Does Race Belong in the Classroom?

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In many parts of the world, race continues to be a primary tool used to order society. It can decide the nature of the citizenship you enjoy, the quality of education you receive, whether someone gives you a job, and whether you are protected by or persecuted by the state. But should race be discussed in the classroom?

Education itself has become deeply racialised, particularly in the western world. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that the western iteration of formal education is a racialised system of knowledge acquisition. In the west, the education system was and continues to be the primary tool of racialisation. Not only were children taught differently according to their race, but segregation and underfunding meant that the entire race-based education system was used to materially and psychologically oppress groups on the grounds of race. This thus made broader economic and social oppression easier to effect. 

But it goes further than that. Education was also central to cultural and intellectual denigration, which many thinkers hold to be the primary vehicle of colonisation. What we call education is perhaps more accurately the western iteration of formal education characterised by pathologies of western truth. This is effected through a universalising of the western lived experience and western intellectualism. There is nothing wrong with a western system of education that prioritises western knowledge or western thinkers. However, the western education system has historically gone further than that to deem itself the only valid system of knowledge acquisition, with its knowledge being the only true knowledge. Other experiences, where considered, can only be understood when analogised to the western experience. The result has been an epistemic dichotomisation in which western culture and the white experience are the sole vessels of truth in the western iteration of formal education. All other experiences are deviations deemed “unusual”, unfamiliar, underdeveloped, primitive or of little consequence. 

Related Article: Black Bodies, White Classrooms

This cultural and intellectual denigration is effected firstly, through omission, that is, to not regard the other at all. For example, to not include Black historical figures in global discourses on the emergence of nationalism, democracy and industrial advancement, or even more insidiously, to justify this omission with the belief that no such Black historical figures of consequence exist. Secondly, this is effected through exclusion, that is, to actively devalue the other. For example, considering other societies as ‘undeveloped’ or ‘third world’ thus calling into question the humanity of other peoples and fostering denigrating thoughts about other cultures). Finally, this is effected through persecution, that is, to actively demonise the other. For example, labelling African religions as ‘Black magic’ or witchcraft unbefitting to be classed as true religion. 

The western iteration of education also had a disturbing history of being used to actively strip the children of other cultures of those cultures and replacing them with western culture. For example, in Canada and Australia, indigenous communities speak about the systematic removal of indigenous children from their families and their confinement to schools of western indoctrination. These schools were little more than concentration camps. Children were only allowed to speak English, traditional dress was banned, traditional religion rejected, and the only history taught was western history. They were there to be westernised; their parents were not allowed to remove them and many died by systematic neglect. Educators of that time were complicit in the passage of laws, designing curricula, and teaching children in these schools. Thus, when somebody says that race has no place in the classroom, they misunderstand that the classroom in the western tradition is an inherently racialised space, particularly for those who are not of European origin and for ideas that are not of European origin. 

African History Project - Apeike Umolu

“…racialisation has diminishing returns – an education system that stunts knowledge acquisition on racial grounds is inhibiting western students who are increasingly having to compete with graduates and entrepreneurs on a global level.”

– Apeike UMOLU

Race plays a part in what we decide about the nature of physical buildings, where we locate them, what we name them, the posters we display in them, the teachers we allow into them, and most potently, the content we teach in them are. We cannot escape it – the western iteration of formal education developed at the same time that the theories of race, both social and scientific, were being developed in the west. The nineteenth century was simultaneous the era of mass and formalised education of the middle and working classes in the west, and the age of the missionary and military colonisation of Africa, and the proliferation of state-sanctioned suppression of the civil rights of emancipated Black communities in the Americas. Thus, the racialisation of buildings, personnel and curricula are defining features of the western iteration of formal education, particularly as it relates to the Black student, Black educator and Black intellectual production.

Related Article: Decolonising the Global Citizenship Agenda in History Education

You can see then why education must also be a central tool in the fight against racism and racialisation. Educators that want to teach in the western world without considering race will find themselves at a disadvantage. There is an increasing call from white and Black communities alike to de-colonise and de-racialise the education system. This is coupled with the realisation that racialisation has diminishing returns – an education system that stunts knowledge acquisition on racial grounds is inhibiting western students who are increasingly having to compete with graduates and entrepreneurs on a global level. Whereas the western hegemony means that other societies have had to learn about western culture and how to survive within it, western students, particularly white students in western education systems, have not had to develop the ability or resilience to thrive in an environment not cast in their image. The result is that graduates of the global east and the global south are more intellectually and culturally mobile; they understand the western system and know how to thrive within it. But they also understand their own systems and know how to succeed within those. 

The western graduate, taught by analogy alone, struggles to thrive in systems that are not his own and is often reduced to trying to change foreign systems into western systems before she can engage with them. Without the colonial machine to support such cultural engineering, and in the face of the determined anti-colonial feeling of the young people of the global east and the global south, this is not possible – foreign systems are bending less and less to the cultural will of the west. Thus, there are real economic reasons to give students in the west an understanding of the impact and, paradoxically, the redundancies of race. Educators should aim to promote a humanist approach to knowledge acquisition that dispels with hierarchies of culture and embraces the search for value in all experiences.