Teachers must stop being afraid to tackle racism in colleges

Mahad and Hanan set out key recommendations from the 2022 student commission on racial justice, including building teachers' and students' confidence to speak up

Mahad and Hanan set out key recommendations from the 2022 student commission on racial justice, including building teachers' and students' confidence to speak up

8 Nov 2022, 5:00

Further education leaders and teachers know they need to be aware of the experiences of young people from minoritised ethnic groups to ensure a safe and supportive environment for all. The sector has come a long way, but the Student Commission on Racial Justice report shows there’s further to go.

Negative stereotyping means that young people from minoritised ethnic groups are disadvantaged from the start of education. Our findings show a double standard in the way students are viewed by peers and staff. Groups of black students, for example, are more likely to be seen as gangs or hooligans while their white peers are viewed more favourably as a group of friends or “squad”.

As a young black teen, Mahad was followed by security while out in shopping centres with friends of the same ethnicity. He can’t help but feel like there is “a negative assumption purely based on the way we look”, an experience  replicated around the country, including in education settings.

However, this negative stereotyping can be tackled. Our report found that students who regularly learn about diversity view their school or college environment as more supportive and tolerant. Those who might otherwise resort to stereotypes, on the other hand, learn to value diversity. Therefore, one of our report’s recommendations is that respect for racial and ethnic diversity should be taught more often and in detail.

The best way to do this is by involving students with personal experience of racial discrimination or by inviting in speakers who can share their perspectives. Through experiential learning and student-led discussions addressing sensitive topics, we can increase confidence and help students to influence outcomes that affect their education and lives.

Some teachers are afraid to use the word racism

Self-reflection and self-representation are also crucial to push teachers and students to take responsibility for producing shifts in student experiences. At our colleges we implemented the recommendation to embed a diverse range of cultural events and celebrations by introducing student co-ordinated culture days. Students thoroughly enjoyed the event – and Hanan and Naffi said they allowed everyone to gain a new perspective on the lives of their peers and colleagues.

It’s about making everyone, staff and students, feel respected and acknowledged. Students from minoritised ethnic groups can often feel that their identities are ignored or suppressed – as Maltiti says, “we are supposed to fit into a place that has no space for our culture” – and it can make college feel like an isolating place. Instead, educating each other about our traditions and beliefs and celebrating each other’s differences can enrich college life and foster a sense of belonging.

But all this won’t have the impact it could have if teachers aren’t better trained and supported to tackle race-based incidents. A key issue from our peer research was that some teachers ignore discrimination because they may not be confident enough to do something about it. This can appear as though they do not take racism seriously.

Often, racist abuse is presented as humour or “banter”. Many of the young people who took part in the commission’s research have been made fun of for having darker skin. When they challenge this, perpetrators often dismiss it as “just a joke” and accuse their victims of over-reacting. Some teachers are afraid even to use the word racism. But by “hovering around the topic”, as Alyshah says, “they can’t directly address it”.

This needs to change. Training on how to use positive reinforcement for tolerant and respectful behaviours can be helpful. Seeing teachers confidently respond to instances of racist abuse in the classroom and to reinforce tolerant and respectful behaviours will encourage students to do the same.

In our increasingly diverse and multicultural society, we must find ways of incorporating diversity into the student experience to foster inclusion and encourage student dialogue. It’s time to end the cycle that perpetuates race as disadvantage.

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