Race and Identity – a personal and painful journey

This blog is a personal account of my engagement with the issue of race and identity, both individually and in my role as the CEO of a small Multi-Academy Trust. I’ve hesitated for a long time before writing it – in fact it’s taken over a year to pluck up the courage to do it. That’s not because I think I’m going to say anything particularly radical or controversial, but because I’ve had to ask myself whether I have anything of value to contribute, and whether I should be amplifying my own voice in this debate

Watching the reports of the death of George Floyd in April 2020 shocked me profoundly. Obviously, I knew that a black man dying as a result of police action was not unheard of, but watching the banal brutality of a police officer squeezing the life from an unarmed man accused of a minor offence was shocking. This wasn’t a heated exchange, or a confrontation that escalated out of control – judging by the reactions, until Mr Floyd’s death, the way he was being treated was clearly something that everyone at the scene saw as unremarkable. From my perspective however, knowing that it happens and seeing it happen are very different things, and shook my complacent view that things were gradually getting better and we just needed to keep things moving forward in our society.

For a while, I did and said nothing, except watched the Black Lives Matter movement unfold, following the debates on news channels and social media. I privately lamented the fact that in the Trust that I lead, the representation of BAME people in leadership and governance teams is almost non-existent, and began to examine whether our policies and practices were making the situation better or worse, all the time not knowing what to do or say. I started to speak to people who did not share my reluctance to express a view, not least young people for whom the debate was a lot less complicated than I was making it. Gradually, I realised that there were no neutral observers in this dispute and I had to make a conscious effort to understand and respond.

Underneath all my academic interest and good intent, I was continually being faced with a personal and uncomfortable challenge: What if my position, status and everything that comes with it has been achieved as part of an inherently unfair process? That it hasn’t simply been a result of talent, hard work and experience?

Over the last year, I’ve lowered my defences and allowed myself to think the unthinkable. I contacted Integrity Coaching, who have introduced a leadership programme on Race and Identity and signed up for two different year-long programmes, one with a group of Trust senior leaders including all of our Head Teachers and another a personal coaching programme, exploring my own approach to racial identity and the impact it has had on my actions.

At the start of this process, I was very clear about my standpoint. I wasn’t racist, in fact I was an enemy of racism. This wasn’t evident in what I did, as much as what I didn’t do. I didn’t discriminate in the way I treated people, whether that was friends and acquaintances, colleagues or students. Many of my influences and heroes were black – Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Muhammed Ali, Barrack Obama, Maya Angelou (I’ll concede that it’s not exactly an original list). My musical and sporting heroes were black – Sam Cooke, Jackie Brown, Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, Usain Bolt – and I allied myself to political groups that actively opposed racism. Racist statements or attitudes were completely unacceptable in my professional and social circles. In fact, I would congratulate myself on my openness, cultural literacy and lack of bias or prejudice.

I fundamentally disagreed with the standpoint that you couldn’t be non-Racist, that you were either Racist or Anti-Racist, you either worked against the status quo or you were part of the structure that upheld it.

I was wrong.

That’s the one lesson that I’ve learnt over the last year. The barrier to progress is not just the hostility and overt racism of those who are mostly on the fringes of mainstream opinion, but on the complacency and inaction of the majority who would never define themselves as racist.

I’ve read so much over the last year – articles, blogposts, books of polemic. Most influential of all have been the works of fiction that I’ve read, which have helped me inch towards a better understanding of how the world looks from the perspective of a person of black or minority ethnic origin. Contemporary or historical, urgent or lyrical – ‘Open Water’ ‘Real Life’ ‘The Shadow King’ ‘The Nickel Boys’ – books that describe the personal experience of living in a society where being black provides a backdrop to every encounter and significant event. A book doesn’t have to be about race, for the issue of race to be ever present, and actually the same thing applies to an encounter, a relationship, a job. The occasions when I am forced to consider whether my race is a factor in the way I am being treated are vanishingly rare, but if I were black, it would be a constant backdrop to every interaction.  How does that change the experience of daily life? I don’t think I’ve ever been described as a white Head Teacher, but my black colleagues will know that their race is noticed, even if it’s not always remarked upon.

The penny was dropping – that’s what it means to live in a society where the colour of your skin has such an impact. Even more pertinently, I started to question what it means for young people going through school. We’ve done some memorable work as part of Black History Month, but isn’t the fact that it exists a tacit admission of deficiencies within our existing curriculum? If we continually give the message to students that hard work and talent will help you succeed, how do we reconcile that with the fact that success in our own organisation is the preserve of white people?

The question that I keep coming back to is the obvious one – ‘so what?’ A privileged white man has been on a journey which has helped him understand the systemic racial structures that perpetuate inequality in our society – so what? Conveniently, I’ve discovered this at the point in my life and career where it’s unlikely to have a major career impact.

In the Trust I lead, we define ourselves by our values and ethos, and we prove that these are important by the way they are demonstrated through our practice. Inclusion is important to us – just look at our SEND provision and outcomes and very low exclusion rates. Community support and engagement is part of our mission – I can show you how our schools support local charities and community organisations. We are committed to a rich and broad curriculum – you can see it in our music, sports and arts outcomes. We are anti-racist – err… can that really be seen in our curriculum or the make up of our leadership teams?

We need to make sure that our curriculum is a true and honest reflection of the reality of society our children live in, we need to make sure that people of colour feel comfortable and confident to become teachers and leaders in our organisation, we need to make sure that our professional development empowers our staff to challenge and confound racism in all its guises, we need to make sure we amplify the voices of those in our community who have not been properly heard, we need to make sure that our policy decisions are actively designed to make things better. We need to do all these things not just now, but from now on.

So, this isn’t a look back from the finishing post, but a look forward from the starting line. I’ve learnt some uncomfortable truths and had to accept the responsibility for action that they place upon me. I’m privileged to have the opportunity and the agency to make a difference, so that’s my aim – I’ll keep you posted.

Author: Dr Heery

I'm the Chief Executive Officer of the White Hills Park Trust, a current Ofsted Lead Inspector, former Head of both primary and secondary schools, and a former LA School Improvement Adviser, as well as being a practising teacher. I am interested in schools and school systems built on generous collaboration, collective responsibility and strong values. My blog is a place where I share my thoughts and ideas on the world of education and school leadership, with the aim of provoking debate and discussion. Click the logo above to read more.

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