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POWER in the CLASSROOM

The teacher's desk at the front of the room is an obvious symbol of who is in charge, but schools may be transmitting messages about power and race in more subtle ways.

This came from Frances E. Kendall, an American consultant for race, education and organisational policy change who was recently invited to Bermuda by Citizens Uprooting Racism in Bermuda (CURB). She spoke to local educators about how they can make classrooms more racially inclusive.

Dr Kendall is the author of 'Diversity in the Classroom and Understanding White Privilege: Creating Pathways to Authentic Relationships Across Race'. She was recently named a pioneer of diversity by Profiles in Diversity Journal.

“Since I've been here I've spoken to about 50 teachers about issues of power in the classroom and how power is played out, and also about institutionalised racism,” said Dr Kendall. “What I believe to be true is that we all live in systems that were created by a few a very long time ago for the benefit of the people who looked like them, namely white wealthy people.”

While she was here she asked teachers to think about their classroom. She said messages about white supremacy could be subtly transmitted in simple things like whose picture was on the wall in the classroom, and what was in the curriculum.

“We ask them how students would know who's in charge,” she said. “We look at how ways of power and control are played out in the classroom. The teachers desk is at the front usually. The teacher designs the curriculum. The teacher gives grades. The teacher has to do what the principal and what the Department of Education, and then what Bermuda as a country, and probably some of England as a country, prescribes.”

She said that another way that power is played out is in what parts of history are studied and portrayed by the community.

“I spent yesterday morning in St. George's,” she said. “I took a tour. The guide was a white lady who talked about black people in Bermuda and those who had been enslaved, for about 30 seconds, and then gave a white tour of [the town of] St. George.”

Dr Kendall, 63, grew up in Waco, Texas during racial segregation. She described the racial situation of her childhood as “bad”.

“It was the legally segregated south,” she said. “I remember white drinking fountains and coloured fountains. There were white bathrooms and coloured bathrooms. White people sat downstairs in theatres and black people had to sit upstairs. Interestingly, Mexicans because of [the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo] in 1850, were classified as white.”

She explained that the treaty granted Mexicans citizenship at a time when being white was a prerequisite for American citizenship.

Mexicans were re-classified as non-white in the 1930 Census due to protests from European Americans. They were reclassified as white ten years later, in the 1940 Census.

“When the schools were segregated the people from Mexico were in the white schools. They were absolutely discriminated against. They were not allowed to speak Spanish. It was against the law in Texas at some point. That is the way that prejudice and the power were put into practice. There was something called Spanish detention. Kids would go in if they were caught speaking Spanish. They would go into study hall and write on the board 100 times 'I will not speak Spanish in school'. I have this picture of these kids writing 'I will not be who I am; I will not be who I am. I will not speak my language'. Any time you take away people's language you are taking away a huge amount of culture.”

Students could be receiving subtle negative messages about race and power even in Bermuda's predominantly black school system, Dr Kendall said.

“Systems are not just groups of people,” she said. “They are also policies and practices. You have to ask who wrote those text books? What perspective were they written from? Additionally, teachers, generally speaking, are going to teach students what will keep them employed. They will pass on what the system wants the students to hear, as opposed to telling them what is true. Even if you have black students, black teachers and black principals, the students may still predominantly be getting white stories. They may be given stories where white people are more powerful and more valuable than people of colour.

“And I think there is another piece that is hard. Some black people have believed what they were taught either implicitly or explicitely that black people aren't as worthy. They then pass that on to the kids.

“Whether we are aware of it or not, race and power are inextricably linked to everything that goes on in the educational system: our own race and history, our interactions with others who are like us and who are different. It is in the curriculum we design, the environment we create in schools and classrooms. Our task as educators is to create a just and equitable learning environment for all children.”

Dr Kendall said she has been interested in issues surrounding white privilege and racism since she was 20 years old, and she has made it her life's work since she was 24.

“So it has been about 38 years a long time,” she said. “I never know enough. I am also learning. My other passion is organisational change for social justice. I am often called into schools, colleges and universities to help them create an institution that is both hospitable to students of colour, and also sees that they are there and values that they are there.”

For more information about CURB go to www.curb.bm

Dr. Frances Kendall

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Published December 06, 2010 at 1:00 am (Updated December 12, 2010 at 2:45 pm)

POWER in the CLASSROOM

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