ON THE FRONTLINE: Reflections on Trying to Teach on Race, Class & Colonialism in School(s)

ON THE FRONTLINE: Reflections on Trying to Teach on Race, Class & Colonialism in School(s)

Amit Singh

Over recent years there has been a growing interest in what has come to be known as “decolonizing the curriculum”. This movement emerged in relation to higher educational spaces, with the most recent iterations sparked by the Rhodes Must Fall Campaign at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Less attention has been paid to what “decolonizing” would look like practically within schools. This article offers thoughts and reflections on the running of a 22-week supplementary curriculum – “Race, Class & Society” – that started in September 2017 and now runs across two sixth forms in East and South London. Whilst “decolonizing” was never a goal for this project, I hope to offer some practical examples of teaching about colonialism (and its legacies) to young people outside of a higher educational setting.

Trying to Teach Race in Schools
Inspired by what I learnt and how I was taught on Dr Yasmeen Narayan’s excellent Culture, Diaspora, Ethnicity (MA) I teamed up with a friend of mine, Mr Jamal,[1] who is a teacher at a secondary school in South London, to develop a supplementary curriculum on “race” and “colonialism”.

Mr Jamal: They never would have gone for it if it cost anything. It being free helped a lot.

It was not easy to get the project off the ground due to scepticism from members of staff; “Why don’t they want money?” / “Why are they doing it then?” / “Some of the content sounds very anti-white.” However, following Dr Adam Elliot-Cooper’s pilot session, Crime, Race & Police Power, in September 2017, plus his credentials as someone with a PhD from the University of Oxford, the school sanctioned the project. Initially it ran as an afterschool enrichment club every Tuesday from 3-4pm with a combination of lectures from academics (thanks to Dr Sai Englert, Dr Fatima Rajina and Dr Stephanie Davis) and seminar style sessions run by myself. There was no written component to the course and no homework. However, being an afterschool club created barriers to entry.

Mr Jamal: Getting kids to come after school was tough! Some were put off by academics, others by the school. Some had jobs, some just had too much on. It was a lot to ask them to come. I think being a bit intimidated too by academics coming in, who they didn’t know or trust. But some students I really wanted to come and told me they liked the idea of it, but they view the school as racist, so wouldn’t trust any clubs at school that claim to discuss racism. Those are all barriers to students. It meant only really committed, bright students came in the beginning.

Within the first year we had a committed, highly intelligent group of around eight students who really bought into the project, but it was otherwise difficult to entice more students to come regularly to what was seen as just an afterschool club.

Still Trying to Teach Race in Schools
Now approaching the fourth year of this curriculum, working across one academy in South London and one sixth form college in East London, the project is more refined. In South London it is now much more accepted. After having run the successful first year pilot, other schools were keen for us to replicate it, which led to expanding the project into a sixth form college in Hackney.

The curriculum, now titled “Race, Class & Society”, is designed to mimic a year long university module and act as an introduction to academic discussions and theories. The first five weeks, unofficially titled “the making of the modern world” focus directly on histories of colonialism;

  1. What was colonialism?
  2. Slavery & Legacies
  3. Colonialism & Modernity
  4. Decolonizing and Revolution
  5. What is Race?

These weeks are aimed at offering foundations from which to build, as we attempt to situate the social world as being shaped by the legacies of colonialism. We then move into more contemporary discussions and use the lectures as case-studies and examples. Last year we had Dr Kojo Koram on the War on Drugs and the Global Colour Line, Professor Gurminder K Bhambra on the Haitian Revolution, Dr Brendan McGeever on Race, Class and Brexit and Dr Lisa Tilley on Extractivism, Colonialism and Race.

For the sessions we run, each class begins by giving students 5-6 minutes to work in groups to discuss an initial question. These are deliberately open-ended in order to loosen them up and to work from their knowledge base. In week 10 the topic is “What is whiteness?” Students often begin listing physical characteristics (“noses”, “hair”, “skin colour”), before thinking more deeply after a bit of prodding. Our goal is to get students to see how race is not solely constructed in relation to skin colour and relatedly to draw out the instability of racial categories; “What do the historically shifting borders of whiteness tell us about race?” A combination of discussion questions and theory is aimed at creating the space for critical discussion and reflection.

This can sometimes lead to frustrations; “What’s the answer?” / “It’s just so complicated”. But our position was never to tell students what to think. Instead we encourage them to develop a deep, contextualized understanding of the world through posing a series of open-ended questions throughout the session. We want students to push themselves beyond popular concepts of “privilege” and “micro-aggressions” by connecting the interpersonal to the structural. It’s not enough for them to be able to say that “x” or “y” is racist, they need to be able to explain how and why. Introducing students to some of the classic work of Ambalavaner Sivanandan Stuart Hall, and Paul Gilroy, helps to do this.

Since this project went from being an afterschool enrichment club to taking period 5 on the time-table last year, the numbers have ballooned to an average of 30 students per week. This has presented new challenges.

Mr Jamal: We’re teaching them the opposite of what they know about race and racism. We’re saying it’s not name-calling, it’s not just individual. It’s structural. I think we’re altering it and adapting well. That was a new challenge. Before though, the level of learning was definitely university level. Now we sometimes have to go back to saying “Empire was bad!” But this makes the sessions more inclusive. I think we’ve made a curriculum that can be applicable to anyone, from any starting point.

This has required us to adapt our curriculum for the coming year. But at its core, the project is about chipping away. Even with these “mainstream views” many students were able to eventually see that race is socially and historically contingent, rather than fixed. Many students also acknowledged that race was about more than skin colour and were able to tackle complex concepts like Du Bois’ “wages of whiteness”. Hopefully some of them will take what they learnt here and develop it as they see fit. Part of the project has been accepting small victories, as well as moving on swiftly from defeats (and there are many!). In trying new things and being honest that some things just don’t land. But as Mr Jamal tells me, that is what teaching is about!

Going Forward
The goal of the project was never to “decolonize education” (whatever that even means now) or even to change the curriculum (although we have developed a six week Key Stage 3 unit on British Civil Rights). It’s just to hopefully provide a space for students to develop ideas that they might not otherwise have the chance to engage with and to introduce them to some thinkers and ideas that I hope will have a big impact on them.

Whatever limitations there are in teaching race in schools, there are also emancipatory possibilities. Ignoring the language of “cultural capital” and “readying students for university”, I have seen countless young people show immense ability to critically engage with the world around them. Not in a way that fosters pessimism, but in ways that are hopeful. Hope, which for me, comes from seeing these students impassionately rallying together for a better world and doing so whilst being kind to one another, even if there were often disagreements.

This is a model that I’d encourage others to adapt and to change. It is very labour intensive, but it is also deeply rewarding. It would finally also not be possible without the brilliant teachers and academics who have been so generous in donating their time and knowledge for free over the last three years (and for many more years to come…) and importantly for Sita Balani and Yasmeen Narayan, whose teaching at Birkbeck inspired this project.

[1] Mr Jamal is a pseudonym for a PBE secondary school teacher in South London who has been teaching for eight years. He is also the coordinator of the Race, Class & Society programme in South London.


Amit Singh is a Psychosocial Studies PhD student at Birkbeck College. Alongside this, he runs the 22-week Race, Class & Society supplementary curriculum aimed at sixth formers at two schools in South and East London. As part of this project, he is designing a 6-week Key Stage 3 History Unit for a school in South London on “British Civil Rights”, with the aim of sharing these resources more broadly.

Image Credit: Malate269, Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons