As its title suggests, Channel 4’s new 2-part documentary, The School That Tried to End Racism follows a group of Year 7 pupils as they join a three-week program aimed at tackling our unconscious racial biases. First trialled in the US, the program uses a measure of unconscious bias taken at the beginning and end of the three weeks to determine whether success has been achieved through a number of activities and workshops addressing issues of race.
We see the children completing this measure in the first episode, which determines any hidden biases they may have towards black or white individuals. As a Psychology student, the finding that the majority of the students had an unconscious bias towards white people was not surprising to me, but this took nothing away from the heartbroken looks on their faces when their teacher revealed the results. Rather than lingering on the guilt of the white students at these results, the episode launches straight into the first workshop: dividing the students into affinity groups made up of white and non-white students. From this moment onwards, it’s full steam ahead for the series.
The innocence of the initial interviews in which the students profess that they are all equal and that race doesn’t make a difference is quickly blown out of the water by psychologist Dr Nicola Rollock who explains to us why a “colour-blind” approach simply isn’t working. By interposing Dr Rollock’s explanations with those given to the children, both the children and us as an audience are challenged to change our way of thinking. Even the most liberal of us could stand to learn something from this series.
While the students see themselves as equal, it doesn’t take long for the BAME students to begin to share their experiences of racism. This is where the argument that children are too young to understand and engage with these conversations around race is destroyed, as these children are forced to understand the racism that exists within our society from a young age. It becomes painfully apparent that the white pupils have some catching up to do.
We see this repeatedly through the casual and confident way that the BAME pupils navigate these topics compared to their white peers – they have been having these conversations at home and amongst themselves for years previous.
There are certainly times that the series threatens to place too much emphasis on the experience of the white pupils and the guilt they experience. A particularly uncomfortable moment that comes to mind is an activity in which the white students are asked to deliver an account of their non-white peers’ experiences of racism as if it were their own. While this is intended to help the white pupils put themselves in their peers’ shoes, it takes away from the reality of the BAME pupils’ experiences. It would have been much more fitting to hear their experiences through their own voices.
That being said, the inability of the white pupils to share similar accounts of race-based discrimination speaks volumes and is a real breakthrough moment for some students. And for the most part, instead of using the BAME students as educators of their white peers, the program – particularly through its use of affinity groups – strives to generate pride in their different ethnicities and cultural heritages.
While some of the activities in their attempts to be accessible to the children have the potential to veer into shallow and inconsequential, the researchers never let it go there. Even the messages that have been converted into games, for example having the children predict the percentage of DNA that they share, are brought home by uncompromising explanations from their teachers and the researchers.
Undoubtedly, given the age of the pupils, the programme-makers could have chosen to water down the content to avoid upset, but they bravely chose not to and in doing so showed us that children can and should be having these conversations. The programme never shies away from uncomfortable topics and harsh realities. Diversity and Inclusion Practitioner Mariana Richards, who played a part in the US trial of the program engages with the students not as children, but as future members of society, and I was pleasantly surprised by the broad range of issues that the series covers, and the depth in which it does so.
The second episode delves even deeper into issues of race, with the students engaging in more open and honest dialogues, including a debate on whether or not the UK is a racist country. It is refreshing to see the students navigate discussions that most adults would likely struggle to have. Pupil Miyu remarks that she has never spoken about race this deeply in her life, and I would argue that most of us haven’t – but that we should more often.
For me, Miyu is the unsung hero of the series, as she bravely speaks up about the lumping of BAME students into one uniform group that assumes they share the same experience. She shares her thoughts on this with her fellow classmates and the team behind the scenes who adapt the program accordingly to accommodate a third affinity group made up of Asian students. By adapting the program in this way, the documentary makers and academics behind the program earn my utmost respect, as they showed Miyu that her voice can have an impact and took a leaf out of their own book in that all of us can continue to adapt and learn from one another.
The series rounds off with a final compelling message in that no matter the results of the final test, the world can’t be changed as quickly and simply as a three-week program. But it starts here, with education. The school may not have ended racism, but it brought to the forefront a way forward that in my opinion should be adopted in all schools not just across the UK but the world.
Undeniably, this series has arrived at the perfect time, when as a society we are having more of these important conversations about racism in the UK. It discourages the argument that the UK is not a racist country, and causes us to ask ourselves that if children can understand and accept that our society is racist, then why can’t we?
Contributed by Megan Hyland
The School That Tried to End Racism is now available on All4