Improving Culture: Diversity (Blog 2/3 on 2021/2022 Reflections)

**I am going to start this with my story, as I think to understand the title (and my views here), stories are key.

I grew up in a struggling, working class family. My grandparents were first-wave European immigrants who came to Australia speaking no English, they worked tirelessly on a minimum wage to buy their family home in their new country, raising children with very little money or assets.  My mum then raised me and my brother as a single parent, working a receptionist job – she had no university education, and earned significantly below the average wage. As a result, I was claiming government benefits until I became a teacher, and worked three jobs throughout my university undergraduate degree to help with costs.  Me and my brother were the first of our family to go to university.

However, I was also fortunate enough to grow up in a town which had not yet eradicated its ties to its indigenous populations unlike most other gentrified places in Sydney and the east coast.  As a result, my DipEd (PGCE equivalent) included the compulsory study of the local indigenous tribes by an Aboriginal elder: he sternly reminded us about understanding and teaching indigenous histories to young Australians.  He taught us the importance of symbols, and story.  I was forever thankful to him – my first teaching job in Australia landed me in the school with the highest indigenous population of the area (roughly 25%) where I was able to use his expertise.   

Despite my subject speciality in English, I was hired to teach 4 subjects in that school (English, History, Geography, and Maths) due to the limited resources and funding.  These were some of my greatest learning curves: teaching white history, and white books, to a school with strong ties to its indigenous cultures. 

When teaching a Year 7 class in symbolism, I found a worksheet on symbolism.  It had the following images, and students had to name what these images symbolised:

But I also included these symbols, which are very common and popular in indigenous art.

Only the Aboriginal students in my class could finish the worksheet.  They had two knowledges of symbols: those they had been taught by Western culture, and those they knew from their families and stories. 

With the information above, it was refreshing to hear some of the conversations being pushed forward at this year’s Festival of Education.

My first blog about the day was entirely focused around CPD and improving teaching and learning, which can be read here.  However, the second thread that was pertinent throughout the day (and arguably, in many ways, much more important) was why the British education system still wasn’t ‘getting it right’ with regards to diversity, social mobility, and gender.

Cultural Diversity (identities, stories, histories…) and Symbolism

The power of David Olusoga’s speech on his book ‘Black and British’ at the Festival of Education reminded his audience of the power of stories. We have been, for so long, perpetuating the single story of the coloniser – and, more frighteningly, often without recognising it.  Olusoga noted how novice we really are about the various histories that exist in the country, even if we are aware of the violent, white history of Britain.  When asked, not many of us can recall the (as Olusoga rightly put) ‘history of the survivor’. 

During his speech, Olusoga asked his audience poignant questions: How many of us can name a slave ship (that wasn’t a westernised film)? How many of us can speak about buildings through the knowledge of their involvement with slavery? How many institutions truly engage with their dark, colonial histories? Why are we so unfamiliar with them? How did we get to this point of being so unaware of a history that is the history of so many now living in Britain? Olusoga claimed the problem is, partly, with our education system. 

Macpherson (2022) notes that the “GCSE History in 2020, for example, there were 59 options offered by the various exam boards. Only 12 of these cover black history, and even then only 5 are about black British history (the remainder are about slavery and civil rights in the USA).” Similarly, in English, we have seen a recent backlash towards the swapping of classic names (Owen, Keats, Larkin) from a predominantly white GCSE curriculum, and the inclusion of more culturally diverse poets.  Our own education minister (at the time) deemed the switching of these poets as “cultural vandalism”. I am among the many teachers sad to see Keats and Larkin go, but ‘vandalism’ is certainly incorrect here; ‘inclusion’ is perhaps the more appropriate term (note: I use ‘swapping’ or ‘switching’ of these poets instead of ‘removal’ as the latter seems to denote a cancel culture which I don’t think is true; Keats, Larkin and Owen are not being cancelled, the curriculum is just updating).

It is in Olusoga’s book that he discusses how Britain maintains this ‘romanticisation’ and ‘purification’ in a post-colonial era.  In particular, he notes figures like Enoch Powell in the 1960s and 1970s – reading the extract below…

… Olusoga draws on the power and importance that ‘tradition’ had in maintaining and upholding racial prejudice, violence, and divide.  With, of course, the irony that Powell was choosing the history of Britain to purity: “he understood just how far backwards our collective gaze had to be directed in order to fall upon the sort of England he was looking for.”

These words ‘uniquely Britain’ and ‘tradition’ are sadly still closely tied with rhetoric of imperial power.  Olusoga did an excellent job to open our eyes to it again by also discussing the removal of statues and Black History Month.  These things are not tokenistic, nor are they ‘destroying traditions’ – they are symbolic, and they are powerful for moving the country towards a better history and future. 

Such attempts have been made by history teachers before – however, not always accurately.  In an effort to show British students the histories of other countries, a ‘Meanwhile, elsewhere’ resource circulated a few years ago. Great in theory, but the importance of executing these resources properly is so much more important.

For example, in order to alleviate, for a moment, the stress of learning about the Wall Street Crash and the Depression in the British curriculum, this resource lightens the mood with a homework or task allowing students to look at what was happening in Australia at the time: The Great Emu War.  However, what was really happening in Australia was the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families, particularly if they ‘looked white’ so that they could be ‘bred out’ and assimilated into a ‘bigger, better, white colonial Australia’.  This history, our history, is the Stolen Generations – and shockingly continued on until the 1970s.

Whilst I am not against such tasks, an better way may be to then also include a worksheet on the Stolen Generations.  Focusing solely on the Great Emu War, keeps our gaze on a colonial, British perspective of Australia’s history.

In 2008, my high school opened up the theatre to watch the live stream of Kevin Rudd apologising to the Indigenous peoples for the Stolen Generations.  At the time, there was a great debate on what the apology meant with, of course, many deniers arguing that “this was not our apology to make / we did not steal the children”. Later, when working with many Indigenous families, I discovered that most of them had their apology letter framed and hanging on the wall in a proud and obvious place in their homes.  For these families, this was not about ‘who or what should apologise’, this was not about ‘whether or not the Australian people are responsible’, the letter and the apology was a symbol; a symbol of repentance for identities lost, histories destroyed, racial violence, and cultural divide. 

Symbols matter.  Systemic acts of repentance matter.  So yes, Olusoga reminded us that it’s still important to put black writers at the front of tables for Black History Month, and it’s still important to consider whether names of places or statues or traditions are representative of who we want to be.  Some places are doing this already…

… but some are still not.

As Olusoga closed, I couldn’t help but see the sad irony in him speaking at a place that has, to preserve tradition, declined to alter any of its problematic colonial associations.

Coming soon: Improving Culture: Social Mobility, and Gender.

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