Racism in education

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Karl Kitching

The type of racism that is talked about in Irish education policy and practice, if at all, is that of racist bullying between children and young people (Department of Education and Skills [DES] 2013). Being anti-racist in schools thus involves tackling racist incidents as and when they arise. And of course, it is likely that well-meaning school staffs, themselves under pressure because of the gradual removal of resources during the past years of austerity, take such incidences very seriously, and do their best to create a positive learning environment for all. But another version of racism briefly raised over 10 years ago by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) guidelines on intercultural education is that of institutional racism. This differentiates between one’s intentions, and the possibly unintended outcomes of institutional processes.

While individual racist practices and attitudes are sometimes the most obvious form of racism, they are not the only form of racism. The term institutional racism is used to describe racism in the form of discriminatory provisions in legislation, regulations or other formal practices… Indirect racism and other types of indirect discrimination occur when practices or policies, which do not appear to discriminate against one group more than another, actually have a discriminatory impact. It can also happen where a requirement, which may appear non-discriminatory, has an adverse effect on a group or class of people… Indirect racism may also be found in the development of provision which reflects only the majority culture or which assumes that everyone belongs to that culture (NCCA 2005: 9).

There is nothing new about the distinction made between good intentions and institutional outcomes that the above concept of institutional racism introduces. The concept is many decades old and originated with the civil rights movements in the US. In Ireland, Bryan Fanning asserts that despite increasing policy recognition of the distinctiveness of Traveller culture in recent decades, Travellers’ legacy in Ireland “is characterised by the persistence of institutional racism in many areas of social policy, a long-standing denial of Traveller ethnicity and denial of anti-Traveller racism” (Fanning 2002: 152). Bryan (2007) demonstrates how under- and misrepresented Traveller identities are in school Civic, Social and Political Education textbooks. Discussing a national study of DEIS schools, Devine (2011) notes that 92 per cent of Traveller children are estimated by their teachers to be in the “below average ability” category. Devine asserts this to be “a clear indicator of structurally embedded patterns of inequality” (2011: 42).

Similarly, analyses by Darmody, Byrne and McGinnity (2014) refer to what they describe as the “cumulative disadvantage” experienced by students of migrant background in Irish secondary schools:

  • Migrant young people are over-represented in larger schools, schools located in urban areas and those with a socio-economically disadvantaged population; this is related to housing inequalities and the barriers in place in over-subscribed schools;
  • Schools subject to between-school competition are more likely than not to have migrant students;
  • Byrne and Smyth (2011) found one-fifth of migrant students drop out of school compared with just under 10 per cent of students with Irish parents;
  • There is a level of inflexibility regarding the allocation of resources for migrant students arriving during the year; and
  • There is a deficit approach to language support, focused on migrant students’ ”lack” of language proficiency (English) and placing them in lower grades/tracks based on subjective recommendations of teachers.

The importance of the concept of institutional racism lies in its refusal to reduce racism to children and young people’s individual behaviours, and its focus on policies and collective actions that may exclude through non-ethnic, racial, national or religious criteria but where ethnic, racial, religious or national categories of people may be over-represented. It highlights the role that the state and civil society has to play in perpetuating racially unjust outcomes. For example, governmental justifications of austerity in the past decade that suggested that “we’re all in this together” were institutionally racist. They ignored the disproportionately greater effects that austerity measures have had on Roma/Traveller populations (Harvey 2013; Noonan 2013). The terms “mainstreaming” and “integration” were also abused by the government so as to reiterate and justify the removal of resources that are targeted at the specific experiences of Traveller students (Irish Traveller Movement 2011; Oireachtas Debates 2011; Kitching and Curtin 2012).

Despite this evidence, the above reference to institutional racism has never been meaningfully engaged in the Irish education sector. The National Intercultural Education Strategy (DES 2010) made no reference to racism as institutionalised. While it talks about discrimination in school admissions and the issue of patronage, when seen in relationship to the NCCA document, it effectively drops the term institutional racism. The Anti-Bullying Procedures for Primary and Post-Primary Schools (DES 2013) defined racism in Irish education as something that happens between children and young people. It thus makes children and young people effectively responsible for a much wider societal problem. The Migrant Integration Strategy (Department of Justice and Equality 2016) does put together a collection of measures which include educational measures, but only three of the monitoring committee’s meetings have been published by the date of writing (late August 2018), with little evidence of much education progress apart from Dr Rory McDaid’s Migrant Teacher Project (full disclosure – Rory is a good friend and colleague of mine). It would be naïve and would disregard history to view the failure to meaningfully confront institutional racism as accidental or unfortunate. While racism may create poor outcomes for the excluded, it has benefits for the more advantaged majority group. Neither is it unusual for statutory bodies (NCCA, government departments etc.) to adopt contradictory positions regarding what racism means. It serves the interests of those who lead and benefit from state institutions and civil society organisations to be “anti-racist,” in the sense of individual interactions, but not to meaningfully engage the difficult work of confronting racism as institutionalised and perpetuated by apparently “good” institutions such as schools.

My own research has examined the ways education systems are linked into wider systemic racism through their resonance with corporate media and border control. In particular, I have examined how education systems, media narratives and border control mechanisms jointly construct a paternalistic narrative of “good” migrants, which is a subtle warning to not become a “bad” migrant. Despite compulsory education being a routine obligation in most countries, it is interesting how certain research reports and news articles in Ireland in recent years have had to explain to us that learners born in other countries and attending Irish schools were “here to learn.” Launching the first ESRI report on immigration and schooling, Adapting to Diversity, former Minister of State for Integration John Curran stated:

Newcomer students, I am very glad to note, may raise the standard and learning expectations in schools serving the needs of disadvantaged communities. They are also seen by school principals as hard-working and motivated. This positive attitude must, in no small way, be attributed to parents’ aspirations for their children.

Defining being “here to learn” and “hard-working” as heroic acts in knowledge societies, where your quality of life depends hugely on your degree of formal learning, indicates the low level at which pro-migrant and anti-racist research and comment has to exist in order to be heard by media and politicians. I have looked at its historical precedent in 18th and 19th century Ireland when it dawned on colonials that brute force wasn’t working. Peasant and Catholic Irish efforts to survive cultural and demographic genocide through hedge schools and other activities began to be celebrated and appropriated by Westminster as indicating a “fervour for learning” (Kitching 2014). This “good other” or “good migrant” mindset oversimplifies learners as good, or bad, depending on an effectively biological notion of their cultural dispensation towards learning. It is a colonial, paternalistic mindset that hides the violence enacted against migrant and minority ethnic learners.

In The Politics of Compulsive Education (Kitching 2014) I analysed Irish Times and Irish Independent reports in 2005 of the threatened and enacted deportation of students from their schools by the Garda National Immigration Bureau. The regularly repeated, “sensible” sentiment was that we shouldn’t take children from schools but in brackets, just take them from the often obscured Direct Provision centres designed to facilitate deportations, where the citizen kids don’t have to watch. Educators’ reported anti-deportation politics while well-intentioned, often position racisms as being an issue for other institutions, not schools. For example, Brennan and Donnelly (2005) reported:
The Joint Managerial Body (JMB)… is seeking meetings with the authorities to press for “more humanity in the exercise.” JMB general secretary George O’Callaghan said some schools complained about the “heavy-handed” approach taken by some of the people involved. He said there was a lack of understanding about the effect it had on other students.

On appointment to the junior Ministry for Integration in 2007, Conor Lenihan stated “there can be no integration without deportation” (Brennan 2007). Three years earlier, the 2004 citizenship referendum decided a legal distinction must be made between Irish children and Irish-born children (the term used to describe children born in Ireland to non-citizen migrant parents, and thus not entitled to Irish citizenship). Governments in Fortress Europe are clearly ambivalent about immigration, effectively saying that we only want governable, high-skilled migrants, meaning that national institutions like schools are only imagined as integrationist in relation to a desirably diverse citizenry.

I have also examined how children and young people in schools have racist and anti-racist strategies of their own, whether they are conscious of using them or not. We need to understand children’s actions not as the isolated actions of individuals, but as the actions of full participants in child cultures and to a less recognised extent, wider societies. The interview scene below is set in an inner city Irish Catholic boys’ school, where I interviewed 7 and 8-year-old children as part of a much wider research project titled making ‘Making Communion’, funded by the Irish Research Council.  In this excerpt, I ask three Irish-born boys attending a Catholic boys’ DEIS Band 1 school to describe the feelings of a hypothetical girl in the Catholic school next door who was not making her Communion. Ronan is white-Irish and Catholic, Samuel is Filipino-Irish and Catholic, and Hasan is Bangladeshi-Irish and Muslim.

Karl:                Why do you think she’d feel sad (that she wasn’t making Communion)?
Ronan:             Because she wouldn’t feel that holy
Samuel:           Yeah and em, like
Karl:                But what if she’s another religion?
Ronan:             (Immediately takes up the question by turning confidently to Hasan) Hasan
do you feel sad (as a non-Catholic/Muslim)?
Hasan:             No (laughs, again quite confidently)

Ronan:              But (she’s not sad) like cause she’s a different religion. She could be Irish.
Hasan:             I am Irish.
Samuel:           No you aren’t
Ronan:             No you’re not, you’re Bangladesh-ish!
Samuel:           (Laughs)
Hasan:             I was born in Ireland.
Samuel:           No you’re Bangladesh – if you were Ireland you would have light skin. You
have dark as-brown skin.
Karl:                But Hasan was born in Ireland, isn’t that right?
Hasan:             (matter-of-factly) Yep
Karl:                (To Ronan and Samuel) Same as you, same as you, same as me?
Samuel:           I was born in Ireland but I wanted to be born in the same place as my mom lives (is from; Kitching 2014)

While I can’t go in-depth here, it is notable that Samuel positions himself as “white/light-skinned Irish” in relation to Hasan, even though he may likely be viewed as Filipino or Asian in the locality. When I intervened, in a knee-jerk way, to authenticate Hasan’s Irishness on the basis of “being born here,” Samuel was incited to reflect on his multiple identities. While he and two of his siblings were born in Ireland, three other siblings and his parents were born in the Philippines. As we can see, some racially minoritised children can mobilise Catholicism to “belong more,” or be more culturally compatible than others. This is not the result of ignorance or youth; it is one of the ways that the game of social status is set out by our school system.
How can we make this tiny encounter relate to the broader context of challenging institutional racism in education, and how do we avoid reducing it to the behaviour of individuals who are not linked in to wider social systems and histories? One way of course is to generate greater amounts of research on racism and education in Ireland. Another way is for the school to examine the encounter between Hasan and his friends, and to put in some reforms that seek to present a plural notion of Irishness that is not restricted to being white and/or Catholic. This is undoubtedly helpful. But as the “post-truth” era suggests, rationality, evidence and principled positions can have limited effects helpful in challenging racism: racism is about deeply embodied and emotionally held positions, privileges and exclusions. Similarly, given the historic embedding of institutional racism in Irish schools and elsewhere, the danger of liberal reform efforts is always the saving of the good white institution, and the constant classifying of good or bad, ideal and abject students, in terms of how they follow or reject school requirements. Drawing on Isin and Nielsen (2008), it is important that we regard Hasan’s resistant intervention – and countless other interventions in everyday school life – as an act of learner-citizenship. Acts of learner-citizenship are confounding, creatively producing new claims for recognition beyond the pre-defined terms defining who belongs and who does not. If followed, they may more radically alter or de-legitimise persistent yet changing racist modes of classification, feeling, speech and activity. However, acts of learner-citizenship are delicate and are easily swallowed by the everyday way “we do things around here.”It is important then that multiple paths are negotiated: attempts to reform the institution have little use or traction on their own, and have to be accompanied by efforts to resist and call out what the institution is doing. It is only through confounding institutions, or calling for the disbanding of certain institutions, that we can actually create meaningful new solutions.

Whether challenging racism in mundane or more overt and confrontational ways, it is important that we make no mistake: racially minoritised learners have already taken on the burden of, and responsibility for a dynamically changing, globalised racial order that was never their own. Therefore, their right to claim their legitimacy must be constantly brought in, both through predictable, official and unofficial anti-racist practices, and through acts that confound, resist, make new claims for recognisability, and that pose the question of how to act.

Go to the Beyond hate crime: Perspectives on racism in Ireland main page

Dr Karl Kitching is a lecturer in education in the School of Education, University College Cork, currently on secondment to act as Director of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in UCC. He is a member of the Editorial Boards for the journals Race Ethnicity and Education, and Whiteness and Education. Significant recent publications include the 2014 book The Politics of Compulsive Education: Racism and Learner-Citizenship and the forthcoming (2019) book Childhood, Religion and School Injustice.

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Brennan, M. and K. Donnelly (2005), “Classmates of deported teen get counseling, ”Irish Independent 22 March.
Bryan, A. (2007), “The (mis)representation of Travellers in the civic, social and political education curriculum,” in P. Downes and A.L. Gilligan (eds), Beyond Educational Disadvantage. Dublin: IPA, 247 – 258.
Byrne, D. and E. Smyth (2011), Behind the Scenes? A Study of Parental Involvement in Post-Primary Education. Dublin: The Liffey Press, in association with the ESRI, NCCA and DES.
Darmody, M., D. Byrne and F. McGinnity (2013), “Cumulative disadvantage? Educational careers of migrant students in Irish secondary schools,” Race Ethnicity and Education 17(1): 129-151.
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