In this tenth post for the SVRN blog, Mea Aitken, an activist with Kids of Colour, presents an account of the talk she delivered at the ‘From the State to the Streets’ conference, discussing racist state violence in British educational institutions. If you are interested in submitting a blog yourself, please see the information at the end of this post.
In April 2019 I spoke at the State Violence Research Network’s conference; ‘From the State to the Streets’. Representing ‘Kids of Colour’, I discussed the racist state violence that runs through our educational institutions. As society ‘progresses’, concepts that may have once had a simple definition are becoming more complex. Violence, I believe is one of those concepts. To me, violence used to mean a physical act that caused pain or distress to another. However, growing up as a young person of colour, I have learned that violence runs far deeper than just the physical. As I have moved through the education system, I have seen violence manifest itself in many forms, from the aggressive and malicious language used by teachers and students to the injurious actions such as physical restraint and bullying.
Growing up in a predominantly white community, I have encountered much more implicit prejudice and hostility than overt violence, particularly in the education system. The ignorant taunting of myself and other black and brown students was rarely challenged by teachers. Mocking and mimicking accents that appeared ‘foreign’ or unconventionally British; throwing litter in my hair when I wore it out naturally; being compared to a caveman or repeatedly being told I was too angry (cue the ‘angry black girl’ stereotype); all were allowed to continue without consequence. Sadly, this happens so often to black and brown students it becomes hard to constantly question its wrongfulness. Not only because ‘racial battle fatigue’ becomes overwhelming or that we normalise this daily treatment of ourselves, but also because we know that teachers (who are predominantly white), will rarely have our backs due to their own prejudices or inability to understand racism. I believe that a teacher’s job is not only to educate but to provide an environment that feels safe to their students, if that fails to happen, a lack of trust forms. When your race is so often a factor in how students and teachers treat you, that environment is far from safe or accepting. Instead it is hostile and oppressive.
People may feel that taunting and teasing is not a serious or violent offence, but if unchallenged, it can lead to even more detrimental forms of racism and state violence. Tony Sewell’s research ‘Black masculinities and schooling’ observing the treatment of black students in the classroom shows that black male students are more quickly to be sanctioned than their fellow white students and are perceived as disruptive underachievers by their teachers. This kind of marginalisation can push students away from ever feeling like they have a place in the classroom. If you are pushed out of the conventional set up, what’s next? Exclusion from mainstream education, pupil referral units and possibly prison; a journey all too familiar for black young people. Mixed ethnicity and Black students have the highest rate of temporary exclusion, Black Caribbean boys were three times more likely to be excluded than their white counterparts, and over 40% of young people in custody are from BAME backgrounds. I refuse to believe that this is because black pupils are inherently more badly behaved than white pupils. I do believe that it is because the education system refuses to fully integrate or have empathy for young people of colour, and in turn this means the students who do not fit into schools’ mould of an ‘ideal pupil’ are being cast aside.
As young people of colour, our place in mainstream society is constantly threatened, and challenging inequalities we face has the potential to risk our place even further. This creates a vicious cycle in which our mistreatment is not questioned and people in power, often middle-class white men, decide the fate of black and brown people and which institutions we are or aren’t allowed to exist in. Educational institutions are such a core of our society that it must be a priority to tackle the hostility and prejudices that young people of colour are facing within them. Not all experiences are physically violent, but the on-going hostility and refusal to accept us fully as part of society still feels violent, and strongly linked to the more physically harmful behaviour that many people of colour are facing daily. In May, the NSPCC shared that children are whitening their skin to avoid hate crime and to make school an easier experience. We are meant to go to school to gain the support we need to have a successful future, but young people of colour are still attending institutions that fail to recognise that they too embody the systemic racism that upholds state violence in society.
Mea, 18, Manchester
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The opinions and viewpoints contained in this blog post are not necessarily shared by the State Violence Research Network, and publication should not be considered an endorsement.