Good evening everyone. It is so good to be here and to see so many people in the room who I imagine are on a journey from curious to committed when it comes to race equity in their work and lives more generally.
For those that don’t already know me, I was a teacher for over a decade before moving across to working in leadership with education organisations on their start-up to grown-up journeys. I had the honour of being one of the founding team of The Key for school leaders, and have worked for Challenge Partners as head of membership and for Lyfta as director of engagement. Alongside this work, I have been what might be called a scholar activist – campaigning on issues around race equity as a co-founder and trustee of the BAMEed Network – which Amjad Ali, Allana Gay and I set up about 5 years ago and Arv Kaushal and Lizana Oberholzer have subsequently joined as trustees too. More recently I have been working with Leeds Beckett University as a coach on the anti-racist school award and the mental health leads programme, which in turn has led me to undertake a full time phd on unlearning racism in schools.
That’s the long version. The short version, which I am increasingly using is: My name is Penny, and I point at elephants. Those large, obvious and hard to miss issues around structural racism that are right there in so many rooms, spaces, interactions, events, and situations.
One big elephant could be me. I am white – you might have noticed. And it is quite often that I get asked why I even care if I am not directly impacted by race or racism. Well, guess what? I am not just white, I am racialised as white. As white people, we are able to swim comfortably in the waters of structural racism without even knowing what water is, if we so choose to. I am impacted by racism in some ways because I am Jewish, but I can choose when and if to reveal this. I am impacted by racism because the battle against racism is our issue as people racialised as white. Until we are all free, none of us is free, and until we learn about our own racial identity, we will walk this earth oblivious to the responsibility we have personally, professionally and consistently to disrupt the status quo as if our life depends on it – because our lives do depend on it. White people have a proximity to power that affords ample opportunities to point at elephants and ask, “what is going on here?” We should do this not because we come here to ‘help’ but because all of our liberation is bound up in this work too (to draw from the words of Lilla Watson, Artist and Indigenous activist from central Queensland).
We live in increasingly difficult times when it comes to questions of race equity. We are told by the Sewell Report that institutional racism cannot be found in this country. It is a thing of the past we are told. Just this week we are told, the proof of equality is in the amazing range of racial diversity across those stepping forward to lead the Conservative party right now. But should we be wary of people who in the same sentence speak of how their parents sailed here to the motherland with nothing, and are ready to deport you to Rwanda tomorrow? And what of these people who have enjoyed wealth and privilege, who point at deficit narratives to explain gaps in achievement by some ethnic groups, and who extol the virtues of meritocracy and ignoring race, as strategies for success? One thing I have learned through reading about the last 75 years of education policy in this country is that whiteness is not a skin colour, it is a system and we go in cycles of gains and losses when it comes to race equity. Drawing on my own Jewish heritage, I liken it to dancing the Hora – linking arms and stepping one step forwards, two to the side and back again we go – hopa hey!
But seriously, we have forever work to do. Tony Benn said: “Every generation must fight the same battles again and again and again. There is no final victory, and there is no final defeat”
I believe that as humans who are living in a structurally racist society, we must learn about our own racialised identity, and make conscious choices about how we show up and do the work necessary to see, acknowledge and disrupt racist practice using the tools we have at our disposal. As educators, we have such power and influence – and we can cause much damage. We have work to do to consistently and repeatedly refuse to be neutral, and to find the spaces in which we can show up as reliable accomplices (and not just self-appointed allies when it suits us) in the collaborative struggle for justice.
We started with elephants, and so we will end with them. I will use the words of the late Bishop Desmond Tutu “if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of the mouse and you say you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality”.
There are elephants everywhere. We have work to do.