Why We Need to Avoid Stereotypes in the Classroom

Amesha Sehijpal

“If I could solve something as complicated as conflict in the world, I would change the education system. Full stop. Not just along the lines of race, but along the lines of how people are taught to view the whole of human history, and on what education provides.” Akala

Growing up as British-Indian, I found that the UK school curriculum and texts we studied never allowed me to truly explore my identity – an identity that was not based on the stereotypes that I was ashamed of being attached to. I remember being conscious of not wanting to bring my mum’s Indian food to school as packed lunch, worried that I would end up ‘smelling like curry’ and consequently be made fun of. During my early years of secondary school, I was reluctant to introduce my mum to my friends, worried that her Indian accent would be made a mockery of, as Indian accents casually became a synonym for a joke. Although no-one made overt racist comments towards me, I was not openly made to feel comfortable to talk about and celebrate the Indian side of me. Naturally, a proper British accent made you sound well-spoken and educated, the French accent was glamorised and seen as elite, a Spanish accent was sexy and an Indian accent made you sound illiterate.

Fast forward to about ten years, I am into my second term of teacher training at an all girls (mostly from middle-upper class background) school in a suburban town in south west England. I was meant to be teaching the poem ‘Singh Song’ – a poem from the GCSE poetry anthology ‘Love and Relationships’. The poem is from the perspective of an Indian man who is a shopkeeper in London and is professing the love he has for his new wife whilst trying to balance his relationship with his traditional parents. The poem is written in British-Indian dialect and I remember having planned to play a YouTube video of the poet – Daljit Nagra – speaking the poem aloud to the class to avoid having to say words such as ‘vee’ (we) in an Indian accent. Low and behold the speakers decided to stop working and I remember having thirty girls’ faces staring at me to continue the lesson. I had to make a quick decision and felt the pressure of being observed by the Head of English who sat at the back, her eyes piercing into mine. Within a few seconds there I was, a British Indian woman doing something I would have never been caught dead doing as a child (except for when I was having ‘banter’ with friends). I was speaking in an Indian accent. I was particularly self-conscious as there was only one other Indian in the class – one student out of the thirty. I was allowing myself to be made a mockery of. I am in no way criticising the poem, the problem I have is with representation and the lack of it in the education system for people of colour and Black people. I am more than the chicken tikka masala you order from your Indian takeaway, I am more than the Indian accent and stereotypical dilemmas you laugh at in shows like ‘The Big Bang Theory’, with characters like Raj. Importantly, I am more than literary pieces of work like ‘Singh Song’.

By not celebrating diversity in schools, we are in danger of making students of colour (especially Black students) finding their race, culture and everything that comes with it as: something to be ashamed by, a subject of mockery, or them desperately wishing they could be ‘normal’ (white). The UK GCSE curriculum lacks diversity and the little diversity it does have is unfortunately based on stereotypes.

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I have experienced what it feels like to be deprived of part of my culture, history and background due to the education system dismissing the inclusion of a diverse curriculum. With no Indian protagonists in literary texts and positive influences from India for me to look up to or relate to, despite the large proportion of British citizens with an Indian background, I felt lost. Thus, having experienced this phenomenon on a small scale, I can only dare to imagine (because I cannot and will never fully understand) what it must feel like growing up as a Black person in a racist society. By no means am I comparing my experiences to a Black person – I am aware of my privileges and the model minority myth which was designed to further dehumanise Black people whilst using non-Black people of colour (like myself) as examples of “good citizens” based on stereotypes. But what I do know is that a diverse curriculum (or a lack of) has a significant impact on identity, discrimination and racial stereotypes. In hiding Britain’s role in the slave trade and its creation of systems that puts Black people at a disadvantage – Britain’s education system is creating a false illusion and brainwashing society to believe that Britain does not have a racism problem.

Only recently, when Black Lives Matter gained momentum and Britain’s racist past (and present) was exposed on a mass scale, were people able to articulate their feelings of the education system having failed them and causing them to be students who felt lost, ashamed and inferior. People of colour have started speaking out and sharing their experiences of a Westernised biased education system that has hidden how the Britain Empire was founded on slavery and exploited its colonies. The irony lies in how Britain’s rich colonial history, which robbed its colonies of its history, culture and artefacts to empower itself, disempowers people of colour – especially Black people – and makes them feel like the ‘other’. Everything that is ‘British’ has been stolen from this ‘other’. You only need to take a trip to The British Museum to see this.

Now, as an educator, I would like to use my position to help empower young children and encourage positive discussions around race and identity. There are already discussions taking place within schools on how diversity can be integrated into the curriculum. Within my own English department, we are looking at positive representations of people of colour, particularly Black people, in literature. This is in opposition to narratives where they are characterised as a helpless victim ‘saved’ by the white protagonist.

Ways to promote equality and diversity within the school and classroom:

  • Acknowledging the diversity of the school and acting accordingly e.g. prayer rooms, considering students who may be fasting for religious reasons, celebrating key multicultural festivals – or at least acknowledging them.
  • Challenging negative attitudes and racial comments.
  • Avoiding stereotypes in examples and resources.
  • Planning lessons that reflect the diversity of the classroom.
  • Using a diverse range of resources with positive examples of people of colour and Black people.
  • Actively promoting multiculturalism in the classroom and allowing students of colour and Black students a safe space to share their experiences and be heard.
  • Providing opportunities for students of colour and Black students to take on more leadership roles.

By implementing diversity in schools, particularly the curriculum, we create a generation of empathetic, empowered and open-minded students who have a strong sense of the diverse society that we live in and how to meet its needs accordingly.

Contact me at: amesha.sehijpal@googlemail.com

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