Are private schools being racialised surreptitiously?

Caiden Lang | Dec 06, 2021
The growth of CRT in private schools appears to owe its genesis in policies based on Critical Race Theory to promote "transformation" and "anti-racism". Caiden Lang analyses this apparently worrying development that seems to have taken hold from 2018.

The Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa (ISASA) is the largest and oldest association of independent schools in the Southern African region. It has over 850 schools all of which pay an annual subscription fee in return for financial, advocacy, best practice and professional development services and advice.

ISASA’s theory of school transformation is laid out in two documents – the Statement on Anti-Racism and the Guide to Effective School Transformation and Diversity Management. *

The two documents suggest that ISASA’s vision and mission are consistent with those of an approach to eradicating unfair racial discrimination called critical race theory (CRT).

Critical Race Theory

CRT considers human interaction to be synonymous with interactions of power determined according to the racial identity of interacting subjects. When humans of different races interact it is never the case that they meet on equal footing. People whose racial identity grants them a higher spot on the power hierarchy must, at all times, be aware of their privileged standing and do the work of recognising and dismantling the biases necessarily present by virtue of being born with a particular skin colour. In other words, developing a critical consciousness. In other words, becoming woke.

Crucially, although racial power manifests in individuals, it does so under systems of power – systems that individuals have been socialised into. By this logic, a person is a member of an identity group first and an individual, second.

CRT rejects the main beliefs of philosophical liberalism – equality theory, individualism, objectivity, and incremental progress guided by reason and logic. Instead, it favours equity, identity politics, social constructivism, and revolution. The ultimate goal of CRT is a Marxist society where the shackles of oppression, both overt and subtle, have been discarded. 

CRT is a revolutionary endeavour in the name of social justice. As such, scholars and activists need to find a way to plant the seeds of revolution and they seem to have found fertile ground in our education system. The way that CRT ideas are spread is called praxis – the marrying of theory and practice.

In short, CRT is concerned with 1) identifying oppressive power systems (western liberalism) and disrupting them, and 2) praxis – teaching others to view the world through the ideological lens of CRT.

ISASA’s documents reflect the same ideas.

Power

ISASA holds that schools are made up of the dominant group (whites) and the subordinate group (non-whites). The goal of transformation is to eradicate the power imbalance between these two groups.

‘The drive for inclusion is informed by the reality that the dominant group in that institution already feels part of the ‘institutional family’, but the subordinate groups may feel a sense of not being considered or made part of the institution.’ (Guide)

Members of the subordinate group (sometimes referred to as the oppressed group) feel like they don’t belong because they are expected to assimilate to the ‘values, traditions and customs’ of the dominant group. Members of the subordinate group ‘are expected to give up their identities and cultures and, critically, to acknowledge the superiority of the dominant culture, and by implication, the identities of the groups into whose social context they are moving.’ (Soudien 2004: 95-96 in the Guide)

Here we see that group dynamics based on identity are given precedent over the individual, specifically regarding where they fit within a power hierarchy.

One might wonder whether the presence of some black students who do feel like they belong at their school is enough to debunk the sweeping generalisation, but here ISASA invokes the concept of ‘internalised oppression’ to explain the psychological state of somebody who falls into this category.

The Guide quotes Peterson (1986):

‘Internalised oppression is the incorporation and acceptance by individuals within an oppressed group of the prejudices against them within the dominant society. Internalised oppression is likely to consist of self-hatred, self-concealment, fear of violence and feelings of inferiority, resignation, isolation, powerlessness, and gratefulness for being allowed to survive. Internalised oppression is the mechanism within an oppressive system for perpetuating domination not only by external control but also by building subservience into the minds of the oppressed groups.’

In other words, black people who do not feel victimised by ‘white’ values, traditions, and customs are wrong and they are working against their own interests. This is extremely patronising; how does a school take this as a given?

In addition, the Guide’s definition of racism reflects CRT thought in that only members of a dominant group can be racist:

“… an institutionalised system whereby certain racialised groups are systematically dominated or marginalised by another racialised group or groups and where the inequalities and abuses that the phenomenon seeks to entrench are primarily legitimated or justified, and consequently reproduced by means of systematic inferiorisation or ‘negativisation’ of dominated racialised groups.’”

Praxis

In order to liberate the victims of oppression in our elite private schools, ISASA considers it the duty of the school to equip the learners to ‘recognise, analyse and appropriately respond to the impact of power, privilege and race in their daily lives.’

The Guide ‘recognises’ that some people might be resistant to transformation, therefore, ‘Leaders and educators may need to undergo the personal transformation journey first to enable them to facilitate and support the process of transformation, diversity and social justice among learners.’

Therefore, a school should, ‘Develop a cohort of champions and mentors for personal and group change who have a deeper understanding of transformation’, because transformation ‘must go deeper than the intellect.’

ISASA considers ‘an unwavering belief in action even in the face of resistance’ to be a necessary criterion for anybody wanting to be part of the cohort of champions.

The cohort should be named either the Transformation and Diversity Task Team or Employment Equity Committee**, and it should ‘participate together in a structured programme of personal development’ in order to best ‘prepare teachers to take up issues of inclusion, fairness, racialisation, diversity, social justice and transformation in the classroom and the curriculum specifically.’

The Guide is talking about Critical Pedagogy – a theory of education arising from the Critical School of Education – that, according to Wikipedia has the goal of ‘emancipation from oppression through an awakening of the critical consciousness.’

For a more thorough understanding of Critical Pedagogy, I highly recommend Mike Young’s essay ‘Educating for Politics: How Critical Social Justice Politicizes the Classroom and Indoctrinates Students.’

In the essay, Young summarises the goal of those who endorse critical pedagogy and the Critical School of Education more broadly not as teaching children to ‘read, write and do math while helping to prepare them for life in the world,’ but rather as a ‘site of political struggle and a vehicle for radical social change.’

Equity

Transforming stakeholders’ mindsets through education is not the only intervention proposed. Another is to engineer the racial profile of the staff and student bodies so that demographic representation is achieved. The Guide refers to this as ‘equity’ – reaching a result of equality of outcomes which may well sacrifice merit.

To help schools to track racial equity, the guide gives examples of racial scorecards. Here is one example:

 (The idea of a racial scorecard seems somewhat at odds with another statement from the Guide saying, ‘The most daunting – but not insurmountable – task of transformation efforts is also about breaking down the cycle of further racialisation of society and institutions’.)

An African Identity

An important question to ask is what does a truly transformed school look like? (How will we know when transformation is achieved?)

In material terms, the guide tells us that a quality school is demographically representative across all sectors. This is something that can be measured. But some indicators remain more abstract.

For example, what dominant ‘values, traditions and customs’ need to be dismantled? And how will we know when dismantling has been satisfactorily achieved? How do we distinguish between values, traditions and customs that are genuinely oppressive and discriminatory and those that some people just don’t like? Perhaps it would be beneficial to assess such things based on intellect (logic, reason, and evidence), something that the guide considers secondary to matters of the heart.

ISASA’s Statement on Anti-Racism offers the goal of school transformation –

‘ISASA views an anti-racist school as a school that is dedicated to providing an educational experience characterised by an African identity that is reflected daily in the experience of each member school. ISASA schools are places where attention is drawn to an understanding and appreciation of the African experience by drawing attention to and emphasising, specifically, the importance of an African identity, as well as global identities and heritages.’

But what exactly is an African identity? This seems to assume that all African people have a shared identity and experience, an idea contradicted by the Guide’s definition of ‘human diversity’ –

‘The concept of diversity encompasses acceptance and respect. It means understanding that each individual is unique, and it recognises our individual differences. It is about understanding each other in a safe and positive environment, and moving beyond simply tolerating to embracing and celebrating the rich dimensions of diversity within each individual.’

ISASA references Kwame Nkrumah’s suggestion that an ‘African identity’ (here he is referring to racial identity, not geographic) is one founded on hope, trust, friendship, and directed to the good of all mankind, in contrast to identities built on fear, envy and suspicion, won at the expense of others.

What identity is based on the second set of attributes? Perhaps the one whose values, traditions and customs require dismantling in the name of transformation and social justice.

Whatever happened to judging people on their character instead of the colour of their skin? Whatever happened to not defining somebody’s worth based on immutable characteristics?

ISASA thinks that ‘Quality schools do not subscribe to the ‘colour blindness’ approach’. It is no surprise, therefore, that many school policies regard an expression of ‘colour-blindness’ as a disciplinary infraction. Identity politics is the fashionable framing of social justice in many of our private schools.

Given our innate tendency towards tribalism, I suggest that we proceed with caution and highlight commonalities rather than play the sorts of games favoured by some of the 20th century’s tyrants.

Racism and discrimination are complex issues. I think that instead of getting distracted by the shiny baubles of emancipation that ISASA is tossing up, schools should consider whether or not it is in their students’ interests to favour collectivism and equity over individualism and meritocracy.

Unfortunately, it may not be that simple for schools affiliated with ISASA, whose Statement on Anti-racism provides –

‘Should a member school not work towards actively combatting racism and discriminatory practices, ISASA deems this failure to be inconsistent with its vision and mission. Such a failure to combat racism and discriminatory practices may be considered a material breach of ISASA’s membership conditions and may result in that member school’s membership being terminated in terms of Article 21.2 of the ISASA Memorandum of Incorporation.’

Does this mean that as long as schools deal with racism and discrimination, it doesn’t matter how they choose to deal with it? Or is membership conditional on accepting ISASA’s terms of employing critical race theory to transform schools?

Footnote:

*In an address delivered at the 2018 ISASA Combined Conference, Minister of Basic Education, Mrs Angie Motshekga praised the guide, calling it ‘necessary’ and ‘timely’.

**The guide says that,

‘Trust between parents and school staff is one of the key factors in the success of a school. The school should work tirelessly to maintain this trust relationship between these two sets of very important role players in the education of learners.’

… which is undercut by the fact that the guide recommends that the committee take charge of budgeting for transformation, adding that, ‘The transformation team should decide what should be disclosed. Not all details need to be transparent.’

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