Imagine if racism had a scent, imagine the odour, imagine the stench. Would you still be able to sit next to those colleagues who say things that are racially off?
For most of my career in education I worked in schools with a high percentage of BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) students and some of you might have already guessed what my next observation always was; the majority of teachers and SLT (Senior Leadership Team) were always white.
BAME staff were usually over represented in non-teaching and pastoral roles as if they were the only ones that could manage behaviour. Although, this was true in some of these schools; I would argue that they were not necessarily the only ones who could manage behaviour but they were better at connecting with the kids. We could explore how race and representation are the key factors in this but that’s for another essay.
I am Black, Muslim, an immigrant and a woman. So it may not be a big surprise to some that I have dealt with the whole spectrum of hate and prejudice throughout my life. From unconscious bias to that in your face overt racism; ‘go back to your country’!
My black friends and I often talk about the microaggressions we experience at work and I have experienced far too many to count. However, I don’t know which is worse, the microaggressions, the implicit subtle forms of racism or the blatant (in your face) overt racism. I know which I prefer.
Let me see if I can explain my thinking…
I don’t like BS, I’m not a subtle person, I’m not subtle in expressing my views, or my identity and I am definitely not subtle when dealing with hateful people. I prefer knowing who my enemies are. I do not always have the time or energy to decipher between the gems, the snakes and the fake allies; although life has not always spared me from mistaking a snake for an ally.
I earned the nickname “red hot pepper” in the earlier years of my career because I would literally go red during exchanges with colleagues who thought they could spill their prejudices and hate in my presence. This was exhausting, looking back I wonder where I got the energy from.
Let me give you some examples of my experience as a Black Muslim woman in my beloved profession.
I once expressed my desire to get parents and the local community (my community) more involved and enthused about prom. The reply from one of my colleagues was “phuhh….not in this area, we would need to have a knife arch because all THEY would bring are knives, guns and drugs’. You can imagine my reaction; I was fuming and challenged this colleague’s racist remarks only to be gaslighted and made to feel as if I was being paranoid. And when that tactic failed, this colleague walked away.
I have been called ‘aggressive’ by colleagues and referred to as ‘that feisty black teacher’. When I discussed this with an SLT member of staff, an ally, she recognised that Black women’s passion is often mislabelled as aggression. She compared this with how assertive female leaders are labelled as a ‘bitch’ whereas the same characteristic in a male leader is celebrated as a strength. This is not the same but I appreciated her efforts in letting me know that she heard me. I then discussed this with my year 13 class and the response I received from one of my students left me bewildered. This young man was confident and comfortable in expressing his views that black women are naturally feisty and can be difficult. I asked him how he would describe another well known white female teacher in the school. He said ‘strict’. Shocked by his response, I asked him to elaborate and explain how he came to his conclusion. His reply was ‘I can’t really explain it, but there is just this way about black women and the way you say things when you are telling us off , there is a certain attitude to it.’ It was at this point that two BAME students stepped in and called him out on his bias. What followed was a very lively and enlightening discussion on race and racism. It is important to note that my KS5 classes have always been safe spaces for students to be able to have an honest discourse about all sorts of things. The spaces and environment I created took time. There was trust and respect. They trusted me as their teacher and they knew I have the patience to engage their minds and encourage critical thinking. This is by far my favourite age group to engage about their views on race and racism. I have all the time in the world for them.
Then there are the countless arguments with colleagues who misinterpret the confidence of black children as arrogance. Some teachers are too quick to dismiss the passion and voices of black children as defiance, bad attitude, back chat, poor behaviour and threatening . I am tired of the endless attempts to silence and vilify black children’s voices. As a parent and a teacher, I vow to continue to fight against what I call; the disempowerment of little brown and black human beings. This earned me the title of ‘the most informed parent’ by my children’s head teacher. In another word….’a trouble maker’ but I chose to interpret that to mean that I’m doing my job well as a parent and holding them accountable. And I am okay with that.
I once found myself to be the only Black person in my team. This was probably the most challenging and taxing period in my career. I believe I physically aged in that year. I was new to the school so there was the usual challenges of being the newest member of a team. But things went from bad to worse once I proved myself and earned the praise of SLT. My confidence compounded my team’s hate (I know it’s a strong word but that’s how I felt at the time) and escalated their attempts to make me look incompetent but GOD sent me angels who had my back. Their sabotaging included holding back key information, siding with each other when making decisions and telling my line manager and other colleagues that I was doing a poor job. They excluded me from their what’s-up group and to rub it in, they would have discussions with me about the shenanigans that went on in their group chat. I think the line manager was included in this group too. We would have these heated clashes about the racially off and stereotypical statements they’d make. For examples, they made sweeping statements about knife crime being a black on black crime.
During Ramadan they actively encouraged students to break their fast when the students complained about being tired. I remember how huge this argument was and how they tried to gaslight me and make it seem as if I was being too sensitive. They would stereotype students based on their ethnicity and culture. I remember thinking, these are the people we entrust our kids with. Are they racists? Are they horrible human beings? I would like to answer no to both of these questions but I really can’t say. What I can say is they did have some good qualities but their unconscious bias or racist attributes will always taint any good deeds/intentions they had as educators.
I remember how draining and unhealthy it was to always be on guard and to second guess all their moves. It was a toxic environment and I was exhausted and even considered leaving. But I am a stubborn person and my pride would not let me quit. Plus I am a true believer that what was meant for me will never miss me and that what misses me was never meant for me.
So I accepted that I was hated (I know, but that’s how I felt at the time) by the team but loved by so many others, especially my students. So I leaned in on that and used it to anchor and fuel me. I established myself and built my tribe from outside of my team. I vented to my support systems and sought the counsel of the strongest and wisest people I know. After talking to my mum and dad, I knew I deserve to be at that school. I was making such an impact and this was visible to everyone. Plus my students deserve to have me at the school.
So I decided to continue being me, keep rocking the boat and be that positive disruption. I let them watch me everyday as I moved with kindness and integrity. I leaned in on my faith, prayed, trusted my creator’s plan. I stood my ground, held my head high and continued being led by my moral purpose.
Being the newbie at work is never easy. The process of having to prove yourself all over again can be frustrating. Then there is the time it takes to find your tribe, that group of people that just gets you, it feels like you have known them for a long time.
And when you add racism to this mix, it really can be detrimental to a person’s mental health and hinder their career.
I believe I survived and thrived in every situation through sheer determination, resilience and tenacity. I am indebted to my support systems outside and inside of school. There are two things which have helped me throughout my life; one is my faith, I believe in divine decree and second is my support systems. I consciously lean into the strength I get from both of these anchors.
I believe no one would be able to sit next to our colleagues in some of our schools if racism had a scent. I don’t think any of us would be able to do what most of us do currently, which is awkwardly laugh, pretend it is not happening or walk away but later wish you had said something.
I’ll leave with the quote below and urge you to challenge your colleagues next time you hear them saying something that is prejudice, bias or racist. I urge you to hold them accountable and remember he/she is meant to be an educator, a teacher, a loco parentis.