Monday 1 March 2010

The myth of racist kids

The problem with anti-bullying and anti-racist policies

Teachers in Britain are obliged, under the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, to record the number of racist incidents in their schools. This has resulted in the reporting of an estimated 250,000 such incidents, and race relations officials claim this is just the tip of the iceberg.Yet Adrian Hart, a community filmmaker and tutor, argues in The Myth of Racist Kids: Anti-Racist Policy and the Regulation of School Life that ‘the notion of racist kids is in large part a myth’. Hart became concerned about today’s anti-bullying and anti-racist policies while working on a government-funded educational film about racism in schools.

He writes: ‘I observed a strange and concerning phenomenon: in modern cosmopolitan Britain, where race is becoming less and less relevant, and where children often have friends from many different ethnic groups, the dominant racialising influence on children is anti-racist policy itself. It is state anti-racist policy that is keeping the question of race alive at a time when many people - especially children - are living increasingly colour-blind lives.‘

He argues that today’s anti-racist educators ‘may have the best of intentions’, but ‘their missionary zeal reifies race, exaggerates racism and profoundly misunderstands children’.

Through tackling head-on the controversial subject of children and racism, Hart deals with a number of important issues that are particularly close to my heart. He argues that ‘anti-racist policy operating in schools has had a disabling effect on both children and teachers’.

In my recent book, Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and Play in an Age of Fear, I also stress the need to appreciate that children are children and not nasty little brutes or helpless victims. Whereas in the past it was accepted that children, in their unsophistication, would employ the kind of tactless, heartless, even in-your-face offensive behaviour that adults could not get away with, today such behaviour in the playground is seen as just as shocking and problematic as if it were between adults in an office.

The problem with this is that by focusing on bullying and racism in schools we can end up denying children the experiences they need to develop. Children need free time to play, have fun, stumble into difficulties, and work out how to resolve differences. Break-time is an important context for children to learn how to make decisions, take turns, and consolidate or break off friendships - and, of course, to let off steam and have some fun.

As Hart writes: ‘Of course schools should, and frequently do, discipline children for name-calling and bullying, just as for any other form of anti-social behaviour. But the fact that children are required to respect adult authority in the classroom does not alter their need to engage - at break-time - in unfettered peer interaction. In this sphere adults should take a step back and allow children the freedom to flourish.‘

Anti-racist policy, like anti-bullying policies, also has a disabling effect on teachers. ‘It undermines trust in teachers, their autonomy and their ability to deal with minor disputes occurring in their school’, Hart writes. This is part of a broader problem where teachers, like all adults, are increasingly treated as emotionally illiterate beings: they are spoonfed information about what to teach and given detailed guidance about how to engage with their pupils.

Anti-racist measures in schools have been put beyond criticism. Hart’s report is a brave and lucid attempt to break this censorious silence and hold these measures up for scrutiny.

First published by Psychology Today Blog