How Schools Should Respond to #BlackLivesMatter

08 Jun

Recently, during a transformation workshop at my school we were asked to raise our hands if we thought that we were racist. I was one of very few white teachers to raise my hand. The reaction was shock and horror. I suppose I should be gratified that so many of my colleagues expressed surprise that I should consider myself racist. After all, I firmly believe in equality in matters of class, gender and race. I can’t remember a time when I did not hold to this creed. I remember being punished during Guidance period at school and having to stand outside the classroom with the other left wing student in my class because we had dared to condemn the Apartheid government’s policies on race. I had gone into exile rather than serve in the South African army, and been arrested for protesting racism as a student. I hope I have never said anything approaching a racist slur, inference or utterance that might have given offence. And yet I was born at a certain time, and in a certain place with a certain skin colour which gives me a privilege denied millions of fellow citizens. I was born with certain ideas embedded in my cultural baggage. Ideas I have not fully unpacked or questioned. Ideas which undoubtedly contain deep seated racist ideological slants which I have not fully understood or disowned.

There is a very useful way of looking at these things in the theoretical toolkit which is Legitimation Code Theory (Maton, 2014), and that is the notion that concepts are linked to each other by connective logics, but are arranged by the knower in clusters and constellations which give meaning. In the Sciences these linkages are made in different ways, but are largely governed by epistemic logics of cause and effect, for example, or of properties and descriptions. In the Humanities, however, constellations are rather constructed by the process of the valorization of ideas. For example in Education a cluster of beliefs around Constructivist Learning Theory charges student-centered practices such as PBL positively, and charges teacher-centered approaches such as direct instruction negatively. This creates constellations, or clusters of ideas that stand in opposition to one another. This despite the fact that there may be no logical connection between the ideas themselves other than their valorization. Constructivist learning theory can live quite happily with direct instruction. Students learn, teachers teach. And yet teachers are almost afraid to whisper that they have taught a class rather than guided discovery because it is so heavily stigmatized.

The constellation of racism clearly includes ideas around racial superiority and inferiority, notions around racial difference and separation, and notions around the justification of systemic oppression based largely on fear of the other. I know relatively few people who would own to these ideas, and would certainly disown any who did. And yet there are undoubtedly strains of racist clusters of ideas hiding in many constellations which we cannot so easily discern. Or if we do, prove difficult to hunt down and eliminate from all our thinking. The same is true of the way we constellate class, or gender, or age, or sexual orientation or what is neurotypical.

There is a deep-seated dichotomy of binary oppositions between mind and body, for example which runs straight to notions of race. For example, Africans are constellated as physical, and social, Europeans as intellectual and individualistic. These clusters of ideas run deep, embedded in many fields, often hidden within expressions of praise. When whites praise the idea of ubuntu, there is no malice intended, and yet it reinforces a charging of ideas that associate Africa with greater communitariansim, but implicitly deficient in individualism, which continues to be valorized as positive! The physical strength and endurance of African long distance runners is lauded, but in charging this as a positive attribute, there is an implied binary opposite which, albeit silently, charges Africa as intellectually deficient and implicitly supports a systemic aversion to African intellectualism or ideas.

These ideas are seldom given voice, except in overtly racist settings, but underpin a great deal of an inherited European intellectual outlook. Why do we, as white people, tend to trust dead white theorists over other approaches, or cling to pride in our own individualism? These are not evil impulses, and indeed I’m not sure I could disavow this attitude even if I wished. It is part of the heritage of being an occidental. I suppose the best that can be asked of any white person is that they begin to examine their hidden constellations of ideas for racist assumptions and implied logics, and use caution when thinking through any problem. It is not that occidental thought is wrong, merely that there are alternative ways of constellating the world, and the occidental view has no logical privilege.

Schools in South Africa, and doubtless around the world are being challenged to respond to calls to examine white privilege and to decolonize the curriculum. I think it would be fair to say that our schooling system privileges western value-systems and outlooks, and that this is no longer tolerable. There is a direct conduit from the constellation of ideas in our education system to the exercise of power in the streets. Many teachers are today posting #BlackLivesMatter messages in support of their students and their demands and this is clearly important, but I think we all need to start the messy and painful process of imagining how to decolonize our education system so that no one view is privileged, and all are valorized. Understanding how ideas are linked and clustered, and how this underpins implicit world views is a starting point.

Many voices are asking white people not to attempt to hijack the conversation and to simply listen and support. I believe this is a period in which teachers and schools generally should listen to the voices of students. But I do believe the position we need to listen from is one in which we acknowledge our intellectual and cultural baggage. We do need to listen from a point of view of saying that our ears are open and we are willing and able to hear.


Knowledge and Knowers: Towards a realist sociology of education by Karl Maton (2014)


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