The April 2008 cover of US Vogue Magazine was a photograph featuring NBA basketball star LeBron James, and supermodel Giselle Bundchen. In the magazine’s 116 year history, James was the first black man to appear on its cover.
Within days, the cover made headlines of its own, with internet bloggers making explicit comparisons to early 20th century movie and recruitment posters depicting ‘King Kong’ or ‘this mad brute’ and taking to to cyberspace to ask ‘Is Vogue’s “LeBron Kong” cover offensive?’; the cyberstink raised was noisome enough to reach main news outlets in the US and abroad, with TV pundits publicly disagreeing on the meaning, intention and effect of the image and even the Daily Telegraph devoting an article to the ‘Race Row over “King Kong” Vogue cover’ . Since 2008 the cover has featured regularly on internet lists of ‘Most Controversial Magazine Covers’ and ‘A History of Racism in Fashion’ and it’s safe to say, in the week that British Vogue appointed its first ever male, who also happens to be black, as Editor in Chief, it’s unlikely that the title will be attracting that kind of controversy again any time soon.
If you are a white UK based teacher reading, your reaction to this US Vogue cover from 9 years ago may range from mild surprise to indifference tinged with a little bit of ‘What’s any of this got to do with education in UK schools? Doesn’t she know we have more pressing concerns?’ And that’s understandable, with the holidays coming to a close and our imminent return to THE EXAMS, especially the largely unknown entity of the new English and Maths GCSEs. You may even feel that pointing out the similarities between the Vogue cover and King Kong posters is itself racist. That response of surprised annoyance that people feel when having their personal or collective blind spots pointed out to them – our stereotyping brains don’t like being reminded of the way they work – is, perhaps why, according to a survey published by the Runnymede Trust and covered in Friday’s TES, a third of BAME teachers do not feel valued at work.
The report comments that not only do BAME teachers face a climate of institutional racism, including assumptions about their capability, based on racial or ethnic stereotypes and being given stereotypical responsibilities such as oversight for Black History Month, rather than more challenging or intellectual roles. 32 per cent of male and 27 per cent of female teachers surveyed did not feel that staff in their schools were comfortable talking about racism or sexism. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many do not feel comfortable advocating for themselves, a finding that will not be surprising to any female reader familiar with findings that women also tend to avoid advocating for themselves at work, even when they perceive being unfairly treated, because they do not want to be seen as ‘difficult to work with’ or even ‘aggressive’ by middle and senior managers.
According to the Department of Education’s ‘School workforce in England’, the teaching population is overwhelmingly white (87%) and majority female (74% on average – 85%/62% primary and secondary respectively). While approximately 15% of all teachers are Heads or SLT, the male to female ratios are reversed at senior management level and representation of BAME teachers falls off even further, to less than 10%.
In recent years industry has started to wake up to the diversity gap in employment, and as businesses realise the vast untapped potential of non-white, non-male talent the case for improving representation at all levels in Britain has increasingly been made in papers other than the Guardian. The education sector is behind the curve on addressing its diversity problem and with another TES headline this week reporting that nearly half of teachers under 35 are planning to quit over high workload, it is a fair bet that BAME teachers who feel their careers as teachers have stalled because of endemic unconscious biases will be over-represented in those who leave the profession for more enlightened pastures – especially if they are also female. Being ‘colour blind’ (or gender blind) doesn’t help: it’s an easy cop out that makes the majority feel we’re nice people without having to consider our own positions of relative privilege. But by the nature of the job we are role models for all the children we see every day in the classroom, and, one hopes, adults who are uniquely able to provide a perspective that may or may not overlap with the possibly less considered views from families or their peers, let alone the maelstrom of prejudice available on the internet.
I have some sympathy with those who say our focus should be on making sure every pupil gets their best possible results, and their diversity issues will take care of themselves, but our pupils’ race and gender have well-documented effects on their progress, well-being and attainment at school and, by extension, their future prospects – it’s not an either/or thing. As teachers we share responsibility for perpetuating social stereotypes while treating race and gender as too embarrassing to talk about. When it comes to such explosive topics as prejudice we may feel uncomfortable thinking about the ways we can get it wrong; we may even more uncomfortable talking about it, but if we don’t start trying to do inclusion by talking about institutional racism and sexism in our schools, how can it ever improve?
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