Tackling racism in schools

A STUDY has found that racism in schools has a negative impact on pupils health. Phill Magakoe African News Agency (ANA)

The impact of racism on black children in schools results in trauma, health problems and learning difficulties for the victims. A report in the US which looked at 121 different published research reports on the impact of racism, conducted over decades, showed that racism lead to “war and tear” on the bodies of children over time, causing depression, anxiety and physical health problems such as gastrointestinal problems, heart disease and nervous conditions.

“It’s pretty consistent and strong, this link between racism and poor physical health as well as mental health”, according to Monnica Williams, the African American psychologist of racism. Getting constant messages that they are not good enough result in many blacks having “reduced self-esteem and internalized hatred”, says Williams.  

Kim Dulaney, Professor of African-American Studies at Chicago State University described the impact of racism as: “It’s living in a state of constant trauma. In the Black community, it feels like war on your Black body just because someone fears the stereotypes they have of Black people in their imagination. Trauma is different from stress. Trauma is an emotional wound that can cause physical changes in a person. The impact of trauma can be substantial and can have lasting damage to psychological development in youth”.

Uppala Chandrasekera, director of public policy at the Canadian Mental Health Association, says for many whites it may appear that a black person is “having a very disproportionate reaction” to racist incidents directed at them.

Chandrasekera says black people are told “to move on” taught “to rise above it”. Others say blacks most build a positive identity around blackness. Chandrasekera said “people who experience a moment of racism ‘put it away in a box’. However, “the next time they experience something similar, they might not just react to that single comment, but to all the other ones they have already experienced throughout their lifetime”.

Racism could come in the form of violent assault, abuse or the quiet forms, such as white privilege, which is conscious or unconscious stereotyping of white people as inherently competent because they are white, and blackness, which is seeing black people as bad because they are black. Columbia University did a 8-year research study on the subtle forms of racism, which include behaviours, statements and views which may appear harmless to white person, whether a teacher or manager, which is demeaning to a black adult or child.

The research study reported verbal and nonverbal discriminatory actions which demean a person’s racial heritage or identity. For example, a white person asking a black person how they got a job, implying the person may have got the job unfairly through affirmative action. Or a white person asking a black person where he or she was born, if they appear competent or educated, implying they cannot be black South African by virtue of their competence. Or the familiar, your English is good, implying that black people by nature cannot speak English.

At a school level, it could be expecting black teachers to do more to “prove” themselves to be competent or to be more educated than a white teacher to be able to do a similar job. Or it could be a white teacher or parent implying it’s easier for a white child to learn Afrikaans, then say isiZulu – consciously or unconsciously giving more resources to teach say Afrikaans than to teach say isiZulu.

The problem is that it is not easy to get people to recognise they are prejudiced. The Columbia University research described the phenomenon as “on a conscious level they (prejudiced individuals) see themselves as fair minded individuals who would never consciously discriminate”, “they are genuinely not aware of their biases”, and “their self-image of being ‘a good moral human being’ is assailed if they realise and acknowledge that they possess biased thoughts, attitudes and feelings that harm people of colour”.

Racism in schools could be overt, subtle and unconscious. But it can be institutional – build into the structures, policies and culture of a school. In some cases black children could be marked down by teachers who are unconsciously stereotyping them. Teachers could unconsciously have low expectations of black pupils, and therefore spend less time on time, assess them with less consideration.

For example, black pupils being overlooked for answering questions, harsher reprimands for black pupils and verbal aggression from teachers for blacks compared to whites. A black child questioning an issue could be called disruptive, whereas a white child questioning an issue is seen as inquisitive.

An education commission looking at racism at schools in the UK pointed to inadequate levels of positive teacher attention to black pupils, unfair behaviour management of black pupils compared to whites, and schools dismissing black parent input, had taken their toll on black pupil overall school performance.

In the UK government study, one responded report: “When it is white boys, it is a “group” but when it is black boys it is a ‘gang’”. Teachers need training in not consciously or unconsciously stereotype, discriminate against or have cultural-biases or racial generalisations influence their teaching. There has to be diversity in the teacher make-up of schools.

Schools must have transparent procedures for pupils to report racism by teachers – and protection for pupils who report such racism. Racist teachers in the system should not be protected. Traditionally white schools should also showcase black achievement, heroes and role models. Lessons should showcase more racially inclusive case studies. “White” school traditions should become more culturally inclusively. How should black parents help their children become resilient in a world which is racially prejudiced?

Black parents have to be more involved in school community life. Black parents should early on explain to their children that sadly, racial prejudices exist. Children should be taught to challenge racial stereotyping and prejudice. Children should also be taught empathy, kindness and consideration for others, whatever their colour, religion or race.

Children should be taught to value, celebrate and appreciate racial diversity. But children should also be encouraged to make friends across the racial, religious and colour divide. Parents of all races, including black ones, should ditched their own racially, ethnic and cultural stereotypes.

Jill Suttie from Berkeley University showed how children who are exposed through reading, films and events to more positive images of icons from different ethnic groups practice less negative ethnic stereotyping.

Parents must encourage friendship, engagement and interaction across the racial divide, which will help reduce race prejudice. This is particularly important in South Africa’s where racially groups are still socially segregated in spite of the end of formal apartheid. The psychologist Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton argues that parents must also try to establish social networks and friendships across different backgrounds – based on shared interests.

Children learn biases in their homes. White parents should talk to their children about the devastating impact on blacks of racism. White parents should in their homes be alert to the prejudicial messages, whether unconsciousness they are sending out about black people. White parents in their homes must role model to their children how to respond prejudicially to people different to them. There has be less defensiveness about racism, greater acknowledgement of its impact on blacks and more openness to tackle the issue among white South Africans – as well as an acknowledgement  by blacks that not all whites are racists.

William Gumede is Executive Chairperson of the Democracy Works Foundation (www.democracyworksfoundation.org); and author of South Africa in BRICS (Tafelberg).