The big education story of last week was, it eventually transpired, almost entirely made up.
On Wednesday, the Telegraph printed (on its front page, no less) a large picture of Lola Olufemi, Women’s Equality Officer at Cambridge University, alongside the headline “Student Forces Cambridge to Drop White Authors”. The following day, after the story had been picked up by a variety of other publications (including the Daily Mail) the Telegraph printed a tiny retraction which finished: “Neither [the recommendations] nor the open letter called for the University to replace white authors with black ones and there are no plans to do so”.
A storm in a teacup, you might think. Except that what this particular brand of sensationalist claptrap and the subsequent inevitable social media furore has unfortunately succeeded in doing is derailing what was, in fact, a very sensible proposal: that more black and ethnic minority writers be included within the English curriculum.
When we think of an “ism” or a “phobia” most often we associate it with affirmative action, rather than neglect. People declare themselves to be “not sexist”, for example, based on the fact that they don’t actively hate women or men, while failing to consider that unconscious gender bias is probably lurking within them somewhere, influencing their beliefs and behaviours.
I see this most often in a school environment in relation to the treatment of LGBT+ pupils. Schools – rightly – have assemblies focussing on homophobic bullying but, if the testimonials I hear from pupils are correct, they tend to wait until Year 9, or when someone in the year comes out, whichever happens first. What the school have unwittingly done in this instance is to place responsibility upon LGBT+ people for having their existence acknowledged and – in the case where one person in a year has come out – drawn further scrutiny towards them during what is already likely to be a turbulent and emotional time.
Bullying by exclusion
Racism doesn’t have to be a visible act of discrimination. By omitting BME people from the narrative of British history and from the canon of English literature, we bully them by exclusion. This has far-reaching consequences because each generation appears to assume that people of colour have “popped up from nowhere”, which in turn fuels xenophobia and anti-immigration rhetoric.
The treatment of Lola Olufemi, while abhorrent, is secondary to the crucial work her open letter aimed to kickstart. Not only in higher education, but also in schools throughout the land, teachers should have the opportunity to select modules and reading material that reflects the ethnic mix of their students. In doing so, they could not only provide a better, more honest education: they would service the wellbeing of individual pupils and their communities.
Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin
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