Education and Skills

Study: Almost all Black British children have experienced racism at school

uk united kingdom gb great britian england wales scotand northen ireland racism race black injustice unjust unfair discrimination advantage disadvantage

New YMCA report finds 95% of Black students in the United Kingdom are exposed to racist language. Image: REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Natalie Marchant
Writer, Forum Agenda
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Systemic Racism

  • 95% of young Black British people have witnessed racist language in education.
  • More than half of males said they hear racist language in school ‘all the time’.
  • Teacher perceptions are seen as the biggest barrier to educational success.
  • Two-thirds say they do not trust the police to act fairly towards them.
  • Tackling structural racism requires a collaborative, society-wide effort.

The vast majority of young Black British people have experienced racism at school, with one in two feeling that racial stereotypes hinder their academic achievement, research shows.

YMCA’s Young and Black report found that 95% of young Black people in the UK have heard or witnessed racist language at school, with 51% of males saying they heard it “all the time”.

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Meanwhile, nearly half (49%) feel that racism is the largest hurdle to academic attainment and 50% say that teacher perceptions are the biggest barrier to educational success.

The findings of the research, based on interviews with 557 people of Black or mixed ethnicity aged between 16 and 30 years, shows that such experiences continue beyond education. Some 86% said they had experienced racist language in the workplace and over half (54%) feel that bias or prejudice – such as their name on a CV – is the main barrier to getting into employment.

uk united kingdom gb great britain england wales scotland northen ireland racism race black injustice unjust unfair discrimination advantage disadvantage
95% of those surveyed had heard racist language at school. Image: YMCA

In addition, 70% of young Black British people felt the need to change their hair to be “more professional” at work or at school.

In focus groups on education, participants “shared their experiences of teachers suggesting that Black afro-textured hair is ‘untidy’ and ‘needs to be brushed’, while young Black men spoke of hair policies at school being ‘just another form of racism’ by not being inclusive of young Black people”, the report says.

Research also reveals that nearly two-thirds (64%) of young Black British people do not trust the police to act fairly towards them, while more than half (54%) do not trust officers to act without prejudice or discrimination. A similar number (55%) worry about being falsely accused of a crime.

uk united kingdom gb great britain england wales scotland northen ireland racism race black injustice unjust unfair discrimination advantage disadvantage
70% of young Black British people felt the need to alter their hair. Image: YMCA

Racism in schools a global issue

The experience of young Black people in the UK reflects that of their peers in other parts of the world. In the US, a 14-day study involving Black adolescents in Washington DC showed that they dealt with an average of five racial incidents a day, which can negatively impact academic performance.

Meanwhile in Australia, 40% of pupils from non-Anglo or European backgrounds in years five to nine reported experiencing racial discrimination by their peers, according to a 2019 study. Nearly 20% of pupils from an Aboriginal or Torres Strait background said they had experienced racial discrimination from their teachers, the report added.

Over in Europe, a yearly integration report by the Austrian government recently showed that two-thirds of schoolchildren from a migrant background failed to reach the expected reading level. Sarajevo-born education expert Melisa Erkurt told Metropole
that cultural biases and systemic racism within the Austrian school system were limiting migrant children from learning proper German.

Calls to end systemic racism across society

The issues raised in the YMCA report are particularly relevant in a year that saw the death of George Floyd while under arrest in Minneapolis and the subsequent Black Lives Matters protests across the world.

Real change is needed, said YMCA England & Wales CEO Denise Hatton.

“Bias and barriers chip away at and ultimately shape the life experiences of young Black people in the UK, putting them at a significant disadvantage. To improve the lives and experiences of young Black people in a meaningful way, systems embedded within institutions must be reviewed and changed.”

Roby Chatterji, senior policy analyst at Center for American Progress, similarly argues that allies should work with Black, indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) communities to combat structural racism in education, among other aspects of social life.

COVID-19 has aggravated social inequalities

The COVID-19 pandemic, alongside political and social unrest, has aggravated social and structural inequalities.

But companies emerging from the crisis now have the ideal opportunity to tackle entrenched issues such as bias and discrimination relating to race, gender and other forms of diversity.

The World Economic Forum has produced a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion toolkit to support organizations wanting to reduce bias and improve diversity.

Ensuring that Black young people feel supported and empowered in education, the workplace and society as a whole, will enable them to thrive in the future – to the benefit of all.

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