'We all have a responsibility to challenge racism face-on'

'We can all do more, we can all learn more,' says headmaster Jonathan Webb as two of our inspirational pupils lead our student conversation about race awareness, below 

RGS school officer FUNMI SOWOLE and prefect ROMOLA OGUNDAIRO reflect on their experiences of racism in the UK and their hopes for a better future following the death of George Floyd in the USA and the widespread support for the Black Lives Matter movement in the UK

RACISM goes further than statistics, it has affected us and many who look like us and has made us feel like less than we are, for no other reason than our skin colour.

The surest way to challenge the systemic racism embedded in our society is by educating ourselves through books, films and articles, and Google makes this very easy for us (see some of our initial research, below)

We plan to help the school celebrate Black History Month in October with a series of events seeking to celebrate the contribution and central role played by the black community throughout history and into the present.

The existing school-wide Equality Society will provide a platform for student voices, as well as a forum for positive debate, where we can listen to and learn from each other.

Conversations on race and the issues surrounding it will be encouraged further at school. It’s time for us all to begin actively tackling this problem together. We hope to work with the school to combat racial ignorance, through assemblies, presentations and form time discussions, and continue the discussion we have started in sixth form enrichment sessions.

As a starting point, we would like to offer some insight into our day-to-day lives. The hardest thing for us has been that, even with friends, we feel we cannot truly be ourselves, actively fitting in to avoid being stereotyped.

Equally difficult is the feeling of not being taken seriously when discussing things which are racially uncomfortable, like the use of the ‘n’ word in conversation, and having our emotions and opinions dismissed by peers.

It is hard to come to terms with the fact that racism is still prevalent where we live and that some of us may even play into it - perhaps knowingly or unknowingly making people feel uncomfortable in their own skin or ignoring this when we see it happening.

Ignoring a problem is never the answer. If you have a maths problem you don’t understand and instead of asking questions, seeking help, and making an effort to learn about what you’re struggling with, you ignore it, would that problem ever be solved?

The same goes for racism: the easiest option may be to ignore it, but this just allows a continuation of the suffering of those subjected to racism.

Have you ever made a racist ‘joke’? Have you ever used racist language? Have you made assumptions about people because of their skin tone? Have you ever invalidated someone’s feelings because they were voicing their concerns about racism? Has a conversation about racism ever made you feel uncomfortable and encouraged you to shut down the discussion? Have you ever been silent when you’ve seen this happening around you? Have you ever felt this issue is none of your business?

We all have a responsibility as human beings to create the kind of world and environment we are proud to live in and challenging racism face-on is the way we should do this.

George Floyd's death was terrible beyond words, but I think we can all agree he didn’t die in vain; his death will hopefully be a turning point for us to start addressing any racial prejudices we have and take into consideration how our words and actions can affect people at every level.

So, what does this mean at Ripon Grammar School? Hopefully we are all aware that acts of racism won’t be overlooked or tolerated at RGS but will be investigated by a senior member of staff and sanctions will be applied.

We would hope our community would go further, and that fear of repercussions will not be the only reason students reject racism, but that we will all stand up as anti-racists because we understand that it is right to do so.

‘The biggest challenge I have had to overcome has been to gain the confidence to be proud of my heritage and my skin colour despite the social reality that makes me feel I should be embarrassed and ashamed, both in and out of school’ (FUNMI)
‘The greatest challenge I have faced, moving from an environment where I was surrounded by people like me, to one with relatively little diversity, has been in finding common ground, and that people struggle to make the effort to understand where I am coming from’ (ROMOLA)

FUNMI, from Thirsk, joined RGS aged 11 in 2014, following her sister Sola, and two cousins. She studies art, history and maths, and plans to study architecture. ROMOLA, from Lagos, Nigeria, joined in 2019 as a boarder, the first in her family to attend RGS. She studies maths, chemistry, physics and design technology and plans to study architectural engineering. They outline the results of their research into the roots of and prevalence of racism in the UK, below

OUR initial research sheds some light on both the context and prevalence of racism in the UK. This sort of prejudice and discrimination clearly goes far deeper than these individual cases but exists deep in the structure of our society

More than 400 years ago, the first set of Africans were sold into slavery in America by Europeans, marking the beginning of a process that would see 17 million Africans transported to the Americas, over the Middle Passage, in conditions so terrible that there were mortality rates of up to 25 per cent.

This marked the origin of black slavery in the Americas and the inhumane treatment our ancestors were forced to endure. One couldn’t possibly list all the ways in which transported Africans were abused in the Americas, ill-treated as though we were not all humans who deserve equal rights.

The difference in our skin tone was used as an excuse for innocent people to be condemned to unpaid, hard labour such as cotton picking; for slave owners to take sexual liberties with slaves; for Africans to be seen as ‘pets’ or working animals to be severely punished if they fought for their freedom. One of the most frustrating things about our ancestors being called ‘pets’ is that no one would ever treat their pets that way; no one would allow their pets to go through such torture; animals had more rights than enslaved Africans did, an idea which is intolerable, because we cannot believe we were seen as such, all because of a darker skin tone. This is clear evidence of the deliberate creation of an ideology to justify an inhuman economic system.

In this century, one would think so much would have changed, that people of colour would have a lot more freedom.

The reality is that despite apparent changes, even in this country, we do not feel confident - as the examples we highlight below demonstrate – that we can seek emergency help for mental illness or receive fair treatment and proper justice in court. We are made to feel we cannot expect to feel safe when in police custody and even when we are in our own homes or playing with friends.

Here are some names we should always remember:

Roger Sylvester (see point 1, below) suffering from mental health issues, was found to have been unlawfully killed by police in detention.

After 18-year-old Stephen Lawrence (see point 2) was stabbed to death in a racially motivated attack in Eltham, south London, in 1993, an official investigation condemned the ‘institutional racism’ by police which contributed to offenders evading justice.

Daniel Adewole, 16, (see 3) died from an epilepsy attack after staff in a young offender institution delayed entering the cells during the night. Sarah Reed (see 4) was found dead in her Holloway Prison cell following multi-agency failures to protect a woman in crisis. Rashan Charles (see 5) died in custody after being apprehended by police in a corner shop in Dalston.

Trevor Smith (see 6) was shot dead by police in his bedroom and Joy Gardner (see 7) died after being bound with 13 feet of tape and a belt in her London home by officers from the Metropolitan Police’s now-disbanded Alien Deportation Group.

Police actions were ruled as contributing to the death of Darren Cumberbatch (see 8), who died in hospital following his arrest at his hostel in Nuneaton, Warwickshire.

Investigations are still ongoing into the death of who Shukri Abdi (see 9), a 12-year-old refugee, who drowned in a river in Bury after an unnamed child allegedly threatened her to ‘get in the water’. It is appalling children so young should be exposed to racism. It is not fair and it is not right, which is why than 860,00 people have signed the Justice for Shukri petition.

Racism in the UK may not be as blatant as in America, but we still have work to do in our own communities. Imagine being told you're lucky not to fear for your life because of your skin colour, but instead only have to face regular racist comments which make you feel uncomfortable in your own skin, as well as facing the racism in workplaces and institutions that should be protecting you.

We all need to adopt higher standards if anything is going to change. Freedom from the fear of being killed because of your skin colour should be a basic human right, we should also feel able to go out in a hoodie without fear of being stopped, searched, even arrested on account of looking ‘suspicious’.

There are so many statistics and facts which support the inequalities faced in the UK. Black people are 40 times more likely to be stopped and searched in England and Wales, according to Home Office data (see point A, below).

PwC, the global professional services firm, has admitted paying its black, Asian and minority ethnic staff almost 12.8 per cent less than the average for other UK employeesand vowed to champion greater diversity after confessing it has more BAME staff in junior administrative roles (point B).

Many think these attitudes are non-existent but there is so much that we can’t see: inequalities in access to quality education, bias in allocation of target grades and entry into higher tier examinations (see C).

Black women in Britain are five times more likely to die in childbirth (see D), reflecting both the reluctance of black communities to access services that do not equally treat them, but also, we feel, a hangover of attitudes from the era of slavery in which black people were considered to have higher pain thresholds and greater physical strength than their white counterparts. (see E).

We look forward to sparking conversation within school and beyond, and helping to contribute to positive changes within our local community, We hope to see these in wider society as well. 

A: Black people 40 times more likely to be stopped and searched: https://www.theguardian.com/law/2019/may/04/stop-and-search-new-row-racial-bias

B: PwC: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/pwc-black-asian-ethnic-minorities-bme-paid-less-white-colleagues-income-pricewaterhousecoopers-a7952506.html

C: Black and minority students disproportionately affected by underestimation of grades: https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/many-teachers-hold-racial-bias-towards-students-fears-spark-around-predicted-grades-amid-coronavirus-exam-cancellations_uk_5e74f542c5b6f5b7c5438a21?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAA4SGtwGZWrJhqw4Ar2vkymstsmeOT0879__4wTJ46llQgXQuRjYt5DNuxUDldNhfGU5lacvhlrlANFRu-U_VejKzM4TblNQG15er5YZAOWVje-uoP1MH_9Z-ZTNEr6oMN9cSmReMML6FV3GXYOQdZ87rDMJzYNdtbFJTXHO7uC4

D: Black women five times more likely to die in childbirth: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/stories-49607727/black-women-five-times-more-likely-to-die-in-childbirth and https://www.telegraph.co.uk/health-fitness/body/black-mothers-five-times-likely-die-childbirth-done/

E: Black patients can receive less pain relief due to unconscious bias: https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/coronavirus-uk-deaths-nhs-people-of-colour-race-bias-healthcare-a9432841.html