“In a racist society, formal education will only ever reproduce racism.”

By Ethel Ng

Ethel Ng is a student on Bristol’s BSc Education Studies programme. This post was initially written as an assignment for the new unit Education, Climate Change and Social Justice.

In spite of 1965 legislation outlawing explicit racial discrimination within the United Kingdom, behind a thinly-veiled fallacy of meritocracy, reveals an economic, political and social legacy of structural racial injustice (Eddo-Lodge, 2018) – a present-day Britain, confronted by a history steeped in colonial distortion. The overwhelming complicity of formal education in reinforcing unequal privileges, and legitimising existing hierarchical positionality (hooks, 1994; Freire, 2018), is self-evident through vastly disparate educational outcomes between ethnic groups (Gillborn, Demack, Rollock & Warmington, 2017). Having said that, this essay ultimately disagrees with the finality of the thesis posed above, arguing that – on the condition of appropriate reformation – formal education is instrumental in fracturing the vicious cycle perpetuated by a racist society. For sake of brevity, I will predominantly be arguing from within UK-centric parameters, a demographic whereby BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) are minority ethnicities. Much of the academic research will primarily be in reference to the shared biographies of those racialized as Black (namely stemming from African and Caribbean diaspora). The effectiveness of varying degrees of educational reformation will be evaluated through the framework provided by Andreotti, Stein, Ahenakew & Hunt’s (2015) social cartography of responses to modernity’s violence. Decolonisation will be articulated through the spaces of: (i) soft-reform, such as material reparations (Sriprakash, Nally, Myers & Pinto, 2020); (ii) radical-reform, including epistemic cooperation (Mohanty, 1997); (iii) and finally, entertaining the notion that modernity’s systematic violences are beyond-reform (also exploring pedagogies of buen vivir and critical hope – Dinerstein & Deneulin, 2012; Zembylas, 2007).

Drop the façade of living in a ‘post-racial’ world. Despite unfounded scientific grounding for racialization or Foucault’s biopower (Lazzarato, 2002) – in other words, race being a social construct (Zamudio, Russell, Rios & Bridgeman, 2011) – past racial injustices, as well as contemporary racial inequality, continues to reproduce unequal power dynamics. As Critical Race Theory evidences, race and history matter. Oppressive colonial histories, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the Windrush scandal, ‘blue on black’ violence, school to prison pipelines, all contribute to the current disadvantaged positionality of Black individuals (actively preserved and subjugated by neo-liberalism and internal colonisation), structurally limiting their capabilities. As Chakelian & Calcea (2020) concluded, Black lives suffer lifetimes of systemic racism – educational institutions being no exception, with Black students more likely to be excluded, less likely to achieve strong GCSE passes, and far less probable to be admitted into a Russell Group university, or graduate in and of itself, in comparison to their white peers (Ciocca Eller & DiPrete, 2018; Richardson, 2008). This series of barriers feeds implicit biases, and fuels an already prevailing discourse around villainous, damaged and destructive ‘Blackness’ (Gonzalez, Steele & Baron, 2017). Media portrayals reflect these culturally hegemonic assertions, denying heterogeneity of Blackness, compounding in microagressions, anti-immigration sentiment, and further cementing institutional racism (Bates, 1975; Delgado & Stefancic, 2012; Macpherson, 1999).

However, Young (2020) cautions us to look beyond the Marxist analysis of the distributive paradigm, in order to prevent restricting the scope of justice; fixating on status and the material distribution of wealth, income and resources, can obscure the institutional context and social structures within which these interactions are upheld. To quote Walzer (1983), we must “shift our attention […] to conception and creation”. Similarly, Gillborn (2019) and hooks (1994) ask us to question the workings of power and interests that create and reproduce racial injustice – only then, can meaningful change occur. This brings us to the ‘shine’ and ‘shadow’ of modernity. Remaining fiercely relevant to this day, modernity describes an imperial project, resting on the back of coloniality (Quijano, 2000), romanticising seamless linear progress, democracy, humanism and scientific reasoning. Mignolo (2000) argues that the shadow of coloniality – the imposition of systematic violence – is simultaneously the ‘hidden face’ of modernity (for those seduced by its ‘shine’) and a vital condition of its very existence. Silva (2007) describes racism as an invention of colonialism; identifying this relationship, has unearthed a multitude of pedagogical narratives tackling the decolonisation of educational institutions, in an effort to stunt racism.

(i) The soft reform space (Andreotti et al., 2015):

Characterised by ‘inclusion’, soft reforms strongly emphasise consensus, dialogue and increased access. Generally, this boasts material reparations, for instance, scholarships. Soft reforms revolve around providing additional resources to BIPOC, low-income, first-generation students, to equip them with the skills, knowledge and cultural capital required to excel – or more accurately, excel within and according to existing institutional standards. As Andreotti et al. (2015) highlighted, there is an underlying assumption that previously excluded groups desire to be a part of, and will benefit from, mainstream institutions (Harper, 2010; Pidgeon, 2008; Yosso, 2005). Angela Davis remains critical towards “inclusion and diversity”, labelling it as a corporate strategy; without structural transformation, diversity merely includes the previously excluded, into still structurally racist institutions – a reactive, rather than proactive, symptomatic treatment. Through this lens, soft reforms are tokenistic ‘recognitions’ of cultural diversity and performative intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1990). The integrity of the status-quo is not questioned, and the framework itself is beyond critique or visibility (Bunda, Zipin, & Brennan, 2012; Urciuoli, 2003). Essentially, the shadow of modernity is not recognised as a derivative of modernity itself (a subsidy for modernity’s shine). The radical reform space attempts to address these shortcomings.

(ii) The radical reform space (Andreotti et al., 2015):

Going beyond a provisional acceptance of difference, radical reform acknowledges the debate is skewed from the outset – epistemological plurality and institutional re-structuring is sought. Affirmative action, redistribution, representation, recognition, reconciliation and epistemic cooperation (Mohanty, 1997) are the cornerstones of radical decolonisation. There is a commitment to mobilising strategies for empowerment, ‘fixing’ modernity to make it work for marginalised groups. Young (2006) draws attention to normalisation; the observation that the norms of speech and conduct, that dominant society associates with intelligence and respectability, aligns with white cultural styles is no coincidence. Black male students are often criticised for lack of ‘middle-class manners’, behavioural outliers in comparison to white norms – the standards to which attributes, language, knowledge systems and ethical codes are evaluated – lending to stigmatisation (Miklikowska, Thijs and Hjerm, 2019). In fact, since the end of the colonial period, epistemologies within our educational institutions have remained largely static, rooted in colonial, Western and Eurocentric worldviews. To combat this, Sriprakash et al. (2020) identifies, that an education for reparative futures must involve learning “concretely and sympathetically, contrapuntally, about others” (Said, 1985). This can be achieved via epistemic cooperation: the process whereby multiple knowledges and experiences are ‘braided’, seeking a reciprocal understanding of the entangled histories of people who have been ‘differently poisoned’ by colonial legacy (Kimmerer, 2013). Gillborn (2019) and Delgado et al. (2012) suggest shaping schools into anti-racist institutions by involving voices-of-colour to provide counterhegemonic narratives – declaring that ‘voice matters’ (Zamudio et al., 2011). Joseph-Salisbury (2020) similarly recommends: increasing the proportion of BIPOC teachers; arranging policy consultations and National Curriculum evaluations with anti-racist organisations; and for white teachers and students alike to engage with concepts of white privilege and white complicity, in order to reflect on their own racialised positions. Radical reforms have proved successful in the past with regards to formal desegregation; perhaps radical reforms can yet again deliver a paradigm shift from a culture of exclusion and denial, to the making of space for other political philosophies – recognising that, as it stands, knowledge is irrefutably marked by power relations.

(iii) The beyond reform space (Andreotti et al., 2015):

Here, modernity and its interconnected oppressions (capitalism, racism, colonialism, patriarchy, ableism) are perceived as inherently violent, exploitative and unsustainable. In stark contrast to the radical reform space, modernity is irrecoverable by even the most radical of transformations. As Audre Lorde articulated, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. Instead, beyond reform spaces elaborate on unlearning implicit teachings of the hidden curriculum, replacing it with alternative, autonomous, subversive education that allows for transgressions (Tiostanova & Mignolo, 2012; Illich, 1971). Encouraging education to be a practice of freedom, building on the works of hooks (1994) and Freire (2018), hope can found relishing in the possibility of possibilities – the possibility for the possibility of an antiracist society initiated through reformed, decolonised education (Amsler, 2013). Through pedagogies of critical hope directed towards a future betterment, even one which transcends our current ability to understand what it is, we can learn to live imperfectly in the ‘not yet become’ of buen vivir (Bosch, 1986; Dinerstein & Deneulin, 2012; Zembylas, 2007).

In sum, to guarantee the best chance of success, all of Andreotti’s reformative spaces must work in tandem to address the incommensurable demands of a system in crisis. With full acceptance of our collective biography, recognising that we are all differently marked by historical processes, and by purposefully rejecting assimilative, colour-blind orientations to education, we mustn’t lose the shared conviction that reformed formal education, possesses the possibility to possibly deliver a reparative, anti-racist future. To conclude, I share the sentiments of Kundnani (2014), in that some of the proposals I put forward in this essay may seem radical, but radicalisation, in the true sense of the word, is the solution, not the problem.


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