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Towards an anti-racist curriculum: Step 2. “Usualise diversity”


My last post on this topic was Step 1. Reading. This wasn’t necessarily meant as the start of a series, but I’m going to continue taking steps along the path, when I feel ready to do so. It’s time for Step 2.

Towards an anti-racist curriculum: Step 1. Reading

Ever since the wave of discussions about racism that flowed from the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in June and July, I’ve been thinking a lot about what an ‘anti-racist’ curriculum would look like in schools. It’s a huge, important, complex area – one you don’t want to get wrong – so, I’m writing this with … Continue reading

Since posting Step 1, the debate regarding responses to the BLM protests has continued. There’s been a lot of activity and exchanges of views and I think it’s important to recognise that there is spectrum of opinion. Whether you agree with any one viewpoint or not, this forms a backdrop against which school leaders have to adopt a position that is supposed to be both principled and politically neutral (if that’s ever possible!). Where some people appear confident in their views around the concepts of white privilege, whiteness, race essentialism, critical race theory, structural racism, decolonisation – I think it’s fair to say that framing the debate and strategy around anti-racism in these terms is not typical within most schools. There’s still a lot of baseline learning and consensus-building to be done amongst adults – especially where personal perspectives and experiences of racism are so profound and so varied. On that basis, whilst engaging students in all-important discussions about racism and how to eradicate it, it’s premature and probably inappropriate for schools to launch initiatives that require teachers to deliver an anti-racist curriculum formulated through these concepts if they’re not equipped to do so, ready to deal with challenges from within their community. The risk of alienating the very people you seek to educate and include is high if you get this wrong.

At the same time, the imperative to take an anti-racist stance in schools burns as fiercely as ever. As far as I’m concerned, the complexities of the CRT/BLM debate cannot be allowed to side-track or inhibit people. Nick Dennis (@nickdennis) wrote an excellent blog on the legal aspect of this. He reminds people: “Racism exists and being anti-racist is enshrined in law”…” There is no need for ‘balanced’ views on this or to be impartial, because it is not politically partisan, it is the law.” 

Taking an anti-racist position as a school isn’t some kind of ‘woke’ or ultra-liberal-left ‘take’; you’re not either a race essentialist or preaching Marxist critical race theory to feel strongly that your curriculum should be packed with strong anti-racist substance. It’s about protecting people’s rights in law, taking a stand in face of de facto prejudice and structural inequalities in society – even if some BAME people don’t experience or interpret things the same way others do. An anti-racist stance is about celebrating and protecting our basic timeless shared humanity; our responsibility to treat all people equally and to recognise everyone’s place and contribution to our history, culture and society. Leaders and teachers should go forward actively promoting an anti-racist position with pride, confidence and a certain determination and resolve. The big remaining question is – how?

Thankfully, there are people working in this area who have been able to express ideas that have cut through the noise. It’s not controversial to assert the simple idea that every student should be able to feel that the school curriculum is their school curriculum; one they are part of as much as anyone else is; to see themselves represented and valued within it. For me, one of the most useful and powerful ideas I’ve encountered in delivering this is:

Usualising diversity

I first heard this expressed by Bennie Kara (@benniekara) during her Curriculum Masterclass, an event I ran with Mary Myatt and John Tomsett. Subsequently she has published a superb book, Diversity In Schools, linked here:

Crediting Sue Sanders, founder of Schools Out, Bennie explains how usualising diversity has significant power in relation to all forms of diversity issues. For example, she implores teachers not to create ‘shrines to gay people’ in the corners of their classrooms but rather to ensure LGBTQ+ people are represented alongside others; integrated; ever-present. The same applies to the Black Scientists posters… This attempt at promoting diversity can actually just reinforce the othering effect. Diversity isn’t something you stick a label on and make room for on special occasions: here comes a dose of diversity…. now, back to normal. No. Instead, you usualise it. It’s always there, woven into the fabric. In so-doing, we educate children about people who are different to them; we tackle ignorance, break down barriers and prejudices. The gallery of ordinary people, families, characters, rulers, authors, scientists, politicians, heroes and villains, artists and professors that children encounter consists of a diverse array of people representing different ethnicities, genders, LGBTQ identities. Embedded, everyday, usual.

This chimes with the numerous voices who, during the most recent Black History Month, promoted the idea of #BHM365. Why would we need a Black History Month if we have integrated black history into the curriculum, all year round? Black history is British history; human history; part of everyone’s history, not something sitting to the side. If we’re getting it right, why does it need a special month?

In essence, that is what schools should be aiming for: a curriculum where diversity is usualised; embedded; integrated; constant. How is this to be done? Bennie Kara expressed this brilliantly in her masterclass under the heading ‘Ways into the curriculum’. Her list included:

  • Expand the world: tell stories from beyond students’ experience: other countries; other faiths; other cultures/
  • Parallel stories: show how multiple stories happened side by side – for example soldiers from different nations fighting in WW1 and WW2; the experience and perspectives of indigenous people on the receiving end of colonial conquests on every continent.
  • Migration: tell the story of migration to Britain throughout the ages; link it to wider human story of migration from our African origins; highlight the many avenues that have led to people being black and British – much as David Olusoga describes in his epic recent book. Every British citizen is as British as any other – and our collective stories add up to our identity as a nation. This is true for all of us, regardless of our own personal ancestry.
  • Linguistic and cultural connections: show how our language, number system and numerous aspects of modern culture connect to other cultures.
  • Countering dominant narratives: In her book she talks about avoiding victim narratives but, instead, making sure that people and their histories are represented in the round. Black history cannot be restricted to slavery and civil rights narratives, important as they are.

From the teachers’ side, this requires careful evaluation, research, curation, planning, cultivation. It’s deliberate and purposeful; designed. However, from the students’ side, this just becomes the one coherent curriculum they encounter in that school. Diverse people, narratives, cultures, histories, perspectives are embedded in their curriculum; they become part of what they understand to be a British curriculum. It’s just how things are. Usualised.

I love this idea. It helps to give direction to teachers and leaders putting these ideas into practice. Some will feel pressure to add ever more to a crowded curriculum. However, listening to a range of speakers recently – Bennie Kara, Mary Myatt, Christine Counsell – I’m convinced by the argument that ‘adding more’ is the wrong way to think of it. It’s more a case of ‘weaving together’. If you read different texts and explore histories and cultures in parallel, side by side, you lay out a diversity-rich landscape where each reference point may only need a brief encounter to make a significant impact to the overall perspective – that Britain is a diverse nation, with diverse roots, diverse heritage, diverse cultural elements making us who we all are together. Weaving narratives together is time efficient – so we’re not always robbing Peter to pay Paul, making unholy trade-offs. But it also does the job of ‘usualising’ – because the stories belong together on an equal footing not as a token here and a token there.

Of course, ultimately, it all comes down to details. Which texts? Which historical narratives? Which people to provide the all-important diversity of representation and perspective? To get started, text selection for English is a good place to look. In truth the choice is massive – and will take time for teachers to read, evaluate and then select and embed these texts into their curriculum. I asked some of my curriculum thinking partners for some suggestions (thanks Bennie, Sonia, Mary, John T and colleagues, Julian…) Here’s what they came up with:

Artichoke Hearts by Sita Brahmachuri 
Race to the Frozen North: Catherine Johnson- The forgotten story of Matthew Henson (First (Black)Man to reach the North Pole.

Voices Series: 
Son of the Circus. A Victorian Story by E. L. Norry
Empire’s End. A Roman Story by Leila Rasheed.

Ellie and the Cat (Malorie Blackman)          
Sam Wu series (Kevin and Katie Tsang)
Blackberry Blue (Jamaica Gavin) –
‘The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq’ by Jeanette Winter 

Blackberry Blue and Other Fairy Tales by Jamila Gavin  though probably for Y7 max!
Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys 
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi 
Undefeated: Kwame Alexander – Black American History (very powerful)

Voices Series:
Windrush Child – Benjamin Zephaniah 
Diver’s Daughter. A Tudor Story – Patrice Lawrance
Now or Never. A Dunkirk Story – Bali Rai 

’Straight Outta Crongton’ by Alex Wheatley 
‘But Where Are You Really From?: On Identity, Humanhood and Hope Amanda Khozi Mukwashi.
‘The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King 

Surge by Jay Bernard
The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M Danforth
Their Eyes were watching God by Zora Neale Hurston 
Zadie Smith’s Grand Union Stories.
Bernardine Evaristo’s books like ‘Mr Loverman’ and ‘The Emperor’s Babe’, and of course her Booker winner ‘Girl, Woman, Other’.

There is also this superb list from The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education CLPE Black History Book List Download – shared by Sonia Thompson.

Mary Myatt shared this superb link to a range of bookshops with excellent resources in this field/

Julian Girdham shared this: The (US) School Library Journal has good resources and lists :

There is also the BAMEEd list of books for children:

That’s just the English ball rolling…some of you will be a way down this path already. Of course we also need to look at exactly what we cover in history and how geography, science, art, music….. contribute meaningfully. I think some of this detail will be featured in Step 3. I will need to do more crowd-sourcing. There’s more to discuss about representation and usualising diversity in the round without falling into the trap of forcing in representation when it isn’t there. I call this the Solvay Conference problem… But that’s in Step 3.

(Thanks for all the support with this post from those who contributed ideas and/or gave it a once-over before publication.)

This content was originally published here.

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