Black Lives Matter: How education has its part to play

Date 30.07.2020

Nick Cartwright, Senior Lecture in Law at the University of Northampton shares an insight into his PhD thesis.

You don’t need a PhD to know that racism isn’t ok. That being said, my PhD findings further demonstrate the need for sustained work to refocus many areas of policy and thinking, as well as the culture shift needed to reduce the impact racism has. Specifically, my PhD thesis explores the complex realities of the relationship between race and the method and practice of teaching and learning.

People across the globe have, rightly, been shocked by the murder of George Floyd. His death is unbearable to watch, it’s a shocking act of racial violence. The eight minutes and 46 seconds of video, of this truly unjust killing, have become the catalyst for an important and long overdue conversation about race across the globe. A conversation I’ve long used my voice to take part in, a conversation, I’m pleased to welcome more people to be part of.

Out of the immediate shock we all felt after this act of hate has grown a huge wave of outward support to rally against racist behaviour. Across the globe, people – regardless of the colour of their skin – have shown their solidarity and empathy with way people of colour are frequently mistreated. This huge public act is long overdue but it must be followed by concrete actions.

In the wake of something so shocking, we all reflect and then react. For many the immediate reaction has been to use our own voice to call for action, change and reform in the strongest of terms.  I’ve been comforted by the many using their privilege, power and influence to talk about racial injustice and using their voices to educate their friends, family and others. People have used their social media platforms, they’ve written letters, held open debates, educated, and taken part in protests. Kneeling to show they see and hear.  I am though still involved in conversations about how to respond when there is no one of colour in the (virtual) room.  I am still seeing white fragility when people show resentment at having to acknowledge their own privilege.  I am still seeing tokenism and expectations of gratitude for simply treating people as equals.

Many higher education leaders have published statements of solidarity and new commitments to change. My institution, the University of Northampton, has done that, and is committed to using its resources to educate, and inform. I would suggest that those of us in academia – like me, as a Senior Lecturer in Law – should go further to address the complex realities of the education system.

Using a case study approach my thesis evaluates how students ‘participate’ in group and team learning activities, investigating which students were dominant and subordinate during the learning activities.

I was convinced that active and experiential models of learning enhanced learning and teaching and I wanted to prove this.  Specifically, I focused my interest in the relationship this had, when mapped against the students’ race and gender.  My research did not show that innovative approaches to learning and teaching created an equal and fair learning environment, but neither did gender emerge as the key driver of discrimination.  These findings were both a surprise to me.

My study found that although gender did have an effect on the social relations of dominance and subordination, race was the dominant driver.  I argue that HE is so stubbornly institutionally racist that this persists in spite of our approach to learning and teaching.  White students almost always took relations of dominance and did so more when black students were present.  Black students rarely demonstrated relations of dominance and all took relations of subordination.  Mixed-race and Asian students also tended towards relations of subordination.

The study further found that all the students did not report these social relations, instead reporting that power relations were based on meritocracy and democracy. The student interview data demonstrated that the students did not perceive, or at least did not report perceiving, racial or gendered dominance or subordination.  The students instead described a meritocratic learning environment in which those with knowledge, expertise and, who worked hard rose to the top and those who were unable or unwilling to pull their weight contributed less. They reported a democratic learning environment in which everyone had an equal voice and decisions were reached as a team, explaining away any inequalities on other grounds such as economic deprivation, Special Educational Need (SEN) or, personal choice.

In my thesis, I conclude that for any teaching methodology to succeed in being truly inclusive, then it must be explicitly liberatory in its approach. The primacy of race must be acknowledged within an intersectional framework.  The endemic nature of racism and male dominance within Higher Education should be acknowledged.

The best outcome would be for the primacy of race to be acknowledged at government policy level, but there is a danger in making such a recommendation that individual Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) or even the whole sector feel excused from local action until this happens. There is also a need to temper recommendations with realism.

So, what can we do now to create change? Educate ourselves to gain a deeper understanding of race in education.  It is our job to educate ourselves.  It is not the job of people of colour to educate us.  For a general introduction, I would recommend reading ‘White Fragility’ by Robin Di’Angelo.  For a more detailed look at history, Peter Fryer’s ‘Staying Power’ is excellent.  If you work in education then Professor Kalwant Bhopal’s examination of race and education, ‘White Privilege’, is excellent.  It’s ok not to be confident in your understanding, but you must take responsibility and action to become more confident.

I urge you to take the lead, rather than waiting for the next module, or programme review, to take steps to deliberately revise your teaching practice to enhance representation and ensure that you’re intellectually and practically inclusive.  This must start with critical reflection on your own position and practice.  What obstacles do you face and what privileges do you benefit from?  In your own discipline how are certain voices and perspectives privileged whilst others are silenced?  If you teach you are certainly an expert in your own discipline as you relate to it from your own position.  We much however humble ourselves and accept what we do not know and may never be able to understand.  What is not considered core knowledge to our disciplines that really should be?  What does our discipline mean to students who are in a very different position from us?  My PhD was based on my teaching on Public Law and we looked at how the British electoral system operated.  I always pressed on my students the importance of voting in elections.  I never once recognised that many of my students would have not had a candidate who looked like them on the ballot.  Something that as a white man I confidently expect to always have.  This kind of reflection will help us unpick the nature of our respective disciplines so that we can build truly equitable programmes.

My own critical reflection has led me to understand that I am privileged in that I was in the position professionally and academically to undertake this PhD.  I am privileged in that I can undertake research in this area and that my voice is heard without me being side-lined as whining or angry.  Finally, I am privileged in that I have an emotional distance from the violence done to women and people of colour that means that I can engage in work like this without it doing violence to me.

Nick’s PhD will shortly be submitted for Viva, and available to read in full, subject to amendments.