[Zahra Diouman was born and resides in Richmond, Surrey, UK – of Mauritian parents. She is 15 and is in Year 10. She wrote this letter on ‘Racism’ to her teacher after a class discussion.]
A fairly privileged white male shushing a class of young 15-year old students attempting to have an intellectual conversation about modern day racial struggles should seriously call into question the legitimacy and integrity of the school, its employees and our education system but it doesn’t. People in power (read: adults) accept our failure of a system and the issues it fosters in new and strong generations of children. This reckless acceptance is so aggravating as it means we have to sit and watch our voices become silenced, marginalised and so easily dismissed because “unfortunately that’s just the way it is”.
The only authors we have studied about have been white and the large majority (if not all) have most certainly been male. This one weak attempt to introduce diversity into the English literature curriculum has been made redundant because no one wants to focus on the ugly truth of the most important matter at hand. Diversity is meant to inspire generations to open their minds, learn about discrimination and find out about how to use their privilege to help those that have been unfairly oppressed. Education is the priority – not the menial work the privileged teacher is attempting to complete.
Teachers shouldn’t be concerned if we’re screaming and shrieking about racism at the top of our lungs and jumping on the tables. They ought to be proud to have the chance to teach such revolutionary children. I know I would be.
Educating privileged people about racial struggles should be a priority as well as encouraging people with highly evident privilege to speak up against racism. The only way to combat racism is to acknowledge one’s privilege as opposed to feeling uncomfortable talking about it and utilise one’s power to help oppressed people who have been silenced unjustly because of the colour of their skin.
The author of the book we’re studying (Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman) is a white man writing about the struggles of being a young immigrant boy from Ghana in a working-class neighbourhood in London. However, not once in the acknowledgements or any interviews post-release does the author ever acknowledge any other talented black authors who actually understand this awful struggle and who have been oppressed. He mentions no inspirations other than Damilola Taylor (a ten-year old Nigerian boy murdered in London, whom he has loosely based his story on). He has used the story of hundreds and thousands of black kids to his advantage and to be seen as a highly aware and generous person. He has completely wasted his privilege and the attention this book has gotten. Kelman could have done plenty of things – donated the proceeds from the book to charities helping young immigrants struggling with racism, featured at least a dozen very talented black writers who wrote beautifully about their own lives and experiences, mentioned the names of black people he interviewed to learn enough about Ghanaian culture to be able to pretend to be a Ghanaian boy or flown to Ghana and film a documentary showing the process through which he learnt about Ghanaian culture by talking to Ghanaian people. This book is truly a disappointment and failed miserably to reach its true potential as it does not shine light on such an important issue despite that being what it claims to do.
“Cynics will say that the success of white authors writing non-white protagonists is simply a response to the need of white middle class readers to have their exposure to the exotic sanitised through the comfortable, familiar filter of a white author. I hope that’s not the case.”
It is not acceptable to call offended, hurt and insulted black people “exotic” “cynics”. It is not acceptable for someone in such a comfortable position to respond to backlash concerning cultural appropriation by brazenly saying “I hope that’s not the case”. It is not okay for this man to appropriate jobs and reap royalties to the detriment of black authors who could have written more honestly about their own experiences (and written far better as well). Mr. Kelman’s casual attitude to the backlash is insulting.
This ignorance and negligence are also mirrored in our school. We’re actively surrounded by hypocrisy and condescension. This environment is seriously harmful to young children but unfortunately this is not the only school like this. It is however appalling that this school prides itself on freedom of speech and self-expression. With the exception of a tiny handful of teachers, it is the students who propel this school forward.
Page nine of our Planners state that “students have a right to expect fairness.” Yet when we ask for fairness, we are denied it because people with the actual ability to make a change have normalised an archaic system that accomplishes truly nothing it claims to accomplish.
We’ve been kindly allowed to “expect” fairness but what about when we don’t get fairness? If you have ever told a student “that’s just how it works” then you have failed your duty to protect and educate us. If you have told a student that your door is “always open” and then done absolutely nothing to help them when they came to you, you have failed. If you’ve had a student complain to you about the school’s inadequacy to properly educate its pupils about matters like homophobia and racism and then asked them how to do your job because you don’t know where to start, you have failed.
Desmond Tutu, a South African social activist, said “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
This school is neutral in situations of injustice.
It brags endlessly about its Ofsted reports but if your students are unhappy, how dare you promote your “outstanding” school? This acceptance culture neutralises young forward-thinking minds and forces us to normalise our opinions being dismissed. It teaches us that our opinions mean nothing if we are under 18.
When evaluating your school’s success, don’t you dare ask teachers, parents or random strangers carrying Ofsted badges for their opinion. Those are the opinions that DO NOT MATTER.
Ask the students. If they say “nothing’s wrong with the school” then you have in front of you a student who has normalised harmful gender stereotyping, homophobia, transphobia, racial violence, hate crimes, physical assault, verbal abuse, sexual assault, body objectification, derogatory slurs, the sexualisation of minors and more.
If you think that I’m being a bit dramatic, then myself and my peers strongly believe that you should take some time to evaluate your priorities.