Empowering ourselves to create an anti-racist curriculum: picking off the obstacles one book and one conversation at a time

Thank you to Kate Smee, Head of Humanities at Fairfield School in Bristol for this blogpost. Kate encourages us to keep on thinking and planning and doing what we need to do to teach better history, despite Covid-19. Her twitter handle is on the end of her blogpost. 

I am going to start by saying this is not a blog with a definitive road map, and I am not an expert with all the answers. However, it is an account of what one department is trying to achieve and how we have gone about it. For readers this will probably throw up at least as many questions as answers, and feel free to send these my way.

In our school we were confident we had a multi-cultural curriculum that celebrated and resonated with our diverse community. Last summer we looked at how this could evolve to become an anti-racist curriculum – one that addresses British racist tropes and exposes the nonsense behind them through our study of history. The two themes we identified to focus on for now were to teach that racism was and is a constructed set of ideas built with no basis in science for economic and political gain,  and to explicitly dismantle an association between being British and being white. We had an advantage that our curriculum implicitly addressed these already, and so a lot of this evolution was about being more explicit rather than wholesale changes.

Nevertheless, in our department, as in many, there were a lot of nerves. These were the fears:

  1. Lack of subject knowledge. We did not know much about the history of racialisation and racism
  2. We were worried about ‘getting it wrong’. We are all white teachers teaching many students who may identify as POC or BAME. We were anxious about standing up as an expert on racism, about raising a subject that would inevitably draw a strong emotional response from members of our class. This exacerbated concerns about our subject knowledge.
  3. We were worried about the politicisation of this subject over the last few months.

So, how to embark?

Worry one: lack of knowledge.

The answer is surely the same for this as any other area of history. Get some books, read them. Listen to some podcasts. As history teachers we do this all the time.

Worrying about getting it wrong:

There are several things to help here. Firstly and most importantly we had a department where people felt able to say they felt nervous about it, enabling me to support them. This has to be the bedrock position. Secondly, we need to reflect on what we will and what we won’t be the expert in the room on. We will probably be the expert in the room on the history stuff, as is normal. We (and here I refer specifically my own department) will not be the experts in the room on the lived experience of racism today. We can accept that, and therefore be comfortable accepting student expertise. The same is true for many subjects. I am not Muslim so I don’t expect to be the expert in the room on the lived experience of Islamophobia today when I teach about the Crusades, I do welcome contributions on this from my Muslim students.

Secondly on this theme, I would encourage departments to actively build confidence. As a leader, be prepared to teach such lessons first with the more apprehensive members of the team in the room to observe students’ reaction and offer you feedback. Modelling humility and good practice is a very powerful tool.

Thirdly, we are the curators of our communities’ shared canon of historical knowledge, and this is a weighty responsibility. Whatever the ethnic profile of your school, ensuring that we do not teach an association between being white and being British, for example, is our responsibility. It is our job. So however we choose to remove that barrier of lack of confidence, it is our job to do so. So find a way.

Worrying about politicisation:

There is no way I can put this better than @nickdennis in his recent blog: http://www.nickdennis.com/blog/ I would encourage people to read the whole thing, this is the quote that has really stuck with me:

“I’m not sure how I can say this more bluntly: racism is illegal… The Equality Act 2010 bans direct and indirect ‘race’ discrimination. Governing bodies are responsible for ensuring the legislation is adhered to. Moreover, schools are bound in safeguarding terms and in the teaching of ‘British Values’ to ensure that all students under their care respect the laws of the land and are allowed to flourish. Being anti-racist within these frameworks is not an illegal activity.”

So, how to go about this?

We took the approach of integrating anti-racist material within our existing multicultural curriculum. This was because we approach Black history from the perspective that it is all our history and is part of the normal diet of history we teach. In some places we made the implicit explicit, for example in our year 7 unit on Migration when we talk about the percentage of skeletons of African ethnicity within Roman cemeteries (41%, 51% in high status cemeteries), we are able to ask ‘hmmm – so what does that tell us about the Black presence in Britain at that time?’ to counter the racist trope that Black presence in Britain is a post war thing. There were several places throughout our curriculum where this was possible.

Secondly, we looked for places where what we taught could potentially feed racist tropes. In our GCSE America 1920-1973 unit the Black history could feed a victim narrative of African Americans. We sought to change that narrative by, for example adding in lessons about the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and adding considerably more depth to the civil rights lessons. Furthermore, we sought to be mindful of the risk that multi-cultural (rather than explicitly anti-racist) curriculum areas perpetuate “othering” or “exoticisation” of various groups.

Thirdly we sought to explicitly teach that racialisation was a construct, imposed for economic and political gain. We teach this broken into several parts through our migration unit; our unit on trans-Atlantic slavery, and plan to again within our post war Britain unit. This has involved a lot of reading, thinking and asking for advice.

So, in some ways building an anti-racist curriculum is like any other developmental project a department might take on, in some ways it is not. But for all of the obstacles our skills as history teachers and leaders enables us to remove those barriers. And like any other project, there will inevitably be bits that go better than others. That’s ok, how often in teaching do we remind ourselves not to let pursuit of the perfect get in the way of doing something good? A hefty dash of humility is so often the key to doing great things.


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