I’ve been thinking a lot over the past week about my own unconscious prejudices as well as what I’ve seen in my career in schools and what I think we can do as educators to do our part to fight racism and injustice. I don’t see myself as any kind of expert, these are more observations from across my career and following some reflection what I think needs to change. Most of my career was at a girls’ grammar school with a mixed student body in terms of cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, I now teach in the USA and hence feel a stronger connection to these issues currently. Although no teacher in these schools would consider themselves racist there were certainly biases on show (and I don’t exclude myself from this) and I think they fell into three main categories when it came to black students: Unconscious bias around ability I remember being in a meeting where our second-in-charge had analysed our data for how different groups had performed in maths and how many students were in the top/middle/bottom set. Not one single black student was in a top set across lower school (the only years where we set). We talked about reasons for why this was (we of course didn’t even consider the idea that this was in any way down to us as a white- and male-dominated department). We did our best to talk about how black students were often from poorer socio-economic backgrounds and it could be that link which explains the disparity. We also talked about tokenistic gestures we could employ such as promoting black mathematicians as if sticking on Hidden Figures at the end of the year would solve the issue. Having had more training (in the US ironically) and analysing my own conduct in the classroom I think the cause is far more subtle and far more dangerous: unconscious bias. I’m not blaming my department but I think black students run into unconscious biases all the time and especially in school. This produces worse outcomes for black students and hence a vicious cycle. This all boils down to expectations: when a student walks in the door what prejudices do you have about their ability? I know I’ve built up a picture across my life of who is more likely to be a good mathematician and this is based on my experiences, media, statistics, etc. It’s impossible to not have these biases but as educators we have to be aware of them so we can “check ourselves” when we make decisions in the classroom. Decisions as subtle as “Who will I ask this difficult question to?”, “Should I have a chat with this student after a test as I think they could have done better?” and as important as “Which set should they be in?”. No single decision makes a monumental difference but it is death by a thousand cuts. Research shows a strong causal link between teachers’ expectations of students and outcomes at high school, college and beyond so if we, as educators, are not acutely aware of our own biases and fail to set the same high standards for all students we are the ones leaving them behind. Studies also show black students with at least one black teacher will do better educationally. When a white (or other non-black) teacher and a black teacher evaluate the same black student, the white teacher is 30 percent less likely to believe that the student will graduate from a four-year college and 40 percent less likely to believe the student will graduate from high school. 2. Whiteness and white privilege Whiteness is a term I’ve only learned in the past year and in a nutshell is the ideology that the way white people act, dress, speak, etc is correct, normal and inherently American (or British) and those who act differently are not. I read about an example of this yesterday where Dexter Fowler, a black baseball player, was not let into a club because he was dressed smartly but wearing a gold chain whereas his white team-mates who were wearing shorts and flip-flops were seen as smart enough to be allowed in (they all decided to find a different club). I remember a group of black girls in my old form who were close friends and a debate in the staff room around “Why do all the black girls hang round with each other?”. Many staff saw these girls as brash, loud, abrasive, most alarmingly, “intimidating” when they walked down the corridor together. I talked about how they would all have had difficult shared experiences growing up black and it must be comforting to be around others who were like you and were working through the same trials. One member of staff started saying how this was “no excuse for the way they behave” and that she was bullied for the colour of her hair growing up and “didn’t act like that”. I was completely shocked that someone who worked in education could be so blind to institutional racism to conflate the experience of being black to growing up with ginger hair. I’m not sure how many people cross the street at night to avoid ginger people or reject a job application for their ginger-sounding name, maybe more studies need to be done. I’ll never forget a different member of staff then saying “none of us here can ever even begin to imagine what it’s like to be black in this country”. I don’t think being so wilfully ignorant of your students’ backgrounds and cultures is acceptable any more if you want to step foot inside a school. This group of girls would organise inclusive whole-school events celebrating food, dance, fashion and art from cultures around the world, raising £1000s for local charities but were still often seen as a nuisance by certain members of staff because they didn’t act white. This links in with my final observation: 3. Excessive punishment of black students This group of friends were often seen as needing to be “cracked down” on and would often complain to me as their form tutor that they were always the first to be called out for talking over the teacher and other minor offences. This may sound subtle but these small injustices scar our students. It is widely shown, not just in courts but also in schools, that black people/students are punished more harshly for the same crimes than white people even when you take further context into account (e.g. prior convictions). Starting in schools this forces black students to identify more as criminals and makes them even more likely to come into contact with law enforcement. This is known as the school-to-prison pipeline, there’s a brilliant This American Life podcast about it (https://www.thisamericanlife.org/538/is-this-working). So what can I do as a white teacher? Going forward I think educators need to be actively aware of their own biases in regards to their students, confront your own unconscious bias and become conscious of it. This needs to be a persistent process, not just ticking a box and moving on. I hope that I can have the bravery to speak out when I see instances of racism in my workplace and on the same hand would welcome being called out if I cannot keep on top of my own biases. As white people we need to be aware of our privilege and understand how and why that privilege comes directly at the expense of others. Schools and authorities need to prioritise the training and recruitment of black teachers. I’m no angel when it comes to all of this, I have unconscious biases and am more slacktivist than activist. I have often held my tongue when it comes to race to not offend people or sound cringe but you can’t be neutral on a moving train. If you’re not speaking out, marching, donating, educating yourself or at least reflecting internally then you are part of the problem. If you teach in a school and still refuse to engage then you bring shame to our profession. Black Lives Matter Justice for George Floyd Would be interested in other teachers’ thoughts and discuss what else we can do to respond.