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Independent schools, please stand up for your black students, listen to them and respect them

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Monday 01 June 2020 17:03 BST
'Police mis-conduct built on the legacy of white supremacy' John Oliver talks George Floyd protests

This week has been tough. As a community, we are grieving for our murdered brothers and sisters and for the state of the world.

Yet in the midst of our mourning, we have also been forced to think about our own experiences of racism here in the UK, so many of which took place within the hallowed halls of your institutions during our formative years and are still taking place as we speak.

What’s upsetting is that we are the lucky ones: members of our community across the pond are being killed in the streets, not to mention those here at home being wrongly imprisoned, spat at whilst carrying out essential work and attacked in public.

Whilst we were all privileged enough to attend these schools, there is no amount of privilege that can shield one from racism. Often clearly in the minority, the racism we are subjected to is complex yet severe, the impacts of which have stayed with many of us long after leaving.

It is precisely these sorts of attitudes and behaviours which, when left unchecked, can lead to tragedies. Racism is dangerous at every level, and at every level, it contributes to a society in which the murder of unarmed black people is possible.

Racism is a rampant issue spanning the British educational landscape, but in a country where two-thirds of the cabinet attended private school along with 65 per cent of supreme court judges and 26 per cent of FTSE 100 chief executives, independent schools have a clear responsibility to produce balanced unbiased individuals. Although the domination of these professions by independent school alumni is itself an inequality that needs to be addressed, we cannot deny its reality. Your schools produce some of the most powerful people in the world.

Now more than ever, we cannot afford for these powerful individuals to operate with prejudice and yet such prejudices are so often harboured within your institutions.

Our experiences range from the covert and insidious:

“There was one occasion where a girl dressed up as a black character and painted her body brown (essentially blackface).”

“Continuously having my name mispronounced, people doing ‘African accents’, making jokes about the one black teacher that I ever had, who was a supply teacher for two weeks, being my uncle and the air of ‘casual racism’ that was seen as very acceptable throughout all of my time at school.”

To the overt and terrifying:

“Bananas outside my locker. Constant use of the n-word. Being told to go back to my own country. Jokes about segregation from teachers. Disproportionate punishments, and disregard for the actions of other students towards me.”

“Near the end of the first year in a rugby sevens tournament, I was called the n-word and told to pick up my banana peels. This was hurtful and I reported it to teachers who promised they would take it up. However, it was only when I took to social media and told people to repost that my school took hold of the situation but still I received warnings from teachers that it was an inappropriate use of social media.”

“Being called a ‘fat n***er’ by a member of the school.”

But two things unite all these experiences: impunity and apathy. Apathy from the teachers whose job it is to protect our wellbeing and impunity for our peers that abuse us, creating environments where racism, however casual, is not just present but accepted and excused.

As Cambridge graduate Pemiwa Arowojolu explains in her dissertation, Black skin white mask: A study of Black boys in Britain’s top private schools: “Black people have been given ‘the burden of proof’, which means that if they cannot prove racism then it is dismissed.” This has led to a culture in many British private schools where racist attitudes are the norm, allowed to fester unchecked.

So what can you do to make this better? We have a few suggestions:

  • Introduce unconscious bias training as standard for all staff as well as providing workshops for students across year groups.
  • Talk to your black students about their experiences, take the time to understand what they are going through and listen to their recommendations.
  • Hire a workforce that accurately represents your communities. We ask for all schools to review their hiring process and commit to becoming equal opportunity employers.
  • Ensure access to Bame councillors for students.
  • Adopt a clear racial code of conduct, with appropriate punishments included. Commit to following through with these punishments when required.
  • A tangible commitment to diversifying curriculum.

Above all, we are asking you to stand up for your black students, listen to them, respect them and value them. Growing up is hard enough without carrying the burden of racism throughout your school career.

For the black students still in your care – ensure they feel welcome in the places which for many are second homes. For your black alumni, using your sizeable endowments to contribute to movements such as the NAACP legal defence fund or The Amos Bursary might go some way towards an apology for their experiences.

For the world, prioritise cultivating environments of acceptance and understanding, producing adults who aren’t simply not racist, but anti-racist.

Your Black students – past and present
Tiwa Adebayo, Haberdashers’ Aske’s School for Girls / Aldenham Preparatory School (2016) 
Ife Ojomo,
North London Collegiate School / Edge Grove School (2016) 
Gbenga Ojo-Aromokudu, Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys School (2015)
and 187 other signatories

A question of timing

Great emphasis is being placed on “test and trace”. One can test negative on the day of the test and then could contract the virus on the following day. The test only relates to the time of testing. Herd immunity is only possible by the majority catching the virus, with many deaths, or by the use of a vaccine.

Michael Pate

Science and politics

Science and politics are intimately bound together. There are examples of that interface that has changed the fate of the world. The realisation of how matter and energy are related (Einstein) led theoretical physicists to warn UK/US that during the Second World War Germany could build a devastating weapon. It was then a political decision to set up the Manhattan Project and build the atomic bomb. Robert Oppenheimer is known as the father of the atomic bomb and was aware of its capabilities. “I am become death, shatterer of worlds,” he famously said.

Another political decision was to drop the bomb on not one but two populated areas, despite Japan already being a defeated nation.

Most science is funded at the discretion of industry or governments and so we are all involved. A scientist must refer to his/her conscience and then choose to work in any particular area as they, like anybody else, need to earn a living. A scientist cannot hold back progress because of fears of what the world of politics will do with what is discovered.

Any scientist is as free as anyone to express his/her views on political matters and should not be suppressed because a politician will not like the answer. It can be expected that logic and a rational approach will be used in contrast to simply taking a political stance. If there is a group of scientists, as in Sage, it is entirely the government’s responsibility to choose, amongst a variety of views, the course of action that the nation will follow. The greater the politician’s knowledge and attention to the details, the better that final decision is likely to be. They cannot hide behind the scientists and push blame in that direction.

Robert Murray

Not so shocking

What I find so incredible is that people are claiming this rioting across America took them by surprise. After years of divisive speeches, open support of neo-Nazis, and fascist political strategies, the country has started to burn. The president is being hidden now because his staff know that anything he says or does can only make the situation worse.

For years I have been writing that America was heading for civil unrest. It wasn’t because I have a crystal ball! It was because I understand the meaning of words and their intent. Words led to this; the calculated words of division, racism and hate. Fascist rhetoric and vile politics were the matches that lit this fire.

Donald Trump has not only picked at the scabs and exposed the historic wounds of society he has also turned the entire world against America. The Republican Party has propped this man up, denied his words, saluted his lies, and voted against his legal impeachment after he was caught red-handed breaking the law. He has broken so many laws and it is time for those voted into office to do what is required. It’s time to rid the country of this evil madman.

Harlan Wolff

Vocal disapproval

Caroline Costello suggested in her letter a communal “boo”, which is something I had also thought of, but it should be “Boo for Cummings” as Johnson is merely the stooge and it is Cummings who has flagrantly disregarded his own advice. These people treat us all with contempt, and since we cannot show them our contempt for their actions under our flawed FPTP voting system, we should try the vocal approach. I doubt Boris Johnson would be seen at his door joining in.

Colin Hayward

Keep pushing on

The UK government are suppressing freedom of speech and the right of journalists to ask questions of the government, particularly around the Dominic Cummings scandal. Please keep asking for Cummings’s resignation on behalf of around 80 per cent of the British public.

Bill Wroath
Address supplied

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