A new book explodes the myth of racist children and reveals how anti-racist initiatives in British schools have split pupils into ethnic camps.
Teachers in Britain are obliged, under the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, to record the number of racist incidents in their schools. This has resulted in the reporting of an estimated 250,000 such incidents, and race relations officials claim this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Yet Adrian Hart, a community filmmaker and tutor, argues in The Myth of Racist Kids: Anti-Racist Policy and the Regulation of School Life that ‘the notion of racist kids is in large part a myth’. Hart became concerned about today’s anti-bullying and anti-racist policies while working on a government-funded educational film about racism in schools.
He writes: ‘I observed a strange and concerning phenomenon: in modern cosmopolitan Britain, where race is becoming less and less relevant, and where children often have friends from many different ethnic groups, the dominant racialising influence on children is anti-racist policy itself. It is state anti-racist policy that is keeping the question of race alive at a time when many people – especially children – are living increasingly colour-blind lives.’
He argues that today’s anti-racist educators ‘may have the best of intentions’, but ‘their missionary zeal reifies race, exaggerates racism and profoundly misunderstands children’.
The government’s recommended definition of a racist incident is ‘any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person’. This is in line with the 1999 Macpherson Report, the landmark inquiry into the police investigation of the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993, which famously accused the police of ‘institutional racism’ and laid the basis for the framework for subsequent official anti-racist policies in Britain. This has, Hart says, ‘generated an army of race-equality officials and a raft of “interventions” – awareness-raising drama workshops, special assemblies, books, videos and teaching packs’.
And as more and more teachers are actively on the lookout for racist incidents, so, unsurprisingly, the statistics show that racism among children is on the rise. The most recent figures available from the Department for Children, Schools and Families show a 29 per cent rise over one year in the number of pupils suspended from schools for racist abuse. Sarah Teather, education spokesman for the UK Liberal Democrats, obtained the figures through parliamentary questions. She says: ‘[This is] another shocking picture of the poor state of race relations in Britain today.’ The Commission for Racial Equality said the figures hint ‘that [racism] is deep-rooted and ingrained’.
But do they, really?
At one of the schools Hart visited he asked a teacher whether everyday playground spats are being elevated, somewhat erroneously, into racist incidents. ‘He looked horrified’, says Hart, ‘so I attempted to clarify. “Surely when kids fall out they grab anything that will hurt, then minutes later they’re friends again?” “We have to be seen to be taking racism seriously”, the teacher answered. “It’s the law.”’
Some teachers, however, are alarmed by the effect of official anti-racism on relationships between their pupils. One teacher told Hart: ‘I think we’re a good school, but because we are trying to be responsible and abide by the policy on racist incidents, our problem is that it’s having the opposite effect. In fact it’s creating an absolutely awful atmosphere around the school. Children who used to play beautifully together are starting to separate along racial lines.’
By viewing childish insults through the prism of adult politics, racial divisions are assumed to exist. But just as a seven-year-old calling somebody ‘Fatso’, for example, should not be taken as seriously as if a 30-year-old used that insult, so what a child means when he calls someone a ‘Paki’ is not the same as what an adult means when he uses that word. And by attempting to deal with such insults by elevating them into racist incidents, racial divisions are actively created. As children are made aware of the penalty of drawing attention to any apparent racial differences, it is hardly surprising that they might play safe by sticking to their own ethnic groups.
Through tackling head-on the controversial subject of children and racism, Hart deals with a number of important issues that are particularly close to my heart. He argues that ‘anti-racist policy operating in schools has had a disabling effect on both children and teachers’.
In my recent book, Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and Play in an Age of Fear, I also stress the need to appreciate that children are children and not nasty little brutes or helpless victims. Whereas in the past it was accepted that children, in their unsophistication, would employ the kind of tactless, heartless, even in-your-face offensive behaviour that adults could not get away with, today such behaviour in the playground is seen as just as shocking and problematic as if it were between adults in an office.
The problem with this is that by focusing on bullying and racism in schools we can end up denying children the experiences they need to develop. Children need free time to play, have fun, stumble into difficulties, and work out how to resolve differences. Break-time is an important context for children to learn how to make decisions, take turns, and consolidate or break off friendships – and, of course, to let off steam and have some fun.
As Hart writes: ‘Of course schools should, and frequently do, discipline children for name-calling and bullying, just as for any other form of anti-social behaviour. But the fact that children are required to respect adult authority in the classroom does not alter their need to engage – at break-time – in unfettered peer interaction. In this sphere adults should take a step back and allow children the freedom to flourish.’
Anti-racist policy, like anti-bullying policies, also has a disabling effect on teachers. ‘It undermines trust in teachers, their autonomy and their ability to deal with minor disputes occurring in their school’, Hart writes. This is part of a broader problem where teachers, like all adults, are increasingly treated as emotionally illiterate beings: they are spoonfed information about what to teach and given detailed guidance about how to engage with their pupils. Hart writes: ‘Interfering with the daily life of schools, mistrusting teachers and undermining their ability to manage internal affairs has become the hallmark not just of official anti-racism, but of a range of interventions over social issues which the state now feels schools must play a crucial role in.’
As one deputy headteacher says in Hart’s book: ‘This top-down interference in how we manage discord in schools ignores our professional skills. In my experience of primary schools in the inner city, there’s always been a “hidden curriculum” which acknowledges and makes reference to how children acquire good social skills within a mixed environment. We don’t need these so-called “experts” telling us how to do it and monitoring what we think.’
Anti-racist measures in schools have been put beyond criticism. Hart’s report is a brave and lucid attempt to break this censorious silence and hold these measures up for scrutiny.
First published on spiked, 12 March 2010