Today we continue our overview of the Unteach Racism app put together by the Teaching Council of Aotearoa New Zealand in conjunction with the Human Rights Commission – you know that wonderful organisation that so strongly believes in the rights of humans that it gives a $200 koha (gift) to the Mongrel Mob, that other pro-social institution that our beloved leader Prime Minister Ardern considers worthy of near on $3 million of taxpayer money.
In essence, for those of you who have missed the first four modules, the Unteach Racism app could be summarised as “Fighting imaginary racism with real racism.” If you wish to review the earlier modules, click the links that follow for module 1 introduction, module 2 low self-belief, module 3 low expectations and module 4 harmful assumptions.
Today, we are moving on to racist exchanges. What are the objectives? We are told that we will learn to identify interpersonal racism, separate intention from impact, learn how to confront people by ‘calling in’ rather than calling out, and on the off chance we are racist bigots without knowing it (which given the current climate in which almost everything is racist, is entirely likely) we are also promised we will learn how to live with discomfort when we are wrong.
How do we identify interpersonal racism? Here is the definition they give. “When people act on these [implicit bias and stereotypes] and think about or treat individuals negatively because of their race, that is interpersonal racism.” This seems a reasonably fair definition of racism. Few would argue that treating individuals negatively because of their race is a good thing. Yet there is an element missing in this definition. Racism is not just treating individuals negatively because of their race, but it can also be favouring individuals due to their race. This simply follows from the concept of not treating individuals negatively because of their race. If one is favouring some individuals due to their race, then one is obviously treating other people less favourably if they do not share that race. So thus far, we could agree with the sentiments of module 5. Whether I would trust the Teaching Council to appropriately apply this definition of racism is of course an entirely different matter!
We then move on to how to react to interpersonal racism that we see in our workplaces. Once again, to my surprise, there is a lot of sensible wisdom here. We are encouraged to avoid calling out racist behaviour in a way that is likely to cause someone to become defensive. Instead, we are encouraged to ask questions to help people clarify what they are saying. We are also encouraged to use personal “I” language rather than “you” when we address racist language. Finally, we are encouraged to take a person aside to talk to them rather than calling them out in front of a group. All of this seems fairly wise and appropriate. The big question for me is, “How often are we expected to see interpersonal racism amongst our colleagues?” Is this really a big issue? While I have come across patently racist people in previous work environments (albeit rarely), in my years of dealing with teachers, I have not heard teachers use openly racist language. Teachers I have worked with do not treat individuals negatively due to their race. I am not saying it cannot or doesn’t happen, but I wonder if it is such an issue to warrant a module on how to deal with it among colleagues.
Finally, the activity asks us what we would do if someone accuses us of doing or saying something racist? We are given two options. We can either explain we are a good person and didn’t mean to be racist, or we can “Stay calm, stay in the moment, take responsibility, and actively listen.” Apparently, the latter approach is correct. Our goal, we are told, is to listen and learn. Now, this seems dangerous to me. This sounds suspiciously like some of the critical theory nonsense. You know, the kind that says, white people should just shut up and listen, even when those we are told to listen to are clearly unhinged loonies.
The thing is, claims of racism are now a dime a dozen. We know human nature. People will (and have) weaponised claims of racism to take down people they do not like or silence them. Intent does matter. If you are accused of saying or doing something racist, should you just listen and take responsibility? Well yes, if you actually did say or do something racist. But if your accuser has got the wrong end of the stick and misunderstood your speech or actions, or, if in fact, they are determinedly doing so in a play for political power, fight back. Intention does matter.
So, does the module deliver? That’s like asking whether the New Zealand education system delivers. Of course, it doesn’t. This is a bureaucratic organisation forcibly funded by unwilling teachers. Of course, it doesn’t work.
Let’s recap on whether it achieved its four goals. Firstly did it help us identify interpersonal racism. Well, we were provided with a reasonable definition of racism, one which most adults given a virtuous upbringing already knew. We don’t need some government bureaucracy taking our money to teach us this any more than grandma needs to be taught how to suck eggs. Well, how did they go on helping us separate intention vs impact? Only one comment was made on this, and it was hardly useful. So what about how to go about ‘calling in’ racism rather than calling out? Yes, this was the best part of the module, but again, we don’t need the Teaching Council to waste our money telling us what we either know from interpersonal experience or could learn from a brief perusal of How to Win Friends and Influence People. Finally, did we learn how to live with discomfort when we’re wrong? No, not really.
If this were a lesson that a colleague had put together and I was being asked to review it, I would be having words with them about the mismatch between the lesson objectives and the lesson content. So in summary, another fail from the Teaching Council.
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