Confronting the Limits of Antiracist and Multicultural Education: White Students' Reflections on Identity and Difference in a Multiethnic Secondary School

by Alice Pettigrew
Institute of Education

Sociological Research Online, 17 (3) 3

Received: 9 May 2011     Accepted: 16 Mar 2012    Published: 31 Aug 2012


This paper is drawn from ethnographic participant-observation data and interview materials collected between September 2004 and July 2005 in 'Kingsland', an inner-city, multiethnic comprehensive secondary school in the South West of England. It explores the complex and often contradictory ways in which young people negotiate and reflect on notions of identity and difference in relation to social and pedagogical vocabularies of belonging, friendship and fairness which operate within their school. The paper pays particular attention to experiences and perspectives outlined by Kingsland's 'white British' or 'ethnic majority' students in order to highlight and critically examine some of the tensions within, and limitations to, both national policy frameworks for citizenship education and local, institutional discourses which powerfully construct the school as a strongly antiracist multicultural community.

Keywords: Secondary Education, Identity, Antiracism, Multiculturalism, Whiteness, Citizenship


1.1 In 2000, a compulsory curriculum for citizenship education was introduced to be taught in all of England's state-maintained secondary schools as a response, at least in part, to mounting political concerns that those living together in the United Kingdom were inadequately bound together by common values or civic ties. As Tom Nairn's 1977 publication The Break-up of Britain and Gwynfor Evans's The End of Britishness in 1980 attest, such anxieties are scarcely recent phenomena. For many commentators, 'Britishness' has long been a problematic, at best 'fuzzy', concept (Cohen, 1995) which has struggled to unite its four 'home nations' and increasingly diverse immigrant communities (McCrone 2002, Parekh 2000, Modood et al. 1997). However, following the London bomb attacks of 7/7/2005, these concerns appeared to change in perceived urgency, tenor and tone as the spectre of the 'home grown terrorist' – 'born and educated in Britain' (Howard 2005, my emphasis) – precipitated renewed political attention to questions of what it means to be a British citizen and, most salient to the current article, how this relates to what is taught and learned within Britain's schools.

1.2 It is not the intention of the current paper to comment on the efficacy or otherwise of the political promotion of a distinctly 'British' – rather than, say 'English', 'Scottish', 'Welsh' or 'Northern Irish'– identity although it is important to note that the citizenship curriculum referred to here is statutory only within England as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each have separate departments for education. Instead, the paper describes some of the most prominent discourses of belonging that operate within a single secondary school, 'Kingsland', an ostensibly very successful inner-city multiethnic comprehensive in the South West of England. Here I have focussed on the experiences recounted by 'white British' or 'ethnic majority' students to argue that the racialised and racialising understandings of identity and difference constructed and encountered within and against the framework of Kingsland as a singular community reflect a number of the challenges and tensions inherent in promoting 'community cohesion' at the level of the nation-state (McGhee 2005, Pilkington 2008). Many of these students struggled to place themselves within the powerful discourses of antiracism and multiculturalism which characterised their school. They also regularly appeared to share rather limited understandings of the historical construction of white, western identities in relation to contemporary articulations of 'ethnicity' and 'race'. I argue that this is symptomatic of a dominant, temporally and spatially foreshortened framework for understanding relationships between 'self' and 'other' and for arbitrating between competing collective claims of 'unfairness' and 'inequality'. This framework was rarely challenged by – and in fact was more commonly reproduced within – the antiracist and multicultural pedagogies employed within the school.

Education, identity and empirical research in schools

2.1 There is a long history of sociologically informed literature exploring the significant relationships between formal systems of education, cultural reproduction and identity (Durkheim 1956; Bourdieu and Passeron 1977 and Apple 1982) and a long roll-call of social scientists who have taken to classrooms and/or school playgrounds to investigate such relationships through empirical research (see for example Hargreaves 1967, Lacey 1970 and Ball 1981). While the primary focus for most early school-based studies within the UK was social class – and the students most commonly depicted in their pages overwhelmingly white and male (Hammersley and Woods 1993) – there has grown a significant corpus of work examining the classroom salience of 'race' and/or 'ethnicity'. Increasingly, this work recognises the intersection of race and ethnicity with social class, and indeed with gender and sexuality (see, for example, Mirza 1992 and Mac an Ghaill 1994). Such research has compellingly demonstrated the differentiated and regularly discriminatory school experiences of, for example, African Caribbean and black British students (Wright 1986, 1992, Mac an Ghaill 1988, Sewell 1997 and Youdell 2003), Muslim students (Archer 2003, Shain 2003, 2011 and Bhatti 2011) and Chinese students (Francis and Archer 2005) in British or, more accurately, most commonly English schools.

2.2 Perhaps in reaction to the often unexamined white bias of early education studies and educational sociology, today there is a relatively small and under-developed empirical literature examining the comparative educational significance of race or ethnicity for 'white' or 'ethnic majority' students (for notable exceptions see Troyna and Hatcher 1992 and Gillborn 1995). International research from the United States and other multi-ethnic western societies reflects a similar weight of attention given to minority (or 'minoritised') student experience (see for example, Ogbu 2008, Fordham 1996, Gibson 1988, Nieto 2000, Vigil 1997, Matthews 2002, Ruck and Wortley 2002). It is by no means my intention here to question the value of this existing literature and I recognise the importance of research able to document and challenge persisting structural patterns or racialised inequality in educational outcome and student success. However, I also consider that an exclusive focus on 'minority' experience risks problematically positioning 'ethnic majority' students as though outside of and independent from discourses of ethnicity or race (after Kaufmann 2006). Empirical studies which critically examine the racialisation of white identities offer an important corrective in this respect (see, for example, Frankenberg 1993, Fine et al. 1997, Byrne 2006 and in the context of youth cultures and schooling, Nayak 2003 and Perry 2002). The current paper is intended as a contribution to this field.


3.1 The data presented in this paper was born out of an ethnographic research study of 'Kingsland', a medium-sized, inner-city comprehensive secondary school in the South West of England (after Hammersley and Atkinson 1989, and Delamont 2002). The school was chosen on the basis of its diverse intake of students and ostensibly successful, multicultural ethos as reported both by the British Government's Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) and the Department for Education. In order to produce a detailed and nuanced 'thick description' of the social and pedagogical encounters experienced by Kingsland's students (Geertz, 1973), over the course of a single academic year I conducted a series of classroom based participant observations with a tutor group of Year 7[1] students (aged between 11 and 12), initially in a variety of different subject settings and later focusing on specific units of work[2]. I also regularly attended the citizenship and religious studies lessons of two groups of Year 11 students and one group of Year 10s (aged between 15 and 16, and 14 and 15 respectively). Finally, I took part in a variety of additional whole school activities including assemblies, sports days, performances, auditions and rehearsals, after-school and lunch-hour clubs and parents' meetings out of school hours. Observational notes and tentative interpretations or theorisations were recorded in a field-work journal throughout. While at the school, I adopted a variety of different participant and/or observer roles, sometimes making relatively detached notes from the back of the classroom but more commonly engaging in active discussion with students and staff (Hammersley and Atkinson 1989 after Junkers (1960) and Gold (1958)). Where I was especially interested in the taught content of a session, I used an audio tape-recorder with the permission of the teachers and students involved. On the basis of these observations, I conducted follow-up, small-group interviews with students from all three age groups and individual interviews with teachers and support assistant staff.[3]

3.2 In undertaking this study, I was concerned to attend to the methodological implications of the now very well-versed social-scientific argument that identities are contingently constructed and temporal rather than inherent or innate (see, for example, Anthias 2002, Brubaker and Cooper 2000). Gunaratnam (2003: 31) suggests that all research in this area must negotiate a 'treacherous double bind': to operationalise 'race' or 'ethnicity' within a methodology risks reinforcing the misleading impression that 'races' or 'ethnicities' exist independently and are practicably discrete. I therefore wanted to avoid reproducing problematic and reductionist identity labels and took seriously the appeal made by Orellana and Bowman (2003) and others for process focused rather than category focused identity research (see also Maynard 2002 and Phoenix 2002). In my own study, this entailed adopting what John Law has characterised as a 'disciplined lack of clarity' in approaching the field (2003: 3) and maintaining a flexible framework for the collection, interpretation and representation of data in order to enable both students and teachers to explore their own critical reflections on the material and discursive structures which influenced or offered explanation in their lives (after Marcus 1995 and Lather 2001).

Belonging to Kingsland: the school as 'imagined community of communities'

4.1 In a 2003 paper, Andrew Stables describes any school as an 'imagined community' which, 'like a nation, is a complex system existing in discursive rather than physical geographical space' (2003: 895). Of course, even the largest of secondary schools are small enough to function as actual communities in terms of the regular face-to-face interactions between members that Benedict Anderson first argued can only be 'imagined' in the case of most modern nation-states. Yet Stables's argument is salient here as it recognises that it is in important respects through language and rhetoric that a school's staff and students come to identify themselves as members of a singular coherent community. Distinct 'school-as-community' identities acquire increased significance as individual institutions strive to distinguish themselves in today's educational marketplace with its emphasis on competition and choice (Tomlinson 2003, 2005; Ball, Rowe and Gewirtz 1996).

4.2 While Stables appears to divorce the school as 'imagined community' from 'physical geographical space' (ibid.), in the case of Kingsland, the school's discursive identity drew very heavily on its catchment area geography and the considerable socio-cultural diversity of its student intake. The prospectus used to attract parents, for example, described Kingsland as, 'a unique school in the heart of one of [the city's] most culturally rich and diverse communities' and examination of local demographic records affirm that its small catchment area drew pupils from startlingly varied neighbourhoods. As the table included as Appendix 1 illustrates in greater detail, while some Kingsland pupils lived in neighbourhoods characterised in the 2001 census by almost 95% 'white' populations with over 70% of houses owner occupied, others came from areas where up to 45% of residents identified themselves as belonging to an ethnic minority and where only 15% owned their own homes. In some areas, less than 10% of resident children were considered to live in risk of income deprivation (as measured by the Social Disadvantage Research Centre at Oxford University), yet in another, this rose to a staggering 99%. By way of contrast, in the neighbourhoods which comprised the catchment area for nearby 'Mornington School', 'white' ethnicity only varied between 91.5 and 93.5 % and the child deprivation index between 3 and 7%. As one teacher remarked enthusiastically during interview, at Kingsland,

You can't get more of a cross section of [the city]. You've got your middle-class kids from up the hill [. . .] then I know some lad and his dad's some drug-gang warlord sort of thing, putting it in crude terms. The fact is that we've got a huge cross section.
(Mr Pepper – black British[4] teacher of Maths)

4.3 Diane Reay has argued that inner-city schools, 'and their predominantly working-class and minority ethnic students' are regularly positioned 'within local and wider social imaginaries of demonisation' (Reay 2004: 1005). I would argue that the case of Kingsland is a little more complicated. While not entirely free from 'demonisation' in citywide imaginaries of the educational (and socio-economic) landscape, the contingencies of Kingsland's own particular location and student composition – attended by (white) middle-class kids 'from up the hill' as well as students from less privileged backgrounds – positioned the school in a more complex manner in relation to the dynamics of 'class', 'race'/'ethnicity' and what I characterised within my own study as 'multicultural capital' (see also Bridges and Poyatos Matas 2006 and Reay's more recent work with Crozier and James 2011). Here the school, by virtue of its catchment area, becomes an altogether more positive 'locational metaphor' (Back and Keith 1999), interpreted by its members to represent the bringing together of communities and the championing of specific educational and socio-political goals (see also Savage et al. 2005).

4.4 In student interviews, 'the mix of different cultures', was very regularly volunteered as one of the things individuals valued most about their school and 'diversity' was often employed to favourably distinguish Kingsland and its catchment area from other neighbourhoods and schools,

Ralph:     Cos, whenever I walk to like the park, or go to my mate's house or that, um, there's – I never see a black person with a Mornington top on. Or any other top.
Alice:     So do you think people compare this school to Mornington School?
Ralph:     Yeah.
Sam:     In my old school, [one of Kingsland's feeder primaries] – it was quite a small school but . . there were act-. . there were like [only] twelve white people through the whole school and everyone was just ethnic – which was, which I think was really good.

(Ralph and Sam, white students, Year 7)

4.5 Students commonly articulated 'diversity' most directly in terms of 'race', 'colour', 'culture' or 'religion' but in many of their accounts there also appeared to be a marked and inter-related social class dynamic at play. Kingsland and its pupils were regularly, rhetorically dissociated from private schools, or 'posher' state schools such as Mornington as in the account given by Ralph and Sam above. These were constructed as 'whiter' than Kingsland, 'more boring' and less engaged with what Kingsland students perceived to be 'reality'. However, the same students simultaneously distanced themselves from 'rougher' (poorer) areas and 'bad schools' elsewhere in the city. These were again constructed as 'other' through their relative 'whiteness' but here 'whiteness' denoted 'ignorance' and intolerance, hostility and potential threat (for further discussion of the complex and ambivalent positioning of contemporary classed whiteness and the importance of place-based association see also Skeggs 2004, Evans 2010, Gidley and Rooke 2010, Parker 2010, Paton 2010 and other contributions to Taylor 2010).

4.6 At Kingsland, 'whiteness' was therefore an ambiguous, contradictory and largely oppositional signifier and one which many ostensibly 'white' students sought to transcend. In identifying with 'brilliantly multicultural Kingsland', as one teacher described it, as opposed to the 'boring'/'posh' or 'hostile'/'deprived' whiteness of other areas of the city, students could temporarily deny or obscure their own ethnic or racial and class positionings. In the interview extract above, for example, the meaning or significance of Ralph's white skin is deferred under the marker of a navy blue school jumper with a Kingsland crest. His is a jumper (or 'top') that is also being worn by many 'black' students and this distinguishes it from the jumpers that identify other students as members of nearby Mornington School. In this way, Ralph appears to be suggesting that his school jumper lends him a multicultural identity outside of his own whiteness, as a member of the Kingsland community.

4.7 It was not simply the empirical reality of socio-cultural diversity and students' proximity to difference that was held at the heart of Kingsland's self-identity but also a collective pride in the school's response. Kingsland was 'imagined' and resoundingly reproduced in the accounts of both staff and students as an exemplary model of cosmopolitan multiculturalism – a by and large harmonious 'community of communities' which attracted a teaching staff committed to antiracist pedagogy. In many ways, it was this construction that proved just as important as any independent 'reality' as a referent for identity. However, through classroom observation and interviews, I was provided with a number of opportunities to begin to unpick the canonical narrative of Kingsland as united in its diversity. In response to a religious studies examination question, for example, which asked, 'How does Kingsland School combat racism?', one Year 10 student responded intriguingly,

It is known for it's mixed race groups and there isn't any racism, there are no cultures which would be discriminatized in this school! (well as far as the eye can see, which isn't very far!!!)
(Verbatim extract from student exam paper)

4.8 It is not entirely clear from the student's written answer where the reputation of the school (what it is 'known for') and the author's own understanding and experience begin and end with their invitation to the reader to question the limits of what 'the eye can see'. But this is precisely the salient point and one which resounds through the numerous contradictions, inconsistencies and thoughtful uncertainties I recorded as other students began to question their own first assertions that, 'there is no racism here'.

The function of friendships: cautionary tales, 'having a laugh' and the cost of causing offence.

Even though I said like, 'everyone gets along', most people always stay with their own culture. So I was kind of wrong in saying that, because, now that I think about it, we don't even show . . . we don't share anything about each other's cultures really. Because we are all in our own little groups.
(Abdul, Somali student, Year 11)
5.1 Beyond their initial celebration of its 'diversity', in describing life at Kingsland, almost all of the Year 10 and 11 students that I interviewed remarked upon the salience of 'grouped' identities and friendship networks at the school. While all suggested that they considered relations across each year group as a whole were good - that everyone 'got on with' and at least 'talked with' each other – they also identified that most people they knew would 'huddle together', tending 'to stick with their own kind of people' and seldom sharing perspective or experience across these divides. When asked what they understood by 'kind of people', students primarily articulated a closely shared, messy conflation of 'friendship', 'attitude', 'culture' and 'race'. Most appeared largely undecided or ambivalent as to whether the persistence of these groupings held significance for them – and if so in what way – but a number remarked that their boundaries represented potential fault-lines, along which allegiances were drawn in cases of conflict, especially between black British or African Caribbean and South Asian or Somalian heritage students and 'against' white students in some of the classes I observed.

5.2 The appearance of 'racially' aggregated friendship groups in multicultural environments is scarcely a novel finding as Beverly Tatum's 1997 text, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? makes clear. However, within my own research I became particularly interested in the visibility of these patterns to students and their own attempts at questioning their meaning in relation to the 'united in diversity' narrative of the school. In order to better understand this apparent racialisation, it is instructive to consider the experiences of Kingsland's youngest students during their first few terms at secondary school. As studies by Measor and Woods (1984) and Delamont and Galton (1986) have illustrated, it is through the eyes and adaptations of its newest members that the formal and informal cultures of a school can be thrown into sharpest relief.

5.3 The transition to secondary from primary school is well recognised as a potentially challenging time for young people, often representing significant social and educational change (Ross et al. 2006; Hargreaves and Galton 2002). When I first met with tutor group 7B, they were very much still in the throes of learning to relate to each other, testing boundaries, establishing individual and shared reputations and determining the lay of the land. Les Back and others have highlighted the function of 'duelling play' within young people's peer groups in negotiating shared terms of interaction and exploring the meaning of belonging as well as learning to belong (Back 1996: 74). Arguably, an additional layer of legitimacy and salience operates within the context of a school which can offer further sanction or reprimand when distinguishing between different forms of play. For many of the Year 7 students within my study, the line between 'play' or 'just messing' and bullying was initially very difficult to discern.

5.4 Peter, Christopher and James were three white students who arrived at Kingsland from Milton Hall, a feeder primary whose pupils were drawn largely from neighbourhoods characterised by high owner occupancy, low income deprivation and comparatively little ethnic diversity. In a Bourdieuian analysis each could be considered rich in the forms of cultural capital traditionally valued by formal systems of education and most readily translatable into academic success. But as the boys themselves identified in interview, while theirs may have been one of the best performing primary schools within the Kingsland catchment area in terms of overall standardised test scores and the judgements of government inspection reports, it had not prepared them for the social side of life at Kingsland. Where Sam, for example, proudly pointed out that his primary school was characterised by even greater cultural diversity than at Kingsland (see interview extract above), this was not the case for Peter, Christopher or James.

James:     And in our old school there wasn't many, there's not really many. . that many black kids. [ . . ] We weren't used to it – there's probably about 55% at this school or something, probably.
[. . .]
It's quite . . It's quite hard when it's multicultural. Cos you've got to think about what you say . . about people.
Chris:     You don't want to offend anyone. . . from a different religion
James:     You've gotta be careful what you say.

5.5 Christopher and James continued this discussion by telling me about an incident involving Peter. In their account, Peter had been 'beaten up' in the playground after inadvertently offending a Muslim classmate, Omar, during their first religious studies lesson. All that the boys could remember of the offending incident was that their teacher had asked if anyone could think of any topics that might be studied within a religious studies classroom and Peter had suggested the crusades. Peter himself recounted the same event in a separate interview and its import and meaning to all three boys was clear: 'It makes you a lot cautious', Peter explained. 'Say someone annoys you, in the playground and he's a different race . . . you've got to think, will that be offensive?'

5.6 A similar cautionary tale concerning a girl who had 'said something [racist] to someone' and, as an implied consequence, 'had to leave the school' was also shared with folklore-like status among older students in the school. In this story the consequences of a racist action extended beyond the school gates, and the student concerned was reported to be too scared to leave her house for fear of physical reprimand. Presumably the original incident was considerably more complex than any of the accounts that I was given were able to reveal. Drawing on a Barthean semitotic analysis, in their own classroom study Measor and Woods (op cit.) argue that it is precisely through such ambiguity and imprecision that shared stories can acquire a symbolic, myth-like status and gain considerable regulatory power (see also Delamont 1989). In place of any real substantive detail, in both instances within my own research, the symbolic message to Kingsland students had become singularly clear: any form of 'racism' would invite serious and immediate retribution and would not be tolerated by your peers. In many respects, this is a more militant version of the Kingsland-as-multicultural-community narrative discussed previously: if you are not comfortable with our version of multiculturalism – or more accurately, if you can't learn how to demonstrate that you are comfortable with our multiculturalism – then there is no place for you here. While the school's authority figures would certainly not have condoned the use of retaliatory violence, the 'official' story of Kingsland's successful management of diversity and inclusive ethos reinforced and interacted with the social discourses that the student body policed: in Peter's memory, it was he and not his assailants who ended up 'in trouble', not only with Omar, but with the disciplinary head of year group as a consequence of his perceived insensitivity in religious studies class.

5.7 Throughout my interviews, it became clear that there existed a widely apprehended hierarchy of insults at Kingsland which the Year 7s were learning to recognise in relatively clear-cut, albeit clumsily conflated, terms: 'skin colour is definitely the worst' explained James. Christopher agreed, 'Yeah, to make like fun of someone like because of their religion or culture – that's like a really big offence'. My observation notes document that, among both staff and students, gendered or class-based insults and widespread homophobic name-calling were by and large ignored. But despite the consistent rhetorical disavowal of racialised put-downs 'when students really mean it', in actual fact, and especially in the upper school, the prevalence of racialised language, 'banter', and joking discourse among and across collective groupings was markedly pronounced. Students in older year groups argued that the frequency and openness with which they and their contemporaries used racialised language, including potentially offensive racial jokes, was in fact both a consequence and a cause of the absence of 'real' racism within the school. But the line between 'real racism' and 'joke racism', as apprehended by the majority student body was perhaps the most difficult to discern of all the functional social boundaries that operated within the school. During my field encounters and interviews, the line between humour and offence appeared inconsistent and imprecise. Essentially a subjective construction, it was largely determined by those students who possessed the necessary credentials, experience and/or standing within the school. One such student, Reggie – a Year 11 student who initially identified himself as 'black British' – called upon his own multi-ethnic biography to argue that he was 'obviously' 'just playing' in what could otherwise be considered risky conversations about race:

And like my brother is half Asian, and my sister yeah, and I'm a quarter white, and three quarters black, so I've got all these different races in my family anyway, so racism isn't an issue to me. So when I say something about white people right, I grew up with white people and black people, so I am only playing yeah. And if I say something about Asians, my brother is Asian so I'm not going to – obviously - going to be racist to him. So I'm just playing.
(Reggie, black British Year 11 student)

5.8 There is insufficient scope here to adequately interrogate Reggie's insistence that 'racism isn't an issue to me'. My point in this context is to argue that on entry into Kingsland from primary school, some students were clearly positioned better than others to navigate the rules of this game with confidence and themselves play a part in determining whether a joke, for example, was 'just funny' or cause for reprimand. Most notably these were students like Reggie who could claim or display their own 'hybridity', either through genealogy or as demonstrated by their network of closest friends. For many Year 7 students however, the rules remained opaque and unintelligible and learning them proved a daunting, sometimes humiliating and potentially violent task. I consider this critically important to understanding Kingsland as a racialising social and educational space. For in such circumstances, the company of other people who were starting with shared or similar experiences and understandings offered some comfort in navigating this difficult terrain. Friendship groups appeared to form where early trespasses could be forgiven and where troubling encounters could be reflected upon collectively, without the silencing fear of 'causing offence' that permeated elsewhere in the school. For the Year 7 students of my interviews, closest friends were those who could 'tell each other secrets', who avoided having 'fat arguments', and perhaps most importantly given the preceding discussion, who would understand and appreciate 'the same jokes as you'. In practice, it was this search for reassuring familiarity and conversational safety which appeared to lead to the (re)construction of friendship groups which were significantly racialised.

'It doesn't really make me anybody': understanding 'whiteness' in the present and the past.

6.1 While black British, Asian and Somali students appeared to experience little problem in describing an allegiance to 'your own kind of people' expressed in racialised and/or ethnicised terms, almost all of the white students that I interviewed firmly rejected the notion that their whiteness could, or should, constitute a meaningful identifier of who they were. As Chloe, a Year 11 student, reluctantly conceded, 'well, like I am "white" but I don't really . . , it doesn't really make me anybody'. Encouraging students to recognise and reflect on the fact that friendship group formations so commonly appeared to be racialised therefore proved especially discomfiting to those who were white.

6.2 In fact, the relationship between white students and the meaning of whiteness was deeply ambivalent within the school. On the one hand, attending Kingsland facilitated a contingent displacement of white identities for individuals who could characterise themselves foremost as members of a multi-ethnic, multi-racial community. Remember, for example, Ralph's identification as a wearer of a Kingsland School jumper in contrast to the uniforms worn by 'other' groups of pupils from 'whiter' (and 'posher'/ more 'boring' and/or 'rougher'/more 'ignorant') schools. On the other hand, within Kingsland's own social landscape, it entailed reluctant acknowledgement of being positioned as 'white' by other people and accepting the troubling connotations that this carried inside the school. Whereas classmates who self-identified as 'Somali', 'Pakistani', 'black-British' or 'mixed-race' comfortably referenced themselves in relation to collective identities built on an understanding of shared experience and heritage, many of the young people interviewed within my study reported that they felt the only meanings awarded to whiteness within Kingsland were negative associations of exploitative racial power given the strong antiracist rhetoric shared by both staff and students at the school.

6.3 Similar observations have been recorded in earlier ethnographic research by Troyna and Hatcher (1992), Gillborn (1995) and more recently by the authors of the 2007 Ajegbo review of citizenship education in schools. In my interpretation, the problem encountered by students in each of these studies reflects the impossibility of retrospectively casting 'whiteness' – or even 'white Britishness', or 'white Englishness' – as a depoliticised 'ethnicity' within a wider discourse of celebratory multiculturalism rather than critically interrogating it as a historically privileged position of relational power (see also Leonardo 2004, Fine et al. 1997 and Frankenberg 1999). However, on publication, Ajegbo's findings were quickly interpreted by the popular media to suggest that white British students were being treated unfairly in not being awarded the same affirmations of identity as ethnic majority classmates in their schools (see for example, The Times 24 January, 2007 or The Daily Mail 25 January, 2007). One short passage was widely reproduced in newspaper coverage to illustrate the apparent conclusion that 'many' white students, 'feel beleaguered and marginalised finding their own identities under threat':

We spoke to one white British pupil in Year 3, for instance, who, after hearing in a class discussion how the rest of the class came from countries such as the Congo, Portugal, Trinidad and Tobago and Poland, said that she 'came from nowhere' (Ajegbo 2007: 30)

6.4 The report recommended that increased attention should be awarded within the citizenship curriculum to reclaiming positive narratives of 'white Britishness'. However, from the perspective of a number of commentators within the fields of post-colonialism and critical whiteness studies, to do so could be very damaging:

to treat whiteness as just another ethnicity runs the risk of ignoring or even concealing very real differences in terms of institutional power between it and other racialized ethnicities. (Gabriel 2000: 174)
For Ajegbo's position also ignores the considerable advantages which white subjects continue to gain in identifying themselves primarily as independent, autonomous selves.

6.5 Using a similar theoretical framework to my own, in her study of two American high schools, Pamela Perry describes a familiar unwillingness or inability on the part of many white students to acknowledge the salience of historical power relations in constituting their identities:

To the white youth, only 'ethnic' people had [..] ties to the past. The students would agree with George De Vos (1975) that a 'feeling of continuity with the past' distinguishes an 'ethnic' group from peoples with more 'present-oriented' or 'future-oriented' identities (Perry 2002: 58, citing De Vos p.17)

6.6 At Kingsland, many white students appeared to work with 'present-oriented' formulations of 'fairness' in much the same way. Hewitt (1997) and Back and Keith (1999) make a comparable observation when emphasising the significance of narratives of unfairness in young white people's discourses of race and racism within their own respective research. As Back and Keith explain, such narratives posit their white authors as the surprise victims of inverted racisms. They can be articulated – and may indeed be experienced – as entirely convincing and credible within specific and contingent local contexts but depend upon the ignorance or denial of wider and/or historical structures.

6.7 For example, in attempting to think through her observation that a regular focus for school-based name-calling is the colour of a person's skin, Year 7 student Flora drew on a muddled understanding of the history of Martin Luther King:

Flora:    I think it only happens because . . . I don't know, this might sound silly, but, because of, I don't know, like Martin Luther King.
[. . .]
How them . . them – all the white people used to rule all the black people, and they – they made them be slaves and so I think they're trying to get – get us back. For doing what we done, but it's not our fault. So they shouldn't like blame it on us.

6.8 Very limited recognition of relevant events in the past – in this instance a seriously truncated history of transatlantic slavery and the American civil rights movement – is demonstrated but almost immediately inverted to provide explanation for the 'unfair' abuse of white students in the present. An appeal is made to a notion of proportionate recrimination: slavery was a crime of the past, 'it's not our fault . . . so they shouldn't like blame it on us [now].' Flora's changing use of the pronouns 'they made them be slaves and so I think they're trying to get us back' denotes an ambiguity or reluctance over whether to identify herself at all with the 'white people' whose historical relations she describes.

6.9 In a similar manner, both Chris and James also described a shared confusion as to why other students and teachers appeared to work with an understanding of 'racism' that only identified the words and actions of white people as problematic. James elaborated this point by suggesting that if a teacher asked a class, 'what does being racist mean?', 'everyone . . . would use an example of a white person being racist to a black person'. 'Nobody thinks of it, like going the other way round' concurred Chris. I asked both boys to consider why that might be.

James:     Well, I don't . . . I don't know why it is, but I think some – well cos black seem to be . . . everyone seems to be more scared of black than – blacks are kind of pushing white people around? [sounding hesitant] And the whites just . . . kind of – they're more scared of the . . . I don't know.
Alice:     No go on.
James:     Well, it just seems that, blacks seem to be stronger, cos they're all the – white people just think, 'oh he's black, he's strong and everything', so that's why people like, make an example of whites going to blacks. Because . . . if, if a black person said something racist about a white person, then the white person wouldn't push him back because he's kind of scared of him.

6.10 It is significant and salutary that being at Kingsland quickly teaches students like Chris and James that, 'you've got to think about what you say . . about people', 'you've got to think, will that be offensive?' But as the illustration above indicates, it is critically important to further examine the same students' understanding of why this should be so. James was one of the most academically able students in tutor group 7B, friendly and confident and quietly popular with both teachers and classmates. James's tone and manner at this point during our conversation – his hesitation and deliberation over choice of words – suggested that he recognised this was a difficult subject to talk about but that he trusted I would interpret him sympathetically. I believe he would have been genuinely shocked and troubled to consider the familiar racisms which appeared to me to inflect his explanation, and not only because of fear of disapproval or reprimand. I regret that during the interview itself I was not able to explore competently or problematise this further with him constructively. For James appears to consider that the only significant difference between inter-racial abuse of white towards black, and black towards white contemporaries, is that whites are scared into submission more easily and do not register their protest. Such a rationale not only feeds upon popular stereotypes of unruly and physically threatening black subjects but simultaneously ignores and denies historical and enduring iniquitous structural relations of power between both groups. Through a temporally foreshortened, 'present-oriented', and distorting lens of 'fairness', the familiar formulation of 'racism = prejudice + power', is startlingly inverted to better reflect James's interpretations of his own and other students' experiences at Kingsland School. Mike Cole has argued powerfully that, in order to work against contemporary expressions of racism, the history of racialisation – as critically examined by writers such as Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy and Kenan Malik, for example – must be explored within British schools (Cole 2004a, 2004b). Neither James, nor Flora – nor many of Kingsland's older students – appeared to have any real understanding of this history.

'I guess the role of school is to save you from making a social blunder': Limited lessons learned.

7.1 Unfortunately for James, his illustrative example of a teacher asking a class what racism means was only really a rhetorical device as he couldn't remember any lessons in which an actual class teacher had attempted to involve students in such discussion. He described that he found it hard to identify spaces within the school in which he could confidently explore issues of racism and identity but suggested that specially designated lessons, 'where you could just talk about language and stuff,' would be very useful, albeit difficult to sensitively organise.

7.2 Older students at the school agreed that they had in fact received very few lessons or obvious input from staff on questions of race and racism beyond the most peremptory. As one Year 11 girl put it, 'the teachers, they just reckon that we know it all anyway, just from being here.' I asked another student more directly what role he felt the school played in promoting understanding or developing relationships between individuals. He answered that at best it could, 'save you from making a social blunder', by ensuring basic knowledge of different communities' religious practices, for example: 'I guess it is school's role to keep you from looking ignorant'. But the case of James should provide both a cautionary reminder of the dangers of simply relying on inferential learning through proximity to difference and an illustration of the opportunities for more challenging educational encounters that are currently being ignored.

7.3 Bryson (2000: 266) has described that, in many educational spaces, students promptly pick up on those attitudes and behaviours deemed acceptable or desirable in specific contexts and simply learn to 'ventriloquate appropriate sentiments'. Where peer-group interaction appears to support official school policy by providing quick, firm, yet opaque instruction on permissible and impermissible behaviour, it is surely all the more important for schools and teachers to provide pedagogical encounters which enable and support their students to move beyond mere ventriloquism. For, 'the fear of being found personally wanting in some way' – especially when accompanied by the threat of physical violence and/or social isolation – 'is often one of the greatest barriers to promoting critical consciousness' (hooks 2003: 107). Paradoxically, it appeared to be the school's success in identifying as a proudly multicultural and antiracist community which itself represented precisely such a barrier for students such as Flora, Peter, Chris and James.

7.4 During an interview with Miss Flax, the form tutor for class 7B, I tried to clarify my understanding of the violent lesson Peter and his friends had learned from Omar in their religious studies classroom as described in Paragraph 5.5 above. She apologised that she had not been aware of the exact incident but remarked that she imagined, 'those were precisely the sorts of lessons that parents like Peter's send their kids to schools like Kingsland to learn'. Perhaps she was right. Her interpretation certainly echoes some of the purposeful educational choices made by the white middle class parents who Reay, Crozier and James describe as seeking 'to display their liberal credentials and secure their class position by equipping their children with the capacities to cope or thrive in a multicultural society' (Reay et al. 2011: 83, see also May 1996). However, it seems to be regrettable that even – or perhaps especially – in a school as committed to combating racism and intolerance as Kingsland, there remain a number of troubling confusions and misunderstandings which many of its students perceive to be too risky to openly explore.

Concluding remarks

8.1 This article has offered an empirical examination of the social and educational significance awarded to 'race' and 'ethnicity' among white British students within a single secondary school. It has described that, through drawing on the contingencies of its local catchment area geography, the school constructed itself as a beacon of celebrated diversity while at the same time ambiguously positioning 'whiteness' in contradictory and largely oppositional terms. Belonging to Kingsland appeared to offer students the opportunity to transcend their own 'whiteness', but at the same time the school's official discourse of antiracist multiculturalism and peer-group policing served to create a daunting, often hidden and potentially treacherous regulatory framework in response to which – at least in part – racialised friendship groups were regularly formed. In the absence of specific pedagogical support for students to reflect critically upon their own experience, the same regulatory framework in fact served to prevent white students from recognising relationships between their own contemporary racialised identities and historically constituted enduring structural inequalities

8.2 I explained at the outset that it was not my intention in this paper to problematise the notion of a proud and secure British national identity of the sort that politicians from across the party political spectrum have appealed to in recent years (see for example Brown 2006 and Howard 2005). Nor has there been sufficient space to document Kingsland students' own rhetorical rejections of and messy engagements with various discourses of 'Britishness'. However, I consider that the case of Kingsland offers certain resonance with wider contemporary argument concerning multicultural citizenship and community cohesion at the level of the nation-state.

8.3 While preparing the final text for my PhD submission in early 2007, it became increasingly hard to ignore the frenzy of media attention given to the strenuously censured racist bullying of Indian actress Shilpa Shetty by British 'celebrity' housemates on the high profile reality television series Big Brother (for a full account of the incident and its coverage see Mendick and George 2010). Amid the furore and political theatre which quickly grew to surround the initial charge of racism were, once again, concerns raised over the responsibility and failure of what was being taught in Britain's schools (Katawala 2007). Indeed, the then Education Minister Alan Johnston made several appearances in newspaper coverage highlighting the timeliness and importance of Ajegbo's citizenship education report. However, his insistence that the 'ignorance and bigotry' displayed by the three young white women at the centre of the outrage could best be tackled by 'more emphasis on the British values of justice and tolerance' (BBC 2007, my emphasis) sounded staggeringly misguided in light of the year I had spent at Kingsland School. Here Johnston rhetorically casts the 'ignorant' and 'bigoted' 'racist' culprits as though outside of and other to legitimate ('just', 'tolerant') 'Britishness' in much the same manner as racist actions – and racist actors – were cast outside of Kingsland's self construction as a harmonious and tolerant multiethnic community. He also feeds directly into common contemporary social and political framings of racism and prejudice as a pathology of the abject white working class (after Haylett 2001). As in the analysis of Kingsland I have offered above, the interwoven historical legacies, contingent experiences and circumscribed perspectives which underlie contemporary expressions of racism are immediately disavowed and distanced from rather than interrogated or constructively explored.

8.4 Outside of the United Kingdom, a number of critical educationalists have outlined potential classroom based approaches to multiculturalism and diversity which harness 'pedagogies of discomfort' and invite the supported discussion of difficult, sensitive or contentious issues in school (see, for example, Bingham 2006, Britzman 2003 and Boler 2009). To date the 're-imagining Britishness' and citizenship education agendas, as articulated by those in power and operationalised in British schools, appear to be less concerned with helping young people confront the complexities and potential challenges of their lived reality than with promoting an abstract, aspirational, and ultimately exclusionary conception of how 'we' (the British) would like to see ourselves and how we would like to be seen.

Appendix 1: Demographic data for Kingsland's catchment area[5]


1Year 7 is the first year of secondary schooling in England – students begin the school year aged 11

2For example, an English unit on autobiography and Religious Studies unit on the life and work of Martin Luther King as well Personal Social and Health Education lessons throughout the whole year.

3In total, I conducted interviews with: 21 Year 7 students in groups of between 2 and 4; 15 Year 11 students, either as individuals or again in small groups; 2 Year 10 students; and 11 members of staff including 2 members of the school's senior management team and 3 members of learning support staff. 3 members of staff and 4 pupils were interviewed on more than one occasion with total interview time for both staff and students varying between 40 minutes and 2 hours. An interview guide was produced in advance of each individual interview in order that the questions I asked could attend to issues and insights earlier revealed through classroom observation or in informal, unrecorded conversations between myself and participants

4Where an 'ethnic'/'racial' and/or 'national' identity is attributed to an individual this reflects the respondents own identification when asked in interview unless otherwise explained.

5Information for this table was collated from 2001 census data organised into neighbourhood units, or lower layer 'super output areas', accessed through the Office for National Statistics at, and using a ward map and school catchment area map provided by the Local Council


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