Tag Archives: diversity

Colour-blindness, cats and cucumbers, and cycling

Image result for Unconscious bias
From Margie Warell

Why is my curriculum white vs. why, is my curriculum white?

I was telling a friend of mine about the BAMEed Network and was surprised by her reaction when we started talking about a podcast I had listened to called ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ She suddenly sounded really annoyed as she said, “you know, we don’t need this pitying, dumbing down of the world on our behalf, thank you. Of course the curriculum is white, this is England. I don’t mind adding a black or Asian philosopher into the mix but it’s not representative and it is artificial if there’s more than one or two isn’t it?”

I wasn’t sure how to react. She said, “All you are doing with this BAME thing is segregating and categorising people – I don’t want to be seen as a brown woman when I walk into a room or representing brown people or women when I am on the school governing body. I just want to be me”. I love my friend, we often holiday together as families, we feel so at home together but we are completely opposed in terms of politics and many aspects of our world views. But we can talk about things and trust each other completely. We also don’t try and change each other’s minds about things. We find the middle ground. Still, I said to her, “colour-blindness, that’s not actually real you know?” She was resolute. It would be for her.

Test yourself if you dare

It gave me pause for thought though. I am not trying to segregate the world, I am trying hard to be aware of my unconscious bias. I start from the standpoint that we are so culturally socialised by certain viewpoints that it is unrealistic to pretend to be colour-blind or neutral. I have been challenging myself recently by trying out some of the Harvard University unconscious bias tests available online. If you are brave you will give them a go too. It makes me squirm but it reminds me that this difficulty exists and the key is to be aware and to not deny or enact the consequence of your initial unconscious bias.

My husband and I keep comparing our results with great curiosity and some mirth. We are such opposites in some ways too. His experience starts as an Israeli-Iraqi Jew brought up in Jerusalem, where he is seen as mixed race and a second class citizen alongside the Ashkenazic, European Jews. He is an immigrant to this country since the early 2000s and that makes him feel an affinity with certain populations more than others. He sees how ethnic minority students, and staff members, are treated differently in his workplace, a university setting, and it makes him incredibly frustrated. Having spent over a decade living in Israel myself, being constantly reminded that I am a foreigner, I know how he feels to some extent. Back in England now, in my relative position of white privilege, but still sometimes finding it hard to assimilate back in, my experience sometimes feels so extreme that it feels disingenuous to do anything but recognise that the way we see the world and are seen by it differs depending on many factors.

Three popular internet things that make you wonder

Every day, things I see online make me think more about this. Three very different ones have made me think. The first is the story of a five year old white American boy who wanted to get his hair shaved short like his black American best friend so that their teacher “wouldn’t be able to tell them apart”. This is a stark reminder of the fact that we don’t seem to be born looking for differences and aware of skin colour that much. It is culturally constructed over time and is a part of our education. You can’t culturally un-construct it just by declaring yourself colour blind. All culturally constructed notions are deeply engrained.

Secondly, the news interview where a white man is speaking to the camera and in marches his small daughter, shortly followed by his other child in a baby walker. They are pursued by a woman who rushes in on all fours grabs them both and hustles them out of the room, returning briefly, still on her knees to shut the door. The assumption online was that this was his wife. Others speculated that it could be the childminder. There was backlash against presumed racially charged assumptions that the woman was a childminder and not the children’s mother and the white man’s wife – she was Korean. She was his wife.

Thirdly, isn’t it human, – and animal – ancient, learned behaviour to break the world up into categories of like me, not like me, threat and non-threat. You only have to see what happens to a cat when someone puts a cucumber behind it. Why would a domestic cat that has never seen a snake, have it so engrained in their ancient cat-bias, so as to be afraid of a vegetable that has only a vaguely snake-like appearance, is completely inanimate but seems to have sneaked up on them? Could this be true also for us human folk? Does it go that far back?

Cycling and gender-biased aggression

On a personal note, as a cyclist in London, I am now clocking up 45 minutes each way on my commute to and from work. I have always been bothered by the amount of abuse I get, although my cycling style is pretty mellow and non-confrontational. I have cycled for years and a while back now, I complained to my husband that as a woman, I get called all sorts of vile names and people can be unduly aggressive towards me. He said he never got any abuse and put it down to the fact that I can be bloody-minded and belligerent with my opinions so I am probably the same on the roads. One evening, we went out together locally and I suggested we cycle there together. On the way, I asked him if he would be willing to do an experiment with me, and to cycle some distance behind me and watch what happened. Sure enough, he was shocked by the different treatment I got compared to what he has been accustomed to. I had the usual array of cars beeping, or deliberately overtaking dangerously close and shouting as they passed, making me jump. There was also unwanted interaction with swearing pedestrians, heads down in their phones while they were weaving between the cars pausing for a moment in traffic, and from other (male) cyclists even.

Due to the air quality of central London, I have taken to wearing a pollution filter mask while cycling in recent months. It has been quite cold so with the mask, gloves, helmet and all my waterproof gear on, you can’t tell if I am a woman or a man or even what colour I am. It’s amazing. It’s as if I have been granted a completely new status. No-one bothers me at all. Bingo.  I can see why it would be amazing to reach a place where we don’t automatically treat people in certain ways based on deep seated and learned bias.

Dare you consider, how might unconscious bias affect your relationships at school?

Let’s assume then that unconscious bias does exist. How might this affect your relationship with your students and other staff members? Here are some all-you-can-eat, food for thought observations I have heard played back to me by school staff I have spoken to:

Have you noticed that BAME staff members tend to be in charge of certain subjects and the further up the hierarchy you go, the whiter it gets? Any BAME senior leaders that do make it in schools tend to be in charge of discipline or PE. What’s that about?

Why is it, in some schools, that the majority of kids that are in detention at the end of the day are black? Why do teachers of all races treat black children’s misdemeanours differently?

Why is it that schools which serve predominantly BAME areas, in parts of London for example, often deploy a military style discipline regime and refer to this as being appropriate for “these kinds” of students? The claim is that they are entrenching bias towards certain groups being subordinate to the ruling middle classes rather than promoting a socially mobile, lifelong learner expectation for children of ethnic minority backgrounds.

What about the teachers who are surprised when their Chinese heritage students educated in this country are not maths whizzes, when the black kid can’t run and their white working class boys love to read?

What of the Asian British pupil who wrote that he lived in a terrorist (terraced) house, and then ended up facing an investigation by police?

Why is it that more ethnic minority people get university degrees than white people in Britain and yet in the workplace they will be still more likely to be unemployed and paid less?

What about assessment, what elements of that is geared towards certain socio-economic and ethnic biases? What about the recent Year 6 SATs test and the dodo question for example?

Can you join me in learning more?

Please ask yourself these questions, try the Harvard online tests and let’s start to discuss what this makes us feel, what we could do differently and where the issues might lie. We will be holding a BAMEed Network conference on all aspects of unconscious bias on June 3rd. If you have ideas for what other issues should be covered, let us know and make sure you are there on the day!

Educolour: change begins with you

stereotypes

 

There seem to be several ways that people tackle the issue of diversity in the workplace as far as I have experienced it. Having occupied various positions in white, middle-class dominated work environments, the issue of diversity has exercised me for a long time.  I have been regarded as “the ethnic minority” in some places by virtue of the fact that I am of Jewish heritage, am married to an Iraqi-Israeli and my kids were born abroad. I have seen the almost visible domino effect of assumptions that click into place when people find out these facts about me. But, better out than in I say. If people can tell me what they assume about me, at least then I can work through the stereotypes with them and isolate what is right and what is not. One of the most destructive things is to ignore altogether race, identity, culture, colour, whatever it is that makes for difference between people.

Whether or not I can lay claim to be classed as an ethnic minority is immaterial. I am wholly and passionately committed to doing what I can to break down barriers that exist for people based on the sex, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, whatever the multifarious categorisation that exists that causes these barriers. This is why I am shoving my white-privileged nose into the group of people now committed to forming the #Educolour movement in this country. And I trust each and every one of them to speak truth to me at any point.

One of Stonewall’s diversity champions once told me, when I was concerned whether I could effectively look out for the rights of others, that there is no better advocate for diversity in a workplace than someone who might outwardly represent the accepted norm. “People might listen to a black guy talking about racial equality in the workplace, but if a white person is a passionate advocate, that will get people’s attention for sure”.

The biggest problem I have encountered is that people don’t want to talk about it. This is probably mainly because they are worried about saying something wrong and causing offense, But many don’t want to accept even the basic fact that subconscious bias and racism is rife within our society. Or worse still, people pretend to be “colour-blind”. Unless each one of us is willing to admit it is our problem, nothing at all will change. Unless each and every one of us just connects with the places where we do assume, discriminate, overcompensate, skirt around, feel uncomfortable, behave differently to people, then we will just perpetuate the problem.

Here are some uncomfortable moments I have had while on recruitment panels that might make your jaw drop:

Situation 1: 

Panel of two white women, one white man. White, male, middle-aged, middle-class interviewer goes off script and asks young, Asian woman: “Are you spoilt?”

She, unfazed, quick as anything says: “No, but my brother is! Have you met an Indian mother who doesn’t spoil her son?! He is her sunshine. I don’t get to be spoilt!”

We all laughed and moved on to the next question. I died inside. When we got out of the room, I challenged my senior colleague. “What was that all about? Why on earth did you ask that?”

“Oh” He said, completely nonplussed by my obvious disdain. “I once knew an Indian woman who was really spoilt. I didn’t want you to have to deal with that on your team”

I liked her, I wanted her on my team. She is personable, she has already proved herself to be quick-witted and feisty. She has got through to a face-to-face interview based on passing several stages of the recruitment process including three written tasks. The standard of her writing is excellent and she has displayed a creativity of thought in her responses. The second woman on the panel is worried about her ability to represent the organisation because she has a lilting, Delhi accent. I remind her that according to the job we have advertised, she needs to be able to write quickly and accurately, using a high standard of English. She has proved to be able to do this and moreover, seems like she could fit in really well with the rest of the team, our values and so on. “Some aspects of writing are just there, they can’t be taught” I was told by my colleague by way of explanation of her doubts about this candidate.

I can feel myself fighting for this person and fighting through assumptions, prejudice, all dressed up as genuine concerns but moreover, all based on subtle discrimination and not on the facts before us. She turned out to be one of the best members of my team.

My colleagues weren’t bad people. They saw themselves as very open-minded and committed to diversity. But there are boundaries to all of our ability to really challenge ourselves and ask honestly what subconscious bias could be playing out here.

Situation 2:

A white, male colleague and I are waiting for two candidates to show up for an interview. One has what could be described as a non-English, Arabic name, the other has a very “English” standard male first name and surname. The first to arrive is a black man, and we both assume this is the one with the Arabic name. It is only when the second candidate shows up for the interview that we realise that we are wrong. She is a woman and cannot possibly be the one with the standard English male name.

After the interviewees have left and knew nothing of our silent confusion, I can’t contain my embarrassment and say to my colleague: “Woah, massive racist assumptions there from both of us!” He claps his hand on his forehead and said “How many discriminatory stereotypes went into that little misunderstanding?!” Awful, but at least we were aware that this actually happened and at least we could openly talk about it and think what we would do next time to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

Situation 3:

Some years ago, I keep hearing some of my colleagues declare proudly, openly and frequently that we have a team that is predominantly made up of young, Russell Group university-educated men and women. It takes me a while to understand why this makes me angry. I challenge them on this and ask why this makes us a good place to work. I am not young, nor Russell Group educated, and I am the only person to have recruited not one, but two people onto my team who don’t have a university degree at all. The first hire sparked consternation when my boss realised that they didn’t fit the ideal standard, but once they had proved themselves to be superb at their job and display a lot more intelligence and resilience than some of our more “thoroughbred” members of the stable, it was easier to get the second one through. They both had a maturity and solid work ethic that ensured that we got things done and to a high standard.

My challenge to my previous workplace was a challenge to this idea that having people who have made their way through a path of privilege means that they are necessarily better at their jobs than others. In my experience, some of the best-educated and holders of the highest accolades from Oxbridge were the weakest staff members in terms of their teamwork, resilience, creativity and initiative-taking. I was told time and again, “we need the best candidate for the job, and the easiest way to see that is through their qualifications and work experience”. What is not clear here is that there are so many barriers to people who don’t have access to the level of privilege needed, that they may not be getting a shot at the places of education and work that others may be able to just glide in to.

We really have to create a recruitment process that both sorts people’s ability to do the job advertised but that also can sort between things that are trainable skills and things that are essential to have inbuilt. This is where we have an opportunity to halt the assumptive wheels of institutional prejudice and actually create a step for people to take.What I mean is this. Faced with two potential candidates, I must look to see where I can challenge myself and my own assumptions. I must also look to see if with a small amount of effort on my part, I might be able to provide an opportunity for someone who has proved that they can do the job well but may not have the standard set of traits of privilege that we lazily may assume make them the “best candidate” for the job. If I can take someone on and invest an extra few hours of training in them to fill any gaps, which may cost the organisation slightly more, I will. I know that through doing this, I have diversified the workplace, shifted the accepted norms about what pathways people need to have followed to land here, and have broadened my own and my colleagues’ horizons about where good people can come from, I must do this. And if I need to fight a bit to do it, I will.

There are simple things that we can all do, and that we all must do. We must embrace our own prejudice and never avoid an opportunity to delve deeper into it to understand it better. We must call out prejudice when we see it (including our own!) but not in a confrontational and aggressive way, we need to champion growth-inducing challenge and whenever possible model a better way through as many channels as possible – such as recruitment processes as I have tried to illustrate here. This is what I mean when I say, change begins with you.