**This article contains strong language.
In the current political climate – what with BLM and Harry & Meghan – there’s an awful lot of the use of the terms ‘systemic’ and ‘institutional’ racism.
Being a life-long student of social class inequity and disparity, I have always subscribed to the idea that there are indeed structural features that can make life more challenging to individuals and groups of people from certain backgrounds – so I am broadly sympathetic to the general idea. But I think it has its limits.
I believe individuals and communities have agency that can overcome most, if not all, of the disadvantage that society can throw at them. If they are tenacious and resilient.
The idea that ‘society is predominantly white, therefore racist’ is one which I accepted but about thirty years ago began to question, and then gradually came to doubt and ultimately to reject.
One day, when I was working in a school in Hackney, east London, I was chatting to a white mum who had two kids in the school, one of whom was in my class. At one point in the conversation (which was quite an extended one because she was active on the PTA) she referred – not in a disparaging way - to ‘coloured kids’ and ‘immigrants’.
During my turns in the conversation, I made polite but somewhat pointed references to the ‘black’ and ‘Afro-Caribbean’ and ‘Asian’ children.
After a while she noticed and laughingly asked me: ‘Are you trying to correct me or something?’ So I said, 'Well, these are the proper terms… and some people think it’s racist to refer to people as ‘coloured’ or ‘immigrants’…
Still good humouredly, she said: ‘I hope you’re not calling me a racist.’
‘Well, it’s difficult isn’t it…’ I replied, ‘because society is racist and so we’re all racist to a certain extent…’
‘No, we’re not.'
‘Well... we are really… living in a racist society… I think we are all racist to some extent…’ I continued, rather pathetically.
But before I could say another word, she exploded.
‘Don’t you call me a fucking racist! How dare you? You don’t have a fucking clue what you’re talking about…’
It was too late for me to try and reassure her that I didn’t think she - personally - was a racist. The damage was done. Before I could say anything else, she said: ‘I’ll have you know, I leave my kids with Pam Ryan!’ *
She was absolutely livid. And quite right too.
It then dawned on me: Yes, she’s right. This woman was born in Hackney, she’s lived here all her life, been to school with black people, lives with black people as neighbours and leaves her own kids to be cared for by black people - and here am I coming along to tell her that in actual fact... she doesn’t know it... but she’s really a racist.
I was then a fully paid up member of the ‘society is systemically and structurally racist’ camp. Black Lives Matter didn’t exist at that time of course, but there were plenty of other groups campaigning against racial injustice. I was a regular at ‘Rock Against Racism’ gigs and on marches protesting the activities of the National Front and British National Party in London’s East End.
But I cringe now when I think of that conversation.
Yet I hear similar and even the same sentiments being expressed all the time around current issues of race: ‘You don’t know it… but you’ve got white privilege! ‘You don’t know it… but you’re silence is violence!’ ‘You don’t know it… but you acquiesce in systemic racism!’
For me, the trouble with accepting this idea is that it takes away agency from people. Blaming society, or systems or structures not only removes people's sense of agency that they can make change, It also removes the burden from those who are racists and bigots to take responsibility for their words and actions.
Britain in the 1980s was a very different place than it is now and that mum was struggling with a raft of social and political issues at least as complex and challenging as any that exist in the 2020s. Yet she also had personal agency. In spite of all the structural and systemic factors that might have led her to think otherwise, she chose to have black neighbours and to form a community with them.
She her own children in the care of her black neighbour; implicitly trusting her - her morality and her values. Is this woman a racist because she uses 'racist' language?
I think she was absolutely right to tell me to fuck off.
* ‘Pam Ryan’ – not her real name – was a black woman with three children in the school who lived next door to this parent.
Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for over a decade with the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures and writes on professional values in teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk. You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk.
You may be interested in his course in ‘The Foundations of Professionalism in Teaching’– which deals with issues of diversity, inclusion and equity. It comprises a 3-module course that covers professional ethics and values, with over 4.5 hours of HD quality video presentations, additional course reading and materials, self-assessment exercises and completion certificates – ideal for showing evidence that you have completed cpd on ‘wider professional responsibilities’.