Thursday 26 November 2009

The myth of racist kids?

Brighton Salon, Tuesday 17 November 2009

Adrian Hart has not had an easy ride from the media over the controversial conclusions he published in his report, The Myth of Racist Kids, which criticises the official anti-racist policy in schools in today’s multicultural Britain. This will have helped to prepare him for the grilling he received from people who worked with black, minority and ethnic (BME) young people in Brighton at November’s Salon.

Vanessa, Althea, Monique and Lara attended the Salon in their personal capacities but they all shared connections with a Brighton support group, Mosaic, and they had a range of experience in local schools in various capacities. They also shared strong objections to Adrian’s conclusions and this encouraged a cracking discussion of the issues and experiences of racism today.

A summary of Adrian’s presentation

Adrian argued that the pressure on schools, particularly primary schools, to provide racist incident reports on all kinds of playground incidents among school children was at odds with the social reality of multi-cultural Britain today. For 12 years as a film-maker delivering educational resources on anti-racism for various local education authorities, and as an anti-racist campaigner for a long time before that, he saw a shift in both the nature of racism and in the impact of government responses to the problem. Adrian saw a big difference between his own experiences of racism, particularly from teachers, and some pupils while he was at school in the 1970s and those of children today. Today the climate is far less racist and children have new opportunities to transcend race. Children are ‘instinctively colour-blind’.

He had been prompted to research and write his report after working on a film with an anti-racism awareness drama group at schools in Essex in 2006. He described this as his ‘wake-up moment’ where he realised the pressure on schools to provide reports of racist incidents led to the misinterpretation of ordinary childhood exchanges. Indeed, if schools failed to provide enough incident reports, they risked being accused of condoning racism regardless of the actual situation in their own classrooms and playground.

Adrian stressed that he was not coming from the ‘political correctness gone mad’ camp and nor was he claiming that there was no longer racism in Britain; he believed that official anti-racist policy was out of step with the realities of racism and the relative success of multi-culturalism and its positive experience of Britain’s growing diversity. Reactions to his report had been uniformly accusatory from commentators such as Chris Keats of NASUWT (a teaching union), former MP Oona King and George Galloway. ‘Nice to see those two can agree on something,’ he said. Commentators had often supported the use of incident reporting as a mechanism for ‘nipping racism in the bud’. He showed a clip from More4 News that cited about 3,000 violent racist incidents in schools that gave the impression that racist children were prevalent.

There were certainly cases of violent, sustained and conscious racist bullying in schools, but these were still rare and all the more shocking and newsworthy because they were rare. The juggernaut of statistics supported what he called the myth of racist kids and imposed an understanding of children and their development that properly belonged in the adult world, rather then the playground. Child development and the importance of unsupervised association between children to this was being undermined. The reporting culture also underestimated how resilient children can be. Examples of incident reports he had seen included eight to eleven-year-olds calling each other ‘white trash’ or ‘milky bar’. A mixed heritage child of the same age generated a report after he called a white child ‘Paki’.

During the course of visiting schools in Essex, Adrian found himself in many really good schools where there were many children from visible minorities and the staff had a good way of dealing with them. ‘The children demonstrated a model of multi-cultural and ethnic harmony that could teach adults a thing or two.’ When prompted to talk about race in drama workshops, young children had shown they instinctively questioned the very concept of race. The film he made, Only Human, had celebrated human commonality more than difference as a result, which was at odds with the assumptions of top-down official anti-racist policy.

The ability of teachers to intervene in what incidents occurred was undermined as was the trust that should be placed in them. Furthermore, official anti-racist policy imposed a miserable, deficit model on children that affected parents, teachers and all of us, just as progress was being made at the grass-roots level. According to research by Essex University, almost 20% of children under 16 were from a minority and 10% live in mixed heritage families. ‘In London, almost 50% of under-fives were a mixture of white, black or Asian - 50%!’ And while the people were slowly mixing, young people themselves were mixing cultures and ideas all the time.

Adrian said that official anti-racism policy concentrated on an outdated view of a prevalent racism just as racism was reducing and ‘race’ was going out of fashion.
‘We have something amazing taking place with the under-10s in this country today,’ he said. The opportunity for a truly multi-cultural society was like a balloon that was ready to take off into the sky. ‘We have to throw a lot of official anti-racist policy out of the basket.’

The discussion

Steve was concerned that a premature awareness of adult themes in racism would interfere with young children’s untrammelled play and distort their development. ‘What would they do with this awareness?’ he asked. Brendan said teachers were under pressure from the centralised data-collecting culture that had followed the McPherson Report. How could they be encouraged to fight back against it? He felt the emphasis on black role models for black kids and insistence on black mentors for black pupils was unnecessary. ‘I didn’t have a black mentor,’ he said. Dan Travis saw an erosion of adult authority over children, particularly at primary level, that government intervention in diets, bullying and many other things had made worse. Once teachers and parents’ authority is undermined it continues to decline. ‘It has no off button,’ he said.

Vanessa said: ‘I’m proud to be an anti-racist campaigner and if that makes me miserable, then I’m miserable.’ She had a very different daily experience of racism from the one Adrian described. Sneaky, sly comments put young people down and knocked their confidence in their identity and it was really important not to see racism today through rose-tinted glasses. ‘I have young people telling me their stories all the time and about what happens to them.’ Teachers were largely unaware of the problem and most incidents go unreported. Evidence of what is happening is needed when a variety of systems and forces drive racist attitudes. Not all of what young people say is racist and there was much that should not be mistaken for racism. ‘A lot of teachers are completely clueless about what racism is and what it isn’t,’ she said. People do not feel as comfortable talking about racism as they feel talking about other problems. BME young people can be very resilient but are also vulnerable; some have power and some do not.

Adrian responded to Steve’s point first saying that the drama workshops he observed did confuse children and made the situation worse. The relationships and bonds formed in the emotionally messy playgrounds were, he felt, affected by the definition of racist incidents as any incident that is perceived by anyone to be racist. This definition might have been novel and even useful when it was originally created by ACPO (Association of Chief Police Officers) because it meant police started to take allegations of racism more seriously than they had. ‘This model of racism got carried over in the Race Relations Amendment Act and was then formalised and crossed into the world of children.’ Adrian said this imposed adult notions of racism straight onto school playgrounds. He said that teachers intervened in these situations where they saw them and told children to stop what they were doing. Teachers he saw had a good record of intervening when children were nasty to each other, so we should step away, stop racialising children’s behaviour and trust schools more to know when and if to intervene.

On Vanessa’s points about work with children, Adrian said that they could swap anecdotes but he felt there was a culture of victimhood growing in schools. When he and his film crew set up a video box at one Essex school about bullying in general, almost the whole school queued up and were recorded. Most talked about very trivial incidents such as citing someone not being someone’s friend any more. Where one child had been racially teased he described it as ‘just sticks and stones’.

Some children were far more vulnerable than others and children can be cruel to each other. One child, who was different and had learning difficulties, was followed about every day by a whole gang of other kids chanting ‘adoption bitch’ at him. The school took effective steps to stop this, Adrian said. The government official anti-racism addressed negative images of BME children in ways which were not all positive. The relative rarity these days of racist violence was what makes it more shocking. Official anti-racism sent people into schools to encourage young BME children to be proud of their skin colour. ‘When white Essex children start claiming to be proud of their skin colour too, you can see how badly thought through this policy is.’

Althea completely agreed that young people were not inherently racist, but did not agree that child development should be completely unfettered. If a child called a disabled child a ‘spaz’ then one would put a stop to it straight away. It might not be malicious but certainly it had to be nipped in the bud. Althea was born here in Britain but had not grown up here. Where she was brought up she was not in a minority and, when she returned after 20 years, she thought ‘what is wrong with all these black people?’ After she had experienced the workplace and doing her masters degree here, she started to understand how her own confidence was being eroded and slowly undermined in ways that meant she did not at first realise what was happening. Her children experienced racism in lots of little things. Children were cruel about other things such as obesity and this problem was not just about race. ‘It seems that your career as an anti-racist campaigner and film-maker is coming to an end,’ she told Adrian.

While Adrian was probably right that the policy of reporting was not implemented in the best way, she said, it was still the best policy. The experience of BME young people should not be diminished. These experiences varied greatly in their social backgrounds and other differences. When she had first joined the Mosaic group she had been frustrated about what she could get out of it for her family because her experience was different from those of people who had grown up here. On trusting schools, in Althea said there was ‘not one issue one issue I would trust them on and that is nothing to do with being black.’ She could not trust them to push her children to their potentials and a lot of other parents did not have confidence in schools either.

Donald was the first to say he agreed both with what Adrian was saying and with what had been said by Vanessa and Althea. He felt that perhaps both sides were talking a little across each other. He had just finished a four-year stint as a secondary school governor and had been required to spend hours and hours discussing the reporting and policy documents. The reporting of homophobic incidents had been particularly taxing. The word ‘gay’ has several meanings in the secondary school environment. ‘It would have been the most homophobic school on the planet if we took all this stuff seriously.’ Donald said other interventions, such as proper recruitment policy, were shown to be far more effective in dealing with the real problems than a crude, statistics-based one.

Nick cited Newsweek reports of research that suggested that children were not instinctively colour-blind, picking up on things such as skin colour and other differences from a very early age. Perhaps ‘race is just one of those things that you pick up on when you see it’. If small children can pick up on race, it might be very problematic to just assume we should leave them alone. Christine asked Adrian why he had so much confidence in teachers when he had had such a bad time in school.

Adrian said that the 1970s were a very different time and there was a very different problem with school racism compared with today. Other pupils ‘picked on me because I was the nearest they had to a Pakistani boy’. Race then had a great social force that expressed itself more violently and was something to fear. Racist murders did not attract the column inches they do today. From the late 1980s top-down policies started to be implemented to fight prejudices. Campaigning in East London he had come on the receiving end of that force, but today it is not the force it was. What shocks today, such as the murder of Stephen Lawrence, was seen as normal by many people 20 years ago. Adrian agreed that one should not take what white children say at face value, but overreacting to name calling of black children is also a problem. Each case has to be taken in its specificity. Nick’s point that young children notice skin colour is true, but one cannot imagine that young children notice race. There was much research in that area that was very contested.

Ruth said that name-calling among six-year-olds might sound homophobic but at that age they cannot possibly be homosexuals. Monique said that, working with BME young people, she heard about racist incidents in school every day but the pupils would not open up about their experiences to their teachers, partly because they do not want to upset people. Some teachers do not want to hear that they have been bullied. Young BME people ‘want some acknowledgement of what is happening to them’. Young people want to be told about their cultures and their differences. ‘I wish the young people were here to talk about the incidents that they have. They would be upset that we should just tell them to get on with it.’ It needs to be acknowledged that it’s racism and there’s a long history of it.

Lara said there was a history of inequality in a racist society and that background had to be understood by people who were having racist names levelled at them. When they felt comfortable it was possible to get them to come out with things. Being in a minority in the first place made it unlikely that they would do so otherwise. ‘Racial incident forms are not perfect but they can send a message that racist incidents are not acceptable.’ Young people needed to know that they could take their experiences somewhere and help make it understood that racism was unacceptable.

I spoke then, reiterating Donald’s view that I agreed with much of the positions Vanessa, Althea, Monique and Lara had taken as well as agreeing with what Adrian said. The way my daughter had spoken to her black best friend might have been reported, when it could not possibly have been racist. ‘If you paint everything high-visibility yellow, the lollipop man doesn’t stand out and the point of most danger can be obscured.’

Kam made a related point more succinctly. He didn’t believe kids are prejudiced the way adults are. If everything they say is seen as a potential racist remark then we are not going to see prejudices while, at the same time, ‘everybody is basically a racist’. Steve said there were big, cognitive differences between very young children and those at secondary school. His daughter had been bullied at school and the school had dealt with it so badly that he had to move her to another school. ‘Very young kids haven’t got the same abilities to weigh up the facts.’ He gave the long list of ‘default cultures’ that were part of school interventions, such as eating, bullying and exercise, that were inappropriate until the children were older.  Francis said that part of the problem of racism is that it is seen as a disease when it’s an attitude, one we do not like, but nonetheless an attitude.

Adrian summed up

Adrian agreed with Francis but still felt that specificity was needed in relation to the question of attitudes and that children needed the freedom to be kids. Otherwise we would live ‘in a strange world where adults are considered to be children and children are considered to be miscreant adults.’ The question of child development and how it was affected by policy was very important. Adrian was reflecting his own experiences and, addressing Vanessa, Althea, Monique and Lara, said he would like to be able to observe what they had observed.

Official anti-racist policy reflected a simplistic and social engineering approach to tackling racism that could not work. Children were being confused by the interventions made by government through official anti-racist policy because it universalised awful experiences. Adult conceptions about race were taking over.
‘I feel that these policies are squandering a great opportunity for a rising generation,’ he said.

The Brighton Salon wishes to thank Adrian Hart for speaking, Dr Lucy Robinson for her sensitive chairing, all those who attended and The Brighthelm Centre for hosting the event. This is a personal report by Sean Bell, secretary of the Brighton Salon, and any mistakes, omissions or inaccuracies are entirely my responsibility. If you have any clarifications, alterations or corrections, please contact me at:

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