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’.