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Black lives matter: educational professionals and the fight against racism

I am an EP working in an outer-London borough, where like many other London boroughs, Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people make up most of the population. I am also a mother of two children who are mixed heritage.

I did not expect to be writing a piece about race during a pandemic, with children returning or due to return to school. I am painfully aware that it would be much more productive for me to focus on events within my ‘circle of influence’. I am tired of thinking about race, experiencing its impact, and being ambushed by the subject. Nonetheless, with today being Blackout Tuesday, it is a valid topic now as at any other time.

Current context for BAME people

During the lockdown period, many race and class-related issues have been exacerbated. Coronavirus has disproportionally affected BAME people, within the context of our country having one of the highest death rates in Europe. This is not the case in other countries where BAME people are a majority, which leads to the conclusion that there are environmental rather than genetic factors at play here.

We have schoolchildren from lower socioeconomic groups having the least access to technology during the period of school closures; and unfortunately there is a large overlap between being in a ‘disadvantaged’ group and being BAME.

I think about my own privilege of having the education, finances, and stable accommodation to be able to educate my own children and provide them with enriching experiences. We talk about the importance of putting on our own oxygen masks first, and it helps when we have the luxury to be able to practice this self-care, to make working and home-schooling more bearable.

How has psychology helped in the past?

At this point, you may be wondering what all of this has to do with racism; the race riots happening in America in response to the death of George Floyd. You may be thinking that this is not an issue for educators.

If you recall the seminal 1968 ‘Blue eyes-brown eyes’ experiment by Jane Elliott, it made a huge impact on the understanding of stereotyping. Jane Elliott split her class by the colour of their eyes, affording privileges to the ‘in’ group which understandably affected their behaviour and academic performance.

Jane Elliott is an amazing activist and a true ally in the fight against racism. To this day, we research anti-bullying programmes and conclude that bystander interventions have the biggest impact. Yet it still feels difficult to have open conversations in the workplace about systemic racism. For example, why Black Caribbean children are 1.6 times more likely to be excluded from school than their white peers, a figure that increases if they are looked after, have special educational needs (SEN) or are from a disadvantaged background.

This is relevant as this disproportionality continues in the mental health system, in the benefits system and in the prison system. I must ask myself if I, as an Educational Psychologist, do enough to check my own unconscious biases, and to question the unconscious biases that may be at play when I receive referrals. A visit to the local Pupil Referral Unit mirrors the official statistics. To simply say that ‘I do not see colour’ is to shut down the discourse. Police brutality is one strand of a very complex system that has been at play for years.

What can we do to help?

I am sure that there are many others who became educators or EPs because they believed that education can be a powerful vehicle for social change. I recall feeling out of my depth opening discussions as a working-class, BAME person on my Doctorate course. We can feel powerless to change hundreds of years of history; however, we can surely start by having conversations with our BAME colleagues. This is particularly important for people in positions of power within their organisations.

We can share the outrage of our Black colleagues, acknowledging their pain that another person that resembles them or their family member has been needlessly killed. We can all stand for equality, whether we share the struggles of others or not. Schools are charged with many duties over and above helping children to learn the curriculum. By talking about injustices, we can then have more open discussions to continue the work of Jane Elliott and many before, and after her.

Many EPs will, like me, have the Bronfenbrenner framework in their mind when generating psychological formulations. These frameworks can be our tools for taking steps on a micro-level to promote social justice and equality. We need to model the behaviour we ask of our children; not to be a bystander. Many of you already take this approach, and I hope you feel emboldened to use your platform to share, to reach out and speak out on this issue.

We could use some of our Continuing Professional Development (CPD) time to increase our own awareness on the prejudices that others experience. These small steps might just help our Black colleagues and families feel ‘held in mind’ at a confusing and upsetting time. Supporting the return to a ‘new normal’ means challenging aspects that were not fit for purpose.

Like many issues in psychology there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach, and like many issues in history, there is no room for silence. As EPs we pride ourselves in conveying the voice of the child, analysing how behaviour is communication. May we long continue to amplify what Dr Martin Luther King described as ‘the language of the unheard’.

20 Comments so far:

  1. Oonagh Davies says:

    Thanks for posting this Abigail- I think you’re so right and I will as you say “feel emboldened to use your platform to share, to reach out and speak out on this issue” and will think about how I can best support those around me. More posts please!

    • Jenine Benning says:

      Great read, as a mother and black person there is no room for silence. We need to all work together to shrink the gap so all children have a fair chance at succeeding. Thank you for this article

    • John Doyle says:

      Well said

  2. Rif Malik says:

    Thank you for this very apt and timely post. As an Educational Psychologist it has served to reaffirm my commitment to champion inclusion and address systemic and societal injustice.

  3. Severine Thompson says:

    Yes – thank you Abigail. I think the race riots is most definately an issue for educators as the children and young people we are suppose to support can see what’s going on around them and I wonder what are they learning if I stand by silent?
    Jane Elliot’s study put a spotlight on ‘aversive racism’ in my view. This is something we will have seen or experienced in action. I feel we need to challenge by being curious at the very least or we run the risk of colluding. I worry about the ‘silence ‘ you mention in relation to what I think is a fear around having an open conversation in the workplace about systemic racism. Why do we ‘fear’ this?
    The needs of the child or young person is paramount in the work we do as EPs and hence, ‘actively’ listening to their voice and helping others to do the same is one step in equality and being anti-oppressive for all children.

  4. Bekki R says:

    I loved this particularly “We can all stand for equality, whether we share the struggles of others or not.”

  5. Hilary Hartley says:

    Thank you Abigail. This is close to my heart too and something in which we all have a huge role to play as you have said. I hope that we can help future generations to break the silence and make our world one where everyone is appreciated and valued. I look forward to reading more posts. Thanks again.

  6. Fiona says:

    Powerful Abigail, Absolutely heartfelt whilst reading & as a mother myself, I completely understand wholeheartedly.

    Hanging onto “Hope” for “Positive” changes in the systems and wider society.

    Our children are the next generation of us all.

    Thank you for taking the time, to write this

  7. Michele says:

    Excellent article thank you, it is time for psychology to have honest reflections about race.

    Thank you

  8. Marie Mascarenhas says:

    Thank you Abergail for our exquisite thought provoking piece. I found my self examing my own ethnic prejudices, of not only the indian caste system , but racism at large.
    I think, each of us has to take responsibility for the collective consciousness of the planet. It starts with irridicating any form of prejudice from our own minds first, and see the formless love we all are beyond form.
    I hope the new normal will be , in the words of the late Caroline Flack ” In a world where we can be anything let’s be kind. ”
    Let’s teach our children kindness, not only in our homes , but in our schools specially to people that can be unkind.

  9. Sanchia De'Cage says:

    Thank you for writing this Abigail.

    This is a much needed discussion that is often muted, diluted, or dismissed.

    As a black woman/EP I share similar experiences to the ones you discussed when I was also trainee, when I was also witness to micro-aggressions against BAME people. It can be ‘uncomfortable’ to navigate, but it is a necessary discomfort to move toward more open communications and exchanges of experiences. A start is by having difficult discussions and ensuring that where professionals are from different backgrounds, that there is an openness to CPD, to conversation with peers, to learning through the plethora of resources widely available. It is important to recognise one’s own biases and to question those heard in all walks of life. Society has taken steps forward, but there is still a long way to go in our roles (as EPs and community members) to promote social justice…

    [Podcasts to subscribe to:]
    1619 (New York Times)
    About Race
    Code Switch (NPR)
    Intersectionality Matters! hosted by Kimberlé Crenshaw
    Momentum: A Race Forward Podcast
    Pod For The Cause (from The Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights)
    Pod Save the People (Crooked Media)
    Seeing White

    [Books to read:]
    Black Feminist Thought by Patricia Hill Collins
    Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Dr. Brittney Cooper
    Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon
    How To Be An Antiracist by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi
    I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
    Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
    Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad
    Raising Our Hands by Jenna Arnold
    Redefining Realness by Janet Mock
    Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde
    So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
    The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
    The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
    The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
    by Michelle Alexander
    The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century
    by Grace Lee Boggs
    The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
    Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
    This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color by Cherríe Moraga
    When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America by Ira Katznelson
    White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo, PhD

    [Films and TV series to watch:]
    13th (Ava DuVernay) — Netflix
    American Son (Kenny Leon) — Netflix
    Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975 — Available to rent
    Blindspotting (Carlos López Estrada) — Hulu with Cinemax or available to rent
    Clemency (Chinonye Chukwu) — Available to rent
    Dear White People (Justin Simien) — Netflix
    Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler) — Available to rent
    I Am Not Your Negro (James Baldwin doc) — Available to rent or on Kanopy
    If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins) — Hulu
    Just Mercy (Destin Daniel Cretton) — Available to rent for free in June in the U.S.
    King In The Wilderness — HBO
    See You Yesterday (Stefon Bristol) — Netflix
    Selma (Ava DuVernay) — Available to rent
    The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution — Available to rent
    The Hate U Give (George Tillman Jr.) — Hulu with Cinemax
    When They See Us (Ava DuVernay) — Netflix

    • Dan O'Hare says:

      Thanks for sharing these resources Sanchia – really appreciate it,



    • selina Taylor says:

      Hi Sanchia, it is all too easy to easy to bury your head in the sand because it is not easy or comfortable to have open conversations and deal with situations that can spark conflict but if we want real change we must! Thank you so much for your post, I look forward to exploring the many resources you have recommended. Selina

  10. Linda Delmar says:

    Thanks for writing this Abigail. Resonated so much with me and my thoughts about the issues that have been ongoing for so many; too many years. In particular your reference to how tired you feel thinking about the issues around ‘race’ and the impact of racism. Me too. Had been feeling again overwhelmed by the complexities involved and your article has helped me to galvanise some energy to go again to engage as much as I can with the issues in both my personal life as a working class mum and grandmother of mixed heritage children and in my professional life as a PEP working in my culturally and ethnically diverse hometown of Luton . Had been thinking that we are possibly expecting and calling for a top down response in order to make the difference and although this is indeed necessary, your article made me recognise that we can and will make a difference by looking first at ourselves and our families and friends and our colleagues and co-workers and at our organisations to do what we can to raise awareness, to recognise and see the issues and to challenge racism in all its forms. Thanks again.

    Thanks too to Sanchia for your comments and for sharing these resources.

  11. Sheila Fannon says:

    Great and very welcome article. We need to have discussions as to what we as EPs can do to look at ourselves, our profession and how we can support schools

  12. Norma Julius says:

    Thanks for your article Abigail. A welcomed reminder that as Educational Psychologists we have a significant role to play, in affecting change for the benefit of our community and society as a whole..

  13. Dr Julie Chase says:

    We need to join together and take action but not send sisters and brothers out to die of Coronavirus or bring it back to their families and communities. We can do this powerfully AND safely but we need to work creatively together in action groups. Join Stand Up to Racism and get involved in the fight locally and nationally! #Black Lives Matter!

  14. Anne Mulkeen Murray says:

    Thank you for posting this. It reminded me of some ( mild but upsetting) issues I had within the profession as a non-British white person and other very upsetting incidence of direct racism from schools/parents towards colleagues. I am retired now and in recovery.

    A massive problem for me was that Educational Psychology is a profession that through its membership implicitly represents an idea of the”norm” in terms of most aspects of being human, although most EPs would probably assert that it the opposite. But look around you.

    Perhaps my experience is not representative, but I observed that there was lip service to inclusion while enabling the exclusion of children and young people from settings “that cannot meet their needs”. Under current systems of funding and governance schools will never be able to meet the needs of all the children who don’t meet their expectations of what their pupils/students should look like, how they should behave and what they can achieve.

    Using Bronfenbrenner’s model What macro or other systemic changes would you suggest, within EP profession and education, to reduce bias and outright prejudice and redress the balance and promote equality of treatment and achievement? TBH I cannot believe this is still an issue.

    In my new life I write drama and comedy scripts now for radio, film and television. I am working on ideas related to inclusion based on my experience as an EP. If anyone would like to get in touch to find out more or collaborate I would be happy to respond.

  15. Rob Kempson says:

    Fantastic article thank you so much.

  16. […] battle lines. Division and despair scream from the screen. Our past and present are unravelling in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and a persistent […]

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