Black Pupils in White Eyes

Any hope of providing an equitable future for young people of colour in Scotland depends on understanding the education system’s capitalist genesis and racist design, writes Rohit Rao.

If we hope to provide an equitable future for our young people of colour in Scotland, we must understand the education system’s capitalist genesis and racist design, writes Rohit Rao. Today’s public education system came about after the 1870 and 1872 Education Acts. At the time, Parliament was the domain of the aristocracy and of a new industrial elite. The aristocrats feared that mass education might lead to a radicalised proletariat that had been effectively quashed in the 1830s and ‘40s. The latter interest desired to increase productivity in the mills of Manchester and the shipyards of Glasgow by keeping children occupied at school, allowing their parents to work longer hours producing woollen shirts for those enslaved in the Caribbean, or building ships to run through American blockades and provide income for cotton enslavers. A compromise was reached when it was realised that schools had the secondary benefit of moulding the future workforce in a style befitting a capitalist empire. The system could encourage deference to authority, make students empty vessels for ideology, and keep individuals in perpetual competition. Empire was the vision that would unite the factions, and it promised white workers symbolic status so that they were no longer at the bottom of society. The first ‘Empire Day’ took place in British classrooms 121 years ago. It inculcated in generations of children the idea of a British nation with the right to rule over primitive and inferior ‘races’, and that ruled with the qualities taught in British schools. Subsequent cohorts of non-white students were deemed ‘educationally subnormal’ and destined for prison, unemployment, or menial work for the state.

As a researcher into structural racism in Scottish schools I have been observing what this process has done to the generations originating from those colonised nations. Black students are still made to feel themselves to be inferior and less intelligent, and are often regarded as more criminal in the eyes of peers and those in authority. There is growing evidence of racial bias by school staff, of the increased likelihood of exclusion for non-white students, and of their increased exposure to harm by school police officers. As a result, students of colour do disproportionately badly from subjective metrics, like predicted grades and references. Schools tend to be less aware when Black and Brown students need support for any caring responsibilities, for learning disabilities, for the everyday racial trauma they face, and when their migration status affects their ability to engage. Schools are still structured in ways that favour students who do not need a space to pray or a time to fast. Families based in the UK for generations know whom to ask to get their children work experience, can pass on tips on how to get ahead at school, and often have inherited wealth to spend on a house near the best schools.

Where individual students of colour are seen to succeed, they might be cast in the subservient ‘model minority’ role, and perhaps even elevated to police other minoritised students to become more compliant. But even those outliers might feel ripped apart from their home cultures, having to learn to code switch between their Whitened persona at school and their racialised identities in the community. This tension manifests later in life as anxiety, dysphoria, and relationship breakdowns.

As one might expect, these challenges follow young people of colour out of school. They tend to be pointed towards careers that are reinforced by cultural stereotypes: those that are lower paid, those with fewer opportunities for career progression, and those in which they face daily racial microaggressions. It perhaps comes as little surprise therefore that there is a near 12 percentage point gap between White and non-White unemployment rates in Scotland, as of 2021. The mere 1.6% of teachers of colour in Scotland become the front line, hearing and absorbing those feelings of injustice from negatively racialised pupils. Black and Brown teachers become pigeonholed into Equality, Diversity, Inclusion roles in schools, or into pastoral roles, facing higher mental health strains, risk of burnout, and ceilings to progression.

Despite the many teachers, schools, and campaigns working hard to pursue racial justice, it is still a Sisyphean task fighting against a system that is working exactly as it was designed to do: to create a segmented labour force in which certain groups of people do certain types of jobs, based on their ‘race’, class, and gender, and in which any rare exceptions are lauded as proof that that model has been replaced by meritocracy. To understand the branches of institutional racism in the workplace requires us to understand where it takes root: in our schools. UNISON’s 2023 Year of Black Workers campaign presents a hopeful starting point, vowing to support Black school staff to adopt anti-racist curricula and anti-discrimination practice in schools, as well as helping younger members overcome structural barriers at the start of their careers.

Rohit Rao is a PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow, and an anti-racism youth worker specialising in employability.