November 2020 - Rector's Ramblings

How do you respond to this scenario, of which a long-standing friend of mine writes:

She heard, this summer, from a former teacher at her Secondary School. He recalled events from over 40 years ago, having been inspired to write by the present emphasis on Black Lives Matter; and by his memory of a situation encountered by M (my friend) which had shaken him and a fellow teacher (his Head of Sixth Form), and which came to the surface again for him now .. at this time of heightened consciousness. M is a black British woman from West Yorkshire.

The past teacher began by recognising with attempted kindness the substantial mark that M has made within this country through her adult life. He recalls, in contrast to that, an occasion of opposition that M faced as a 16 year old. [We recall] that we were interviewing you about your choices for A Levels, after your O Levels success, and agreed that English Literature was a suitable choice given your future plans. Sometime later we were approached by the Head of English (a woman with whom I had a number of differences of outlook and politics) who suggested ‘you were not a suitable candidate’ for English Literature. My colleague (the Head of Sixth Form) looked somewhat aghast and asked ‘Why?’ ‘The classic reply was that you lacked the appropriate cultural background for English literature’. The teacher goes on to write that his colleague was ‘apoplectic in her response’; and that the very toned-down polite version was that the Head of English must indeed accept M onto the course, and her team would teach her to their best ability, or would have the Head of Sixth Form to answer to. The writer was keen to commend his past colleague to M as having been ‘covering [M’s] back, and challenging such classic embedded racism’.

So, what do we think of that? Were the teachers boldly ensuring justice? Were they staunchly challenging embedded racism which was prevalent at the time? Were they beyond reproach in their forthright attitude? I wonder … If you or I is tempted to clap them on the back with congratulations, M, herself, puts it in a different perspective. Kindly, but critically.

M replied to the former teacher. After a friendly greeting, M makes this telling point…

‘I have been thinking about your letter, particularly the sentence, “You might be pleased to know she [the colleague] was covering your back”.
The conversation [between the Head of Sixth Form and the Head of English] must have taken place in mid-1979. ‘Section 17 of the Race Relations Act 1976 (passed just a couple of years earlier) made it unlawful for an educational establishment “to discriminate against a person in a way that affords him access to any benefits or by refusing or deliberately omitting him access to them”.

‘By attempting to exclude me from English Literature A Level [when I had achieved the entry qualifications] Mrs X was clearly in breach of the Act. If [the Head of Sixth Form] had acceded to her request she too would have been breaking the law.

‘Refusing was literally the very least she [the Head of Sixth Form] could have done. Actually, ‘covering my back’ would have meant instigating disciplinary proceedings against her and making sure that she [Mrs X] did not have the opportunity to discriminate against me or any other black pupils in the future’.

[M’s knowledge of the prejudice shown by Mrs X was borne out by the aggressive and insulting treatment she received from this teacher through the course of her later A Level studies].

So, again: were these ‘heroes for racial justice’? Protecting the put-upon? Or doing the bare minimum, whilst imagining themselves doing rather more than that?

The same questions arise of the Church, and Christians within it, in responding to acts of abuse in its midst.

The same questions arise in the playground, the workplace and wider society, in the intemperate hurling of derogatory comment against people on account of their gender, sexual orientation, nationality or class; and the ‘ability’ of upright ‘moral’ people to let it pass, or to turn a deaf ear.

Each of us is likely condemned at some point in our lives for the weak and half-hearted way we have acted to root out prejudice and injustice. Very few of us has clean hands - especially those of us whose advantages have been great in
life. All it takes, for evil to flourish, … is for good men, and women, to do nothing.

Kind regards,
Andrew Doye

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