking if a younger pupil was brown because he lived in Africa. His mother was then quickly summoned to the school and asked to sign a report which was to be filed with the local authority. Is this political correctness gone mad or does it highlight a very real problem in schools?

It appears the school was following out-dated procedures originally introduced by the last Labour government. The policy was well-intentioned as it drew to the attention of pupils and parents what is and isn’t acceptable language to use to describe race and ethnicity in schools. However, this kind of policy can lead to teachers unthinkingly following procedures and doesn’t always seem to consider the age of pupils or the context of the incident. What then happens is such policies tend to become a matter of compliance and lead to bureaucratic enactments that school staff feel they have to follow.

Whether the boy meant to be racist or not, it shows there is a real need in finding a balance in preventing stereotyping whether it’s racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia or sexism and marginalising particular groups of people. Rather than rushing to call in the parents and filling out a form, this kind of incident could have been used as a valuable education opportunity. It should be a chance to talk to the students involved, talk to their parents and have an assembly with the whole year or school about the topic, to help educate young people and help them to understand what these words mean, how they can offend and why. A more punitive response should come only if a child continues to use abusive language and refuses to recognise the impact this has and the offence it causes.

Some may say schools should adopt a common-sense approach when it comes to addressing racist incidents in the playground. Yes, but when it comes to racism you can’t rely solely on notions of common sense because some people don’t appreciate the impact of certain derogatory or discriminatory words because of personal, sometimes subconscious or cultural prejudices. But there certainly needs to be some balance and judgement employed. The age of the child, peer pressure and familial situations and the fact children repeat things can all contribute to the use of inappropriate language.

In secondary schools it can be harder; there are a large number of people and break-time banter and managing teenagers can be very difficult, but schools must be aware of the mental health consequences of using inappropriate language. This kind of bullying can lead to self-harm in girls who may internalise the pain or boys who act out physically. It can lead to misbehaviour in the playground and classroom, fuel gang culture and lead to serious issues like depression and anxiety which can impact on school performance and outcomes.

Teachers work hard to spot and support mental health issues among students and need support from senior leaders to continue to do so. Equally, when people are growing up, they are doing just that growing up, so if they make a misdemeanour do we have to exclude them immediately? How does this help them understand and develop their life skills? As a father of three sons, I learned that when imposing sanctions you cannot immediately jump to extremes because you will have nowhere left to go and can look foolish if you need to backtrack.

Schools must have clear guidelines in their school policy about how students and teachers report racism within the school gates and parents must be encouraged to pull their children up on it. Learning to live together and cope with difference is a core skill that schools are charged with imparting to their students, in addition to knowledge and passing exams.