How do white people do anti-racist work in the context of pervasive institutional whiteness across our educational institutions?
This is a thorny question. Any response will have a range of complex and challenging dimensions for educators working from a social justice ethos; educators like those of us in the Carnegie School of Education at Leeds Beckett.
It is a question linked to the current issues around unequal pay and status for Black staff in our educating professions and academia as one part of that It is a question also linked to how we can tackle the ‘attainment gap’ between students from Black and minority ethnic groups and white students.
It is a question which has been driving my work on whiteness for the last twenty years. From my research into governance and professional identities in the health services; through work undertaken in the learning and skills sector as part of the research team who first coined the term ‘institutional whiteness’ to describe that sector; to some of my most recent writing on white identity in my family story and the story of the city of Birmingham where I grew up.
It is a question which is raised by engagement with the journalist and blogger Reni Eddo-Lodge in her now famous blog post on ‘Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race’ and expanded on in her award winning book of the same title and in public conversations over the globe. Even actress come activist Emma Watson has been moved to mull these issues over
In my own work I use this idea of racial formation to refer to whiteness as a set of material practices (Such as the distribution of economic resources, the legal definitions of who constitutes a citizen through immigration policy, constitutionally established rights to property and land ownership), sociocultural practices (like ways of dressing, speaking, hair styling) and emotional investments at the level of individual identities.
What this idea of racial formation helps us to understand is the mechanisms which make race as a social construction, rather than something that has biological reality. It helps us to understand how these ideas, practices and identity convictions around whiteness shape institutional life as hostile and unequal for Black and minority ethnic people. It also helps us to understand how skin colour takes on social meaning through social ideas, actions our emotional investments in these meanings and actions. Finally it helps us to understand how white people play an active part in establishing racial formation even when they do not directly discriminate against Black and minority ethnic people. White people like me, Shona, support the racial formation by behaving as we expect white people to, white people are socialised into behaving in a way which is understood to be white, so the way to challenge the racial status quo is by behaving in ways which disrupt this. Whiteness must be made visible to those ‘in it’ in order for it to be challenged. And this is part of the challenge for educators interested in social justice, to make whiteness a visible set of social, material and affective relations in order that it can be challenged.
This question around the role of white people in antiracist work is a question which underpins my contribution to the November 2018 panel PerformingRace2018 at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama which I was part of along with colleagues Christine Checinska, Michael McMillan, Kehinde Andrews, Karamat Iqbal
Curated by Jo Shah.
For Jo Shah speaking in the US based publication Broadway World
About her motivations for curating the event
My journey in to academia and subsequently this event is motivated by my own diasporic journey of negotiating a British identity against a landscape of melanin and Empire. Tonight, Performing Race was about bringing together the counter narratives that consider the nuances of race.
This sort of counter narrative is a way of thinking about my work on whiteness which shows the ways in which white people struggle through the desire for whiteness: what WEB Du Bois writing in his 1920 essay ‘The Souls of White Folk’ frames as the desire for “ the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!”
We will be continuing the conversation starting in PerformingRace2018 in Leeds in May 2019 as part of the collaborative work between the WhiteSpaces Project the Social Performance Network.
Take this post as an open invitation to anyone interested in learning about and doing anti-racist work to come along and join in with us in developing resistant counter narratives to the ones experienced by Black and minority ethnic people working and learning in our educational spaces.
We are a School that is seeking to redefine the education and professional development of the children and young people’s workforce. We offer distinctive and creative programmes that are responsive to the changes taking place in society, focusing on the diverse skills required of modern professionals.
Shona is a Reader in the Carnegie School of Education. She is the Programme Director for Research Degrees (PhD, MRes, EdD) in the School and is a member of the Centre for Race Education and Decoloniality.