‘White kids lead the way’. White fragility & racism in school: an illustration. #BlackLivesMatter

In light of the current #BLM protests, I thought I would publish something personal: an exchange with my daughter’s school . This exchange happened July 2019. There is much to say about it, but for one thing it is a clear illustration of White fragility and the difficulty to achieve change when ‘unintentional’ racism is not seen, not understood, and – when raised – put down as ‘jumping to conclusions’ and ‘over sensitivity’.

A letter to my (Black) daughter’s (overwhelmingly White) secondary school:

Dear …

I overheard [my daughter] practising the Musical song they are doing with her form – I could not believe what I heard:

“And meet the nicest kids in town
Nice white kids
Who like to lead the way
And once a month
We have our negro day!”  

I really am shocked beyond belief that this day and age you would let children sing this text AT ALL. Even listening to or looking at the text should only be done in the context of a careful, thorough explanation of racism and its historical and current implications.

I appreciate that Hairspray itself was intended to be an anti-racist and critical piece AT THE TIME. However, I asked [my daughter] what she understood by all of this – she had no clue and assured me that the word ‘negro’ may actually have been replaced with something else,….

[My daughter] is mainly concerned about not being ‘pulled out’ of the Musical as a result, and punishing her is not what we’d want to do, but this really is beyond being unacceptable,..

The response from the Music teacher:

Mrs [Y] forwarded your email to me about the music theatre project that [your daughter’s] class are studying at the moment. I was deeply saddened to read it as I have worked so hard here for 23 years to promote an intolerance of racist, homophobic and sexist behaviour and when a complaint is emailed in that undermines my work with regard to this this it makes me despair that it has all been for nothing sometimes.

Having studied the progression from Opera to Music Theatre the class were asked to choose a music theatre song to perform at the end of term, one that they would stage, direct and choreograph themselves.

They chose a song from the musical Hairspray, which as I believe you know, is an anti-racism musical, but because we’re singing it out of context from the storyline, I had a lengthy (about 20 minutes) discussion with the class about the historical context of the song and the dreadful situation in America where segregation was the norm in many states, and we watched a section of the musical and discussed black history in America (they have already covered the slave trade when learning about the blues earlier this year).

As I felt other students watching the performance might misunderstand without the context, we CHANGED THE WORDS from the original song, to “once a month it’s party day“… We also discussed this at length and the class understood this, and were commendably sensitive about the issue.

[Your daughter] herself sang the above words in a rehearsal with the other thirty girls in the class at least 7 seven times last week in the subsequent lesson. It’s even more memorable as all the girls jump in the air when they sing the word ‘party’!

Frankly,  it made me feel sick to think that I had been misunderstood in this way by a parent jumping to the wrong conclusion and wonder why you did not email me about it first, when I could have explained easily.  It hurts all the more when I pride myself on my sense of injustice regarding inequality and racism and that any student of mine that has been taught by me over the years will know this.

I like to think [your daughter] and I have a good relationship – she works well in music  and in this song she’s doing some great gymnastics (which has really impressed the other girls) as part of it as that’s her forte, and I like to play to students’ strengths.”

Our response to the Head of School:

Dear [Head]

We received the email below from Mrs X as a response to our message in which we expressed our disbelief and shock at hearing [our daughter] sing some very problematic lines from a musical song that she has been learning at school. We are very sorry to read Mrs X feels so hurt.  We know [our daughter] likes her very much. We also do not doubt her commitment to equality and justice, nor did we think any harm was purposefully intended.

However, we do now understand that the gap between our perspective, experiences and understanding of the matter on the one hand, and the school’s on the other, may be too large (or too painful) to bridge. It seems the mere expression of our genuine feelings and views, triggers so much defensiveness that it become difficult to engage with the actual issues.

This is of course not uncommon: often those (seen to be) ‘complaining’ of racism or expressing a problem to do with racial issues, are told they are doing so as a result of an ‘overreaction’ or a ‘misunderstanding’ (or indeed ‘jumping to conclusions’), usually because no harm was intended or the problem is not ‘seen’. Again, this is a widespread feature in many institutions.

Therefore, rather than responding to Mrs X directly, we write to you as the Head and senior staff, both in order for you to support Mrs X with her apparent strong feelings around this (and so to mediate communication), as well as because it should not fall to us to deal with her emotional response, where effectively the tables are being turned in terms of who is upset here, whilst the underlying racial problematic is not addressed.

It also should not fall to us to explain or educate on an issue which to us seems so self-evident. Nevertheless, we will attempt to explain a few key points below, and provide some links to easily readable information in relation to this, leaving it up to you to what extent you wish to explore this further, or not, as a school.

For us, the best way forward in this instance is to be practical and act in [our daughter’s] best interests. We have explained the complications to her, which she is starting to understand. Despite being disappointed not to be able to take part, and especially despite not wanting to stand out from the others, she has decided not to take part in the performance next Thursday. (…).

If you or Mrs X have any further questions, or would like any clarifications please can you not discuss it with [our daughter] but contact us instead. Please ensure Mrs X is aware of this too, as we would not want her to engage [our daughter] on this which would be difficult for her.

Here are some of our thoughts:

We understand the word ‘negro’ was replaced with ‘party’ for the performance, but that [our daughter] still used this word when singing the song at home because she followed the original soundtrack that was initially listened to when practising. Of course, this replacement makes a contentious and complex word ‘invisible’, but it leaves the rest of the song without clear meaning or connection to the text or story line.

More importantly, it is difficult to explain how excruciatingly painful it is for a parent to hear one’s own child-of-colour sing the words:

“And meet the nicest kids in town. Nice white kids. Who like to lead the way”

[Our daughter] has experienced direct racism in a previous school, and experiences indirect racism and structural disadvantage regularly (even if she is not always aware of it) – as she will do throughout her life. She wants/ed to straighten her hair and dye it blond. She often comments on who has lighter and darker skin and feels very ambiguous about her own appearance. She is very aware of being ‘other’ and, certainly at a previous school, white children made sure she was aware of the fact that ‘white kids lead the way’!

She has (hardly) any non-white teachers as role models. She is exposed to a stream of daily implicit messages in the media, books and otherwise, unconsciously imprinting a sense of white superiority on her, even despite also receiving explicit messages to the contrary at home and elsewhere. These are the facts. No matter how uncomfortable, we cannot make them ‘invisible’ just by denying it, playing it down or asserting our own commitment to justice.

So, the pain of those words being sung is felt regardless of the song having a function in a wider (supposedly) anti-racist story overall, and regardless of whether the context was explained to the class or not. It simply is too much.

Words we say, read and repeat to ourselves find a way to get embedded – even when the message is meant to be the opposite or phrased as a negative.  Surely, if one musical song had to be chosen to be performed ‘stand-alone’, there must be many others with themes that are less contentious or potentially harmful.

We also acknowledge there was a 20 minute discussion with the class about the historical context of the song. ([Our daughter] either missed this due to absence or doesn’t recall).  In our personal view the song seems a frivolous way to reflect on past harms like slavery, segregation, and apartheid in any case, but more importantly when sung in the current climate, it just feels very wrong.

Racism is on the rise including in education and schools, and (racial) hate crime in [this geographical area] particularly is one of the highest rising in the country. The students at your school and their families are not separate to this environment, and many will be receiving implicit and explicit messages – outside of school – about immigration, about white superiority, about ‘Britain first’, and about ‘nice white people/kids’ that should be ‘leading the way’,… If singing lines like that, this context cannot be ignored.

Many of us – like Mrs X – seek to fight racism, but overt forms of racism keep thriving on a much more subtle wider, embedded history and culture of white superiority which often is internalised through implicit messages and persistent structures.

This implicit sense of superiority – and the need to scaffold white fragility – is so pervasive that even stories about fighting racism usually have a lead role for a righteous white person who is ‘saving’ people-of-colour or fighting inequality,…(like in Hairspray).

These are complex, nuanced considerations, and difficult to engage with for everyone involved. Much has been written about it, but it is up to you to decide whether you want to explore it further or not. We have given some links to some basic information that gives further background to many of the points we made.

Kind regards

Signed & links provided. 

We received no response. The performance went ahead as planned. Our daughter did not attend school that day.

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