When your bright child passes the entrance exam at the local ‘good school’ this should be a moment of joy for parents. In most circumstances they are. But for Ruby Bridge’s family it was and wasn’t.
It was positive in the sense the door of opportunity for Ruby had nudged open revealing a glimmer of hope. On the flip side, it was 1960. Louisiana. And Ruby just happened to be the first black child to go to an exclusively all white local school that up until that point had never accepted a black child regardless of how gifted they were.
Oh, and Ruby was only six years old.
Infant Ruby’s presence at the school was so uncomfortable for the white community that some parents felt it appropriate to remove their children from the school in case they realised Ruby was just as able (perhaps more so) and just as equal in ‘rights’ as they were. To make it even more difficult for the integration of Ruby, every teacher, bar one, refused to teach her. She was taught alone. The level of intimidation was so great that Ruby was escorted to and from school by US Marshalls.
Neither this not the daily threats detered Ruby.
In an isolating class of one, Ruby got on with her learning and doing the types of things that six-year-olds do (when avoiding death threats from ‘adults’) such as playing jump rope, softball and climbing trees. Realising the world had not come to an end, the white folk allowed their children to return to school and be educated with a black child nearby. The meet-and-greet braying mob at the school gates slowly ebbed away too.
Reflecting on that moment in 1960, it seems incredulous that we could ever return to a situation where children would experience such condemnation from adults for simply being who they are. And yet for transgender and gender-diverse children, that’s exactly what it feels like at the moment, their very existence continually examined, scrutinised and debated as though the world, once again, is coming to an end. The dehumanising media tropes must be psychologically exhausting. It is for me.
There was a time when I would have expected the education community not only to embrace diversity but to champion it, waving the flag for equality of opportunity for all children. I’m not too sure now. I hold the idea of inclusion very, very dear and always have, throughout my time in education.
Recently, I have received a couple of emails that have served to challenge that notion.
Two weeks ago I received an invitation to write for a magazine framed around ‘equalities and inclusivity within education and in particular, within education leadership.’ Obviously, I was delighted but politely asked if I would still be eligible to contribute some thoughts because I’m a university lecturer now. Using some logical thinking, I didn’t think it would be issue because why would I have been invited to write if it were? Consequently I was questioned as to the reason I was no longer a serving head teacher. I replied that I left my former post due to health reasons which may have been brought on by minority stress (being a trans woman this is something I am all too aware of). I even forwarded ‘Meyer’s Minority Stress Model (2003)’ to show the theorised mechanisms of minority stress and the link with mental health and wellbeing. I thought Meyer’s knowledge was worthy of sharing especially given the current discussion regarding the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people.
The response filled me with despair and confusion. It was a polite ‘not this time.’ The fact I can offer insight that many others cannot is deemed worthy of exclusion because of my job status – I’m a former leader and not a current one. A social psychologist might observe that I had gone from ‘ingroup’ to ‘outgroup’. Given the number of children and young people accessing the Gender Identity Development Service is growing and possibly will continue to do so in the coming years I would have thought leadership would have been keen to develop a greater awareness and understanding; after all, ‘gender reassignment’ is a protected characteristic. Clearly not. I wonder why that is?
Furthermore, hate crime directed at trans people has increased by a third in the last 12 months which is both alarming and distressing. But it’s not just us trans folk that are experiencing increased hostility in the UK. The recent report ‘Developing a National Barometer of Prejudice and Discrimination in Britain’ lays bare the challenge we face as a society. It seems our national habit of forming nice, neat, orderly and inclusive queues to buy strawberries and cream belies the fact we still don’t accept some groups of minority people in the line even if they do buy into what we believe to be the very personification of Britishness.
If we are to prevent the rise in regressive, exclusionary and extremist ideologies we must be serious about tackling prejudice and dismantling the structures that exclude minority people from ‘public life’ before it’s too late. Collectively as educators, and with effort, we are more than capable of shaping a socially cohesive society with ‘equality of opportunity’ at its heart. If that is our mission, we must learn to listen to the people that have been on the receiving end of prejudice and discrimination regardless of any changes in their circumstances so we can better understand the inner workings of those excluding actions. Failure to do so is akin to air crash investigators disregarding the critical information held within the ‘black box’ because it possibly results in building more expensive but, safer aircraft.
Interestingly, I don’t see anybody campaigning for a return to the nostalgia of cheaper unsafe flying but I am observing people harping on for a return to a map that was doused in pink before we went mad with all this ‘political correctness’. Replace ‘political correctness’ with ‘human kindness’ and it becomes significantly much more difficult to link it to the ‘world has gone mad.’ Seriously, try it.
Finally, let’s not forget the one teacher that refused to be intimidated from the teaching of six year-old Ruby Bridges when others rather ashamedly fled the scene – Barbara Henry. If ever there was an example of a teacher not bowing to prejudice, leading by example and demonstrating what inclusion really looks like then it’s there in Barbara’s 1960 Louisiana classroom. For me, Barbara Henry’s actions are ones that we can all learn from irrespective of the fact she is now a retired teacher. And that ‘includes’ leaders and their magazine.
With human kindness
“If we give our children sound self-love, they will be able to deal with whatever life puts before them.”
bell hooks, author, feminist and social activist.