UKIP don’t win votes in places like London and Birmingham, even among white voters. This speaks to the fact that the fear of difference lives in the minds of those with the least exposure to it – difference is an imagined Other, a fearful unknown like the Bogeyman. In places where people of different cultures and ethnicities mix – or at least encounter each other – many of these fears and stereotypes are necessarily challenged. A white British child growing up with Muslim classmates or Sikh, or Hindu, or Black, or different in any other intersectional way from them cannot leave school with the same blind misconceptions that affect children growing up in areas of racial and cultural homogeny, where the lives of black and Asian people are more likely mediated through the media and shared unknowingness. This is not to say you can throw a bunch of assorted children into a room, lock the door, open it twelve years later and allow them to skip out hand-in-hand in racial harmony, as tolerant citizens.
Of course not. Sometimes, divisions will actually intensify but the kinds of intolerance produced by this process are at least conscious intolerances, and those holding them can be responsible for them. Schools cannot compensate for society, and society has its deep pockets of racism and ignorance, as well as its generous sprinklings across the whole system.
Those who actively turn away from those who are different to them in some identifiable way – who hold on to prejudices despite their everyday experience challenging their biases – are worse than those whose intolerance (and sometimes bigotry) is borne of ignorance. We baulk at the UKIP councillor who ‘has a problem with negro faces’ and can see no wrong in saying this publicly, and we baulk at her because of her idiocy as much as her views themselves. These attitudes are the more Royston Vasey Local Shop than KKK, but that does not and should not absolve people of blame for their ignorance, certainly from those with aspirations to represent the views of others in a democracy.
The tolerance of ignorance undermines any effort to create a shared consensus on what it means to be British – Britain in no way functions as a coherent unit, after all. When people first see themselves as British, and only then seek to identify the features of Britishness, we understandably scour our own social environment for the values that are dear to us. In a pluralistic multicultural London it is easier and more valid to speak of a diverse and inclusive Britain and Britishness than it is if you are growing up in a rural village, where everybody happens to be white. I am not being utopian about racial harmony, as if London is the culmination of Martin Luther King’s vision, but it is certainly closer to it than most parts of the UK.
Whilst we do not have impenetrable walls between different communities, we don’t particularly need them. I recognise that certain parts of certain places are genuinely mixed, with a diversity of religions, ethnicities, nations of origin and of languages coexisting together, but this is a small minority. More regularly, taking my own experience in London as an example, when we ‘zoom in’ a bit more into the map, we find divides. Newham is undeniably a very ethnically, culturally and religiously mixed borough, but that does not mean the constituent groups all live together like a patchwork. I can walk through some communities in Newham and the only white face I see is my own reflected in the shop windows, but then if I continue down that same road for five minutes, suddenly I will be seeing mostly white people, or mostly Muslim, or mostly Hindu, or mostly black. We ought to be careful not to overly romanticise the diversity of London I guess – having lots of people near each other is not the same as togetherness.
When schools have a responsibility to promote fundamental British values, what needs to be considered is not only ‘what’ these values are, but what exactly they mean. Tolerance is one of those double edged (s)words – it is a good thing to ‘be tolerant’, meaning reserving judgement and allowing for difference, but it is certainly tiptoeing towards pejoration to ‘be able to tolerate’ something. If somebody tells you they will try to tolerate living next door to you, you won’t be applauding them for their commitment to community cohesion, you would question what exactly it is that they feel they have to tolerate.
The simplest way to create a greater sense of community cohesion, on a national scale, would be for children to realise and recognise the similarities that they share, despite the fact that their skin colours, their home languages, their religions and their cultural practices might differ. Spending time together is at the heart of this endeavour. In schools that are not heavily weighted towards one particular group, this is simpler to achieve – the differences and similarities between the children in the class can be ‘reflected out’ to include other groups. I can see the challenge of promoting an anti-racist inclusive sense of community cohesion in a classroom where all of the children share similar intersectional traits (an entirely or almost entirely white, black, South Asian, Christian, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh or Hindu class), and it is certainly more difficult. The endeavour is made even more tricky by the fact that the teachers are more likely to be from the same background as the children, and to have similarly limited experience of difference.
It is tricky and weird to ‘read yourself tolerant’ in a way that does not essentialise, romanticise or deify difference. This is more likely to create a classroom full of armchair anthropologists than global citizens.
Teaching a class of children who have never met a Sikh about the 5 Ks will give them a snippet of information about Sikhism, but it won’t necessarily prevent them from recoiling at the sight of a boy with his hair in a top knot.
A memory from my own schooling can illustrate this point. When I was in primary school, I remember that there was a visitor who came to talk to us all about being Chinese. Memory does not serve me well here, but I think we must have been in Year 4 or Year 5. A Chinese lady stood at the front of our assembly hall and we could ask questions to her. This was surely intended to be a ‘cultural exchange’ of some sort, a face-to-face interaction which would allow us to learn more about the life and customs of China from somebody who has experienced it. Instead, what happened was a hall full of children subjected this lady to questions riddled with a paradoxically knowing ignorance (we didn’t know anything about China, hadn’t met a Chinese person, but knew that our questions were rude to ask – we were ignorant, but not ignorant of our ignorance, instead we were indifferent to it). The bell went and kids ran off into the playground pulling their eyelids into squints.
Whilst this memory is personal to me, and I know it is wrong to generalise from that, I think it is worth considering the extent to which ‘lessons in difference’ can serve to solidify an imagined dividing line and in a way ‘exoticise’ those who are different, but at the same time, very similar. My own classroom has the interesting dynamic this year of being majority Muslim but with a larger group of Hindu pupils than I have taught thus far.
What I propose, and what I think would work, is surely a very logistically and financially difficult endeavour. Children need to mix. Whilst I appreciate how it could be seen as unfair for Ofsted to punish a school in the middle of an entirely white area for the cultural myopia of its pupils, I do think that if schools are sincere about wanting their children to grow up with a respect for, knowledge of and (ideally!) friendship with those who have certain differences from them, they are going to need to step up. To do nothing will breed complacency and the intergenerational recycling of prejudice.
The school in question, which became a national news story after being apparently downgraded, is perhaps reflecting the values of its community. In a statement that is less venal but no less potent that the one by the UKIP councillor, the MP for the area, Sir Edward Leigh, declared
“Multiculturalism is an irrelevance in Lincolnshire with its low number of ethnic minorities, who are already welcomed and well-integrated into our local communities, as they should be.”
I worry about the experiences of children from ethnic minority backgrounds growing up in schools like these, where ‘multiculturalism’ is publicly deemed to be irrelevant. It isn’t ‘multiculture’ that is being made irrelevant – it is their culture. Perhaps the MP is speaking out of turn, and his views might be very unhelpful to the school, but to me the idea that ‘multiculturalism is an irrelevance’ is fundamentally opposed to the final half of the sentence ‘ethnic minorities who are already welcomed and well-integrated into our local communities’.
There will be no Britishness that contains a shared set of values and celebrates the contributions and cultures of its constituent citizens until all schools ensure that all pupils are guided away from the misconceptions and prejudices they hold about each other. This is equally true for all children of all faiths, cultures and ethnicities, in all parts of Britain.
It is a big ask, but I cannot think of many things more important.