The Art and Silence of Anti-Racist Education

Critical race theory argues that there are two dimensions of anti-racist work: economic and cultural. Anti-racist practice seeks to address cultural aspects of discrimination through challenging thought processes, attitudes and discourses. Policies have included prohibiting offensive language such as racist name calling to protect certain ethnic groups from abuse. However, when set against a backdrop of media stories presenting immigrants as a threat, such silencing discourses can lead to resistance, blocks and fears that become difficult to communicate. This research explores ways in which arts projects can support education about issues of racial diversity when these prove difficult to articulate. Qualitative data has been collected through interviews with White teachers and students’ and observations of participation in diversity arts projects in schools in Devon. Silences and absences permeate the research process and the findings to such an extent that they have become meaningful and purposeful elements of the data. Fears of ‘looking racist’ (Leonardo 2009) are found to lead to silences, pauses and caution in my research interviews. School students express anxiety about discussing ethnicity in educational contexts, for fear of being called racist. Fear can thwart the dialogue necessary for working through troublesome issues of ‘race’ and racism. When fears and blocks are left unaddressed, silencing discourses are in danger of pushing racist language and behaviour away from the gaze of the teacher, whilst they continue in corridors, the playground and local community. Students’ stories of the presence of racism stand in contrast to teachers’ reports of its absence. Initial analysis highlights ways that arts projects can speak across the silences, making visible the absences and providing a medium for engagement.