Picture this conversation. A mother attempts to console her son following a horrific injury caused by school bullies. The son, in between sharp pangs of pain whimpers, “Mummy, why does no-one like me? Like why? Why did they pick on me?” Holding back tears of despair, the mother’s reply to her son’s innocent question is ‘because you are black, and in their ignorant minds you are considered less of a human being’.
This is not a fictional conversation. They are real questions posed by Raheem Bailey, the 11-year old boy who was racially bullied since starting secondary school in Abertillery, South Wales. Whilst trying to escape a particularly vicious attack, Raheem lost a finger when it became trapped in a fence.
I have become deeply concerned at the overt racism experienced by Black children in UK schools. The first case which caused great alarm was child Q. Now Raheem Bailey. The failure of state institutions to protect and safeguard Black children should not be a narrative in modern Britain. Black communities are still over-policed, meanwhile Black students experience a level of vulnerability which leaves them unsafe. The irony is stark.
Raheem Bailey’s case caused me to think deeply about school bullying and how leaders can create a culture of safety within the school gates. I recently wrote an article about effective anti-bullying campaigns here. Readers interested in understanding evidence-based approaches should take a look. The need to feel safe is a fundamental human right. Here are some ways school leaders might go about achieving this.
- Ensure that anti-prejudice is a part of the day to day curriculum. One of the most powerful ways we can overcome hatred and ignorence is through education. The Welsh government is starting to do this through their most recent legislation to make Black history a compulsory part of the national curriculum. Such efforts must be recognised and commended.
- Model the behaviours you want to see. Raheem’s mother shared how she had previously reported her son’s experience of racist bullies but little action seems to have been taken. Such negligence and failure to tackle the issue head on signals to the aggressors that this kind of behaviour is permissible. Lack of effective action implies a condoning of such behaviour. A zero tolerance approach, coupled with restorative practices could be an effective strategy in stopping such behaviour.
- A culturally responsive understanding about the specific vulnerabilities black children face. This is not be confused with special treatment and coddling of Black people. That would be counterproductive. What I am suggesting is an awareness of factors uniquely specific to ethnic minority students in the context of safeguarding. For example it would be foolish to ignore that females are more vulnerable to sexual assault than men. An understanding and acceptance of this truth is the first step in acknowledging that this group must be afforded a certain protection. Such an approach should be extended to all vulnerable groups.
There have been deep rooted historical practices of dehumanising black people. This altitude was used to justify slavery, apartheid and other forms of oppression. The parallels with Raheem’s case are clear. To his bullies he was not a person, but an other. This allowed them the cognitive dissonance to kick, abuse and attack him. Schools must ensure that minority groups are humanised and not seen as fodder to be battered by the dominant group. This goes for the LGBTQIA+ community, women, religious groups and any other group not in the majority and thus facing the potential of being ostracised or considered an inferior or a sub-group. The consequences of leaving this unchecked are devastating, not just for individual pupils, but society at large. To understand how playground bullying can lead to more heinous forms of oppression, there is an excellent TED talk by Barbara Coloroso. Read to the end of the article for the link to this talk.
Schools should do a thorough curriculum review to find out just how many opportunities students get to discuss and explore issues of discrimination and prejudice. For example, in humanities, which topics allow students to discuss racism? In English, which KS3 texts introduce students to prejudice? In biology, how was pseudo-science used to justify experimentation on minority groups and why was this wrong? Clearly there are ample opportunities for the curriculum to be a place where critical issues are explored in order to educate children about fairness, equality and human rights.
In an interview, Raheem’s mother, Shantal Bailey said “he sat there in utter agony with this gas and air… but he sat there in agony and the whole time telling me ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry mummy, I couldn’t stay there. Why does no one like me?”
School should never feel such an unsafe place. This is a conversation that Raheem’s mother should never have had with her son. School leaders must take a thoughtful, creative and committed approach to tackling racism and all forms of bullying.
TED talk by Barbara Coloroso