Expert Opinion

White Lies About Race and Education

On Wednesday 19 October, Leeds Beckett University held its fifth Annual Race Lecture as David Gillborn, Professor of Critical Race Studies and Director of the Centre for Research in Race and Education (CRRE) at the University of Birmingham, presented his talk: 'White lies: things we're told about race and education that aren't true.' In this blog post, Professor Kevin Hylton, Chair of Leeds Beckett's Race Equality and Diversity Forum, and Professor Jonathan Long, share their thoughts on the topics raised.

Published on 27 Oct 2016

Since its inception in 2012 the Leeds Beckett Race Lecture has become an established part of the academic calendar. Previous speakers have included the Rt Hon. Baroness Glenyss Thornton MP, Joan Saddler (NHS), Rodney Hinds (The Voice Newspaper), Joan O’Mahony (HEA), Piara Powar (FARE), Kadija George and Dumi Senda (Poets). Each has spoken about their work in relation to ‘race’ and education and offered inspirational and challenging insights. This year we had the pleasure of welcoming critical race scholar Professor David Gillborn, Director of the Centre for Research into Race and Education at the University of Birmingham. David Gillborn’s keynote was extremely well received as he examined the issue of White Lies: Things we’re told about race and education that aren’t true.

It was a delight to hear an academic happy to speak his mind in public and say it as it is, not mincing his words. He carefully analysed what in polite government-speak is referred to as ‘dissembling’, the selective misrepresentation of statistics. These misrepresentations he referred to as White lies; Not white lies as referred to benign untruths but white lies in the sense that they represent the interests of White people. They are used to shape the agenda for education policy. He was careful to point out that Whiteness is not individuals, but a system, an ideology. But of course, individuals subscribe to ideologies and as David Gillborn so tellingly showed, some of them manage to get their White lies (call them views if you will) onto the front pages of the (mainly tabloid) press.

David Gillborn is particularly interested in the way data have been misused to reveal the unfairness represented by young ‘working class’ males’ low levels of achievement at school. By using publicly available large scale data sets (commonly the same ones as used by scaremongers) he was able to present a very different picture from the populist one constructed by a very partial use of statistics about attitudes to immigrants and educational performance. It seemed logical to reflect that while the poor performance by black youngsters in education in the past was taken by some to prove that black people had lower intelligence, the supposed poor performance by white males now is taken as an indication that they are let down by the educational system.

David Gillborn was also anxious to dispel the White lie (call it a fiction if it makes you feel more comfortable) that Critical Race Theorists exaggerate the significance of race and racism (for example hate crimes against Muslims increased by 200% in 2015 before the crescendo of Brexit) and that equality campaigners cause racism. He drew our attention to the ‘I too am Harvard’ campaign in which students and staff from minoritised ethnic groups post photographs on social media of themselves holding placards with rejoinders to those who insist disadvantage is the victim’s fault. For example, one woman asks, ‘So I can’t talk about race because it makes you feel uncomfortable??’

In response to questions David Gillborn gave the unequivocal reminder that ‘we all have the responsibility to speak out against these lies’ and not to be overwhelmed by global challenges but to ‘struggle where we are’.

This kind of work is particularly relevant to Leeds Beckett currently as it moves toward establishing a clear focus on its work around race equality. Leeds Beckett University aims to achieve the Equality Challenge Unit’s Race Equality Charter Mark and was able to demonstrate this commitment through the evening’s host and Chair of the Race Equality and Diversity Forum, Professor Kevin Hylton, being accompanied by DVC and Senior Race Champion, Professor Phil Cardew.

Professor Gillborn’s keynote presentation and slides will be made available shortly on the Leeds Beckett website.

More from the blog

By Professor Dorothy Monekosso
09 Nov 2018
By Professor Jonathan Glazzard
06 Jul 2018
By Dr Catherine Coates
04 Jul 2018
All blogs