Continuing the series on equality, diversity and inclusion, this is a piece written by Co-founder Lucy Kellaway. It was originally published by the Financial Times on the 10th of July. Below is an edited version. The full version can be accessed here (£).
An overview of our response as an organisation to the BLM movement can be read here.
The killing by police officers of George Floyd, and the protests that followed, have made all of us stop and think about race. They have made white liberals everywhere start examining their own behaviour for traces of racism. For me, this uncomfortable audit began, not with the killing of a black man in Minnesota, but three years earlier, when I started teaching in a school in Hackney. At the age of 58 I was lifted out of a world in which everyone was like me into a world where I was in a minority as a white Brit. My pupils’ families came from all over the place: first-, second- and sometimes third-generation immigrants from Nigeria and Ghana, from the Caribbean, from Turkey and Bangladesh and Vietnam.
My ignorance of these communities was humiliatingly obvious from the first time I tried to take a register. There were 32 names on the computer screen in front of me, of which only 10 could I pronounce without effort. I could just about do Yusuf. But what about Kujoe, Igbekoyi or Djimon? Name after name I mispronounced. I felt I had a large sign over my head that read: this woman is a complete idiot. She is almost certainly a racist too.
As time went on, I got better at names (and have now forgotten why I ever found them so hard) but made other, worse, mistakes. In my second year I was teaching a business studies class about ethics. “Companies,” I explained to the class “are desperate to prove to the world that they are whiter than white.” There was an intake of breath. A couple of the students exchanged glances. The old-fashioned phrase, which had seemed innocuous as it formed in my head, was ugly and wrong the minute it emerged from my mouth into the classroom.
In the next split second I made a calculation. Should I stop the lesson and apologise? Or might this open an entire Pandora’s box of grievances? I decided to plough on and pretend nothing had happened. Because the school is so strict, no one challenged me directly, but I was shaken. It is a phrase I will never use again.
Underlying all this is a big question I don’t know the answer to. When I am teaching, is it my job to think about race constantly, or never to think about it? Until recently, I would have said the latter. What I am being paid to do is to teach economics and make students believe that a positive externality is a wondrous thing. If I make a good fist of that, I’m helping all my students — the boy who shares a two-room flat with his Bangladeshi mother and five siblings as well as the girl who lives in a big house on Victoria Park and whose father is a high-up exec at the BBC.
I suspect that, like everyone on earth, I have a whole bundle of unconscious biases. I know my heart is in the right place on race, but I also know my heart is an irrelevant organ when it comes to traversing this minefield. I need instruction.
I became aware just how bad things were a few months ago, when I was a judge in a public-speaking competition open to all secondary schools in Hackney. Each school fielded two 15-year-olds who had given the best speeches on any topic they wanted to talk about. On the night, I sat at the judges’ table in an assembly hall and listened to two dozen teenagers project their voices and speak from the heart without notes. It should have been uplifting, but I left feeling grimmer than when I’d arrived. Of the finalists, eight were black girls, the first of whom gave a powerful talk about how she as a young black woman felt marginalised. The next girl gave a speech about how ideals of female beauty did not include black beauty. Six further talks followed along similar lines. The performances varied from medium to electrifying but the topic was the same.
The judging took place about 200 yards from where I live, but I might as well have stepped into another world. I suppose I’d assumed that racism in London was less of a problem than it was a generation earlier, so it was a shock to discover that this was the only theme the girls wished to talk about. I now see that what things used to be like is an irrelevance to these young women. What matters to them is the present — and their account of it is both important and distressing.
I don’t know what the answer is in policy terms. I don’t even know what, if anything, I can do in my own classroom — apart from trying to avoid dropping any more antediluvian clangers. In the absence of any better ideas, all I think I can do for now is to listen to my students talking about their world, while continuing to talk to them about mine. I am educating them. And they are educating me.
Lucy Kellaway: what my students have taught me about race