August 21st 2020
If you are not willing to keep learning then it is time to give up. I have learned a lot in the last few weeks. At the start of June the school was subject to a number of allegations of racism from former and present pupils and it was obviously a difficult time. I am very proud of the level of pastoral care at the College and it was not easy to have to confront the evidence that, when it came to dealing with matters of racism, the College had a lot to learn. We immediately set up an independent review into how we had done things in the past, in order to make recommendations for the future. That process has been a challenging one, both for the College and for me personally.
I want to share with you three things in particular that I have learned through this.
The first is that I thought I understood racism. I used to run an all-black school in South Africa, a society still largely shaped by the monster of Apartheid. The legacy of that racist ideology is easy for all to see. Too easy perhaps, as South Africa stands as the most unequal country in the world. The current debate, and the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, has exploded since the death of George Floyd, as if black people are saying ‘enough is enough.’ The foundations of the USA were built on racism and those effects remain to this day. We can all be experts on the glaring injustices that are evident in South Africa or the USA and we will have strong opinions about them. It can be reassuring to look at ‘that racism over there.’ However, I have learned that it is much harder to spot the issues of racism that might be carrying on under one’s nose, the subtle, undermining and corrosive instances that wear people down and sap their self-esteem. That requires a new way of looking at things, honest listening and a commitment to not ignoring the ‘micro-aggressions’ that are the lived experience of many black people in this country.
Secondly, I realise how inadequate the current school curriculum is to teach young people about the history of racism. Again, I have made myself very conversant in the history of colonialism and in particular the part my country, the United Kingdom, played in that extraordinary period of history. The British History curriculum is hot on the Tudors and on 20th Century dictators, but there is nothing concerning Empire and its legacy. However, I have come to realise that the modern world is impossible to understand without an understanding of colonialism. The reason that my country is full of immigrant communities is because of Empire. Or, to put it as others have, ‘we are over here because you were over there.’ This summer I read Black and British by the British Nigerian historian David Olusoga. It was challenging and uncomfortable and made me realise, similar to my first point, that it is one thing to be an expert in the problems of other countries, but another to know the history of one’s own country. I knew everything about Apartheid and a fair bit about the history of race in the USA. To my shame, I knew nothing about the history of black communities in my own country, let alone in Ireland. In both Ireland and the UK, for sure, there is a need to adapt the curriculum to educate young people in such matters. And, as adults, we are all responsible for informing ourselves about why things are as they are and I would recommend everyone to read up on it. Don’t parrot the opinions of other people…develop your own opinions through reading and study.
Thirdly, I have learned about the importance of creating a culture within a school in which young people feel comfortable to talk about their experiences. If we have failed to provide that sort of environment then that is my fault…and it is my responsibility to do something about it. There is always a danger that pupils keep things bottled up inside themselves until there is a crisis, rather than feeling free to express themselves and air their frustrations. It is no good talking about it without intentionally creating the conditions for such honesty to flourish. That is one of the big challenges for me personally this coming year.
I hope that we will be a better school at the end of this process than we were at the beginning. No one likes to be shown up and admit shortcomings, but, as I often say to the pupils who have misbehaved and been brought into my office, making a mistake is not the end of the world…how you respond is what is important. I am determined that we as a school respond in such a way that we can set an example to other schools of how to build a community in which everyone feels welcomed and cherished.