‘Race’ and difference – developing practice in lifelong learning

The picture "Shadow Work" is by Tony Hall and is reproduced under a Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)- flickr: /photos/anotherphotograph/3389627948/

‘Race’ and difference – developing practice in lifelong learning. What strategies are used to deal with ‘race’ and difference in lifelong learning? How is theory and practice to be developed?

Contents: ‘race’ and ethnicity · multiculturaism and anti-racism · culture · culture and agency · voice and difference · further reading

bell hooks begins her discussion of ‘teaching in a multicultural world’ (in Teaching to Transgress) as follows:

Despite the contemporary focus on multiculturalism in our society, particularly in education, there is not nearly enough practical discussion of the ways classroom settings can be transformed so that the learning experience is inclusive (1994: 35)

In this piece I want to look at the notion of inclusive education – and the associated emphasis on education for diversity. I will look at some of the specific policy initiatives and debates in the UK – but for most of the time I want to focus on underlying issues and questions. This is an area that is criss-crossed with definitional and political debates so it is probably helpful to say something about two key terms to begin with.

‘Race’ and ethnicity

‘Race’. Michael Rustin once described race as ‘both an empty category and one of the most destructive and powerful forms of social categorization’ (quoted by Morrison 1993: xi). ‘Race’ is now usually placed within inverted commas by sociologists and educationalists. This is because, as a way of categorizing individuals and population groups, it is not based on any biologically valid distinctions between the genetic make-up of differently identified ‘races’. Racial categorization is usually based on phenotypical differences – skin colour and so on. But these do not correlate with genotypical differences (differences in genetic makeup). Nor are there any sustainable, systematic differences of personality or intelligence between populations categorised on either of these bases.

Race is perhaps best approached as a social construct – that is to say something made in society. Certain physical features ‘are interpreted and used to construct distinct social groups know as races’ (Lewis 1998: 97). This process is mostly unseen – it’s products are seen as ‘natural’ and obvious. Such interpretations, in turn, provide a framework, ‘through which individuals, who are ascribed to racial categories, understand and give meaning to their activities. This helps to build the idea of a discrete ethnic group. Where people are treated as if they are part of a specific group and, for example, subjected to segregation and discrimination, there are concrete events and experiences that can lead to a sense of common identity and shared history. There are particular experiences associated with their ‘race’ that are socially produced.

Ethnicity. This takes us on to the notion of ethnicity. In current usage, ‘ethnicity’ tends to be used to define individuals who consider themselves, or are considered by others, to share common characteristics which differentiate them from other collectivities or groupings in a society within which they develop distinct cultural behaviour. In this sense, the membership and naming of ethnic groups can be fluid. New groups are being formed as populations move between countries. However, the origins of the term are significant – ethnicus in ecclesiastical Latin means ‘heathen’. The word related to nations or ‘peoples’ who were not Christian or Jewish, and can be seen as a way of labeling a group both as being different or ‘other’, and of a lesser order or status.

 Multiculturalism and antiracism

hooks talks of multiculturalism and it is again worth just spending a brief moment looking at this concept. As Rattansi (1993) has argued it is often asserted that the 1980s in the UK saw a polarizatrion of two fundamentally opposed educational movements – multiculturalism and antiracism. However, it is not clear to what extent and in what ways this broad division has actually been reflected in the daily experience of educational practice. To discuss this I want to rehearse the arguments put forward by Ali Rattansi.

Multiculturalism as expressed in the Swann Report (1985) is based on the premise that the key issue facing schools (and indeed lifelong learning) is how to create tolerance for black minorities and their cultures in a white nature now characterized by cultural diversity or cultural pluralism. Intolerance is conceptualized basically as a matter of attitudes, and is said to be constituted by prejudice. The basic educational prescription is the sympathetic teaching of ‘other cultures’ in order to dispel ignorance. The overall social project is the creation of a harmonious, democratic cultural pluralism, a healthy cultural diversity.

The classic problems associated with this perspective are that:

  • the focus on attitudes and prejudice tends to draw attention to the individual or the small group, rather than to systematized inequalities, relationships of power and ideology – and to context. As Ratansi put it: racialized discourses are always articulated in context; in a lesson, a club or project, at work, a street – in this neighbourhood or that. ‘These different sites yield complex and shifting alliances and points of tension.
  • related to this there is a belief in the power of ‘rational explanation’. All that is needed is that people come to their senses – that through knowing more about other cultures, and by knowing ‘the facts’ they will challenge stereotypes and appreciate others. In reality we know that the ideas we have are not often gained through ‘rational choice’ but become embedded through routine exchanges and
  • commonsense solutions. There is very little evidence that simply knowing about another culture has any particular impact.
  • the nature of prejudice is often approached in a very unproblematic way – it can be assumed that prejudices are expressed consistently. In this way the ‘prejudiced individual’ becomes the target for pedagogies that are supposed to cure this pathology (Ratsani: 25). Again evidence is now mounting up to show that the position is complex and contradictory. Those expressing racist ideas may have black friends; there may well be significant differences in the way that different ethnic groups are treated; the significance of place and territory may act to include some people, while excluding others – and so on.
  • prejudice is portrayed as something wrong and evil. However, to operate in the world there is a sense in which we have to be prejudiced – in the sense that prejudice involves prejudgement. The question is not so much whether we are prejudiced as whether our prejudices or prejudgements are open to change.

Antiracists have pointed to the limited nature of this focus on prejudice and attitudes – and the related strategy of prejudice reduction through teaching about ‘other cultures’. Racism must be tackled head on. That requires a dismantling of institutionalized practices of racism – whether in employment or education or in social welfare. It also entails a direct confrontation with racist ideologies – for example in curricula.

However, there are problems also around this view. In some manifestations there can be an emphasis on systems and statements rather than on the lived dynamics of people’s lives i.e. the focus slips away to the state, the institution, the dominant class. There can still a view of racism as a form of irrationalism. The classic expression of this is to see racism as a form of false consciousness. And there are various areas that remain relatively unexplored in this context – for example the intertwining of racism and sexuality – the encounters and fantasies between me or you – and the other.

Here we are brought back to the classic formulation by Mills of the problem and potential of the sociological imagination:

Do not allow public issues as they are officially formulated, or troubles as they are privately felt, to determine the problems that you take up for study. Above all, do not give up your moral and political autonomy by accepting in somebody else’s terms the illiberal practicality of the bureaucratic ethos or the liberal practicality of the moral scatter. Know that many personal troubles cannot be solved merely as troubles, but must be understood in terms of public issues – and in terms of the problems of history making. Know that the human meaning of public issues must be revealed by relating them to personal troubles – and to the problems of the individual life. Know that the problems of social science, when adequately formulated, must include both troubles and issues, both biography and history, and the range of their intricate relations. Within that range the life of the individual and the making of societies occur; and within that range the sociological imagination has its chance to make a difference in the quality of human life in our time.

C Wright Mills (1959) The Sociological Imagination, page 226


This discussion points us back again to the notion of culture. The culture here that we are concerned with is not the cosy picture of saris and samoses. The informal educators I talk with use ‘culture’ in a number of ways:

  • to discuss people’s backgrounds or traditions; the norms and routines in specific small groups (‘the culture of the group’);
  • the character of organizational life (after Morgan 1986); and, more broadly,
  • to describe particular communities.

While there may be endless debates over definition and how cultures are formed, there is at least some common ground. Tylor (1871) is still a good starting point. Culture was, for him:

that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by an as member of society. (see Lawrence 1987).

It is in this sense that we can think of culture as the whole way of life of a group. It is a pattern of traditions that can be transmitted over time and space. Three qualities underlie its centrality: it is learnt; much of it exists at a non- or un-conscious level; it helps structure thought, perception and identity.

Thus, to address culture, educators need to look closely at these elements. They need to understand how culture is created. What its shape is within asymmetrical relations of power; how dominant and subordinate cultures emerge (Giroux 1983: 163); how one culture relates to another. Approaching this area of experience, allowing people to step outside the ‘taken for granted’ and make choices about themselves. This places a number of duties on educators as Giroux has shown (1983: 202-3). People:

  1. must be actively involved in learning. Relationships have to be structured to facilitate dialogue and exploration.
  2. must learn to think critically.
  3. should encouraged to develop a critical mode of reasoning ‘to enable students to appropriate their own histories, i.e. to delve into their own biographies and systems of meaning’ (ibid). In addressing their culture, people must have the space to own their experiences and thinking, and hence to speak with their own voices.
  4. must also learn what is good, they must learn what values are central to human life and well-being and how such values are transmitted and distorted in the interests of the powerful (Smith 1988: 114).
  5. must learn about the structural and ideological forces which influence and restrict their lives.

Culture and agency

The belief that people can take hold of their lives, can make changes – that they are not helpless in the face of structural forces is central to what we do as educators. Established patterns of living are not to be taken for granted; they have to be questioned – but this is not the end point. It follows that workers must be oriented also to questions of identity and action. Here we have to avoid approaching culture as a monolithic object, but rather as complex, contradictory phenomenon being made, and kept alive, by people.

For some the task is to encourage people to take ‘a step outside’ the cultures of which they are a part. This is to foster critical engagement; to help people to connect with, and own, those aspects which accord with their sense of themselves, and of what is good and right. At the same time it is to reject certain things, to encourage the desire and ability to change values, behaviours, ideas that are unjust or that inhibit well being. For others the key aim is to help them to identify the traditions and ideas that express their sense of themselves.This getting beneath the surface, searching for truth, when linked with discussions of what makes for human flourishing, makes action possible.

Voice and difference

People do not come to conversations on an equal footing. They bring histories and identities which have been deeply inscribed by social forces. The experience of being members of particular classes, cultures or races; and the pressures and expectations which people feel because of their body, gender and sexuality, interact and are work in such exchanges. Educators must, thus, look to questions of identity and power.

Over the years I have tried to replace the external definitions of my life forwarded by dominant groups with my own self-defined standpoint… I now know that my experiences are far from unique. Like African-American women, many others who occupy societally denigrated categories have been similarly silenced. So the voice I now seek is both individual and collective, personal and political, one reflecting the unique biography with the larger meaning of my historical times. (Collins 1990: xi-xii)

Working with people to name themselves in this way, to ‘gain a voice’ forms a fundamental strand of local education practice. There is a long history of work which is grounded in the experiences of excluded groups and movements (Lovett 1988).

When we turn to these developments it is clear that ‘voice’ isn’t just a matter of speech – it also has to do with how people are seen and heard. Excluded groups tend to become a powerful motif in the minds of the dominators. They are viewed both as a threat to order – politically, socially and sexually; and as existing for the benefit of the powerful. Examples abound – the Victorian bourgeoisie’s concern with the emerging working class ; the development of slavery in the British Empire (Fryer 1988); and the domestication of women . All involve simultaneously defining a group as a ‘problem’ and casting them as ‘objects rather than subjects, beings that feel yet have the ability to think, and remain incapable of considered behaviour in an active mode’ (Gilroy 1987: 11). This process involves a simple either/or distinction – something isn’t just different, it is opposed. As Collins (1990: 69) put it, Whites and Blacks, males and females, thought and feeling, are not complementary counterparts but opposites. In this the opposing group is seen not as people but as the ‘Other’ – a dangerous phenomenon to be subjugated and controlled.

As soon as we move beyond the language of either/or we have to live with uncertainty. We can begin to attend to the experiences of those who are excluded and those seeking to exclude; the relationships between them; the context in which these are formed; and our place in all this. Engaging with the politics of difference and the forces that feed simplistic oppositions is not to act in the belief that we are ‘all the same under the skin’. Rather it is to recognize and celebrate diversity, while at the same time looking for what we hold in common. The danger with an emphasis on difference is that we focus on particular groups and cultures, we begin to see them as self-contained, and so ignore the ‘blurred zones’ in between (Rosaldo 1989: 209). Yet these blurred zones or borderlands are central to our lives and hold within them considerable possibility (Giroux 1992). As Anzaldua has argued with regard to the experience of Chicanos, ‘the new mestiza‘ (person of mixed ancestry) copes by developing a tolerance for contradictions, for ambiguity.

She learns to be Indian in Mexican culture, to be Mexican from an Anglo point of view. She learns to juggle cultures. She has a plural personality, she operates in pluralistic mode – nothing is thrust out, the good the bad the ugly, nothing rejected, nothing abandoned. Not only does she sustain contradictions, she turns the ambivalence into something else. (Anzaldua 1987: 79, quoted in Rosaldo 1989: 216)

‘Turning ambivalence into something else’ is a powerful phrase – especially when reading it as an educator. The ‘something else’ involves both having voice, and engaging with other voices. This is not always a pleasant experience. Working in the borderlands involves listening to, and meeting head on, much that we may despise. This is where it gets hard. To work in this way involves entertaining the possibility that there may be some truth in what, in this case, the members of the tenants group are saying. But the ‘truth’ lies behind, or is enmeshed in, a tissue of feelings, prejudices and ‘common-sense’ explanations. We ask what is it about people’s situation and experiences that leads them to their particular understanding? The politics of voice and difference entail something fundamental. To have something to say people must address their experiences and identity; and to understand themselves as ‘active authors of their own words’ (Giroux 1989: 199). It also means cultivating tolerance – respecting ‘the other as what it is: other’ (Derrida 1978: 138) – but that can only be gained if we work for justice and democracy at the same time.

Further reading

In this listing I have included some general texts exploring notions of ‘race’, difference and identity; looked at some books around ‘race’ and formal education; and rounded the page off with material on informal education and ‘race’. The majority of the material here looks to the experience of people of colour – I will add in other material later.

Ashcroft, B., Griffiths, G. and Tiffin, H. (eds.) (1995) The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, London: Routledge. Includes some key readings.

Bhabha, H. K. (1994) The Location of Culture, London: Routledge. Series of essays that focus on post-colonial identity. Develops a theory of cultural hybridity and the ‘translation’ of social difference.

Childs, P. and Williams, P. (1996) An Introduction to Post-Colonial Theory, London: Prentice Hall. Overview of key theorists such as Fanon, Said, Bhabha and Spivak. Written from a literary theory perspective – but useful all the same.

Carby, H. (1999) Culture in Babylon. Black Britain and African America, London: Verso. Collection of essays including material on the necessity for ‘racially’ diverse school curricula, the construction of literary canons, C. L. R. James, and Black female blues artists.

Collins, P. H. (1990) Black Feminist Thought. Knowledge, consciousness and the politics of empowerment, London: HarperCollins. 265 + xviii pages. Impressive text examining the social construction of black feminist thought, core themes and black feminism and epistemology. Includes material around the social construction of ‘race’.

D’Souza, D. (1996) The End of Racism : Principles for a Multiracial Society, New York: Free Press. 724 pages. Controversial study of US experience. D’Souza argues that there are cultural differences that account for distinct levels of achievement among ‘races’, and that racism cannot be blamed for “black failure.” He argues that racism is not a universal phenomenon but a relatively recent Western intellectual concept, and because we can trace racism’s beginning we can likewise bring about its demise.

Fanon, F. (1986) Black Skin, White Masks, (1986 edn with a foreword by H. Bhabha), London: Pluto Press. 232 + xxvi pages. Path-breaking study of colonial depersonalization. Examines cultural and ideological processes that create a desire for acceptance and assimilation – and that make for trauma and self-alienation. See, also, (1961) The Wretched of the Earth, London: Penguin. on the economic and psychological impact of imperialism and points of resistance and change.

Fredrickson, G. M. (2002) Racism: A short history, Princeton: Princeton University Press. Survey of Western racism from its emergence in the Middle Ages to the present. c

Fryer, P. (1984) Staying Power. The history of Black people in Britain, London: Pluto Press. 632 + xiii pages. First comprehensive history that includes useful material around ‘race’ and racism.

Gilroy, P. (1993) The Black Atlantic. Modernity and double consciousness, London: Verso. 320 pages. Looks to cultural nationalism and the qualities of a black Atlantic culture whose themes and techniques transcend ethnicity and nationality to produce something new.

Goldberg, D. T. (ed.) (1990) Anatomy of Racism, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 356 pages. This book brings together analyses of the forms of racist expression in and by philosophy, literature, popular modes of discourse, politics, and law.

hooks, B. (1996) Killing rage, ending racism, London: Penguin. 273 pages. Passionate collection of essays arguing that racism and sexism can only be eradicated in they are confronted together. See, also, (1982) Ain’t I a Woman. Black women and feminism, London: Pluto Press. 205 pages.

Malik, K. (1996) The Meaning of Race. Race, History and Culture in Western Society, London: Macmillan. Malik provides an excellent introduction to the nature and origins of ideas of racial difference. Argues that the concept of ‘race’ is a means through which Western society has come to understand the relationship between humanity, society and nature. The book re-examines the relationship between Enlightenment thought and racial discourse, clarifies the nature of scientific racism, and presents a critique of postmodern theories of cultural ‘difference’. Chapters: Beyond the Liberal Hour – The Social Limits to Equality – The Making of a Discourse of Race – Race in the Age of Democracy – Race, Culture and Nationhood – From Biological Hierarchy to Cultural Diversity – Cultural Wars – Universalism, Humanism and the Discourse of Race – Equality and Emancipation.

Moore-Gilbert, B. (1997) Postcolonial Theory. Contexts, practices, politics, London: Verso. 243 pages. Good survey of post colonial theory and the challenges to it. Looks in detail at the work of Spivak, Said and Bhabha – the criticisms they have faced and the arguments they have put forward. Two final chapters examine the postcolonial criticism and postcolonial theory; and how postcolonial analysis can be connected with different histories of oppression.

Said, E. W. (1985) Orientalism, London: Penguin. Brilliant critique of western attitudes to ‘the east’ which problematizes many ‘taken-for-granted’ notions. How are we to approach other cultures? From what perspective do we make judgements? See, also Said’s (1993) Culture and Imperialism, London: Chatto and Windus (also Penguin) – series of essays exploring the relationship between culture and imperialism.

Segal, R. (1996) The Black Diaspora, London: Faber and Faber. 477 + xv pages. History of Black people outside Africa that brings out a number of key dimensions and experiences that run through discourses of ‘race’.

‘Race’ and formal education

Ball, W. (1991) Race, Gender and the Politics of Adult Continuing Education, Lewes: Falmer Press. Overview of key issues.

Donald, J. and Rattansi, A. (eds.) (1992) ‘Race’, Culture and Difference, London: Sage. 300 + ix pages. Excellent collection of readings. In section on antiracism see especially Rattansi.

Klein, G. (1993) Education Towards Race Equality, London: Cassell. 211 + ix pages. Useful overview focusing on schooling, but which has some relevance to working in adult education.

Sheldon, S. et al (1995) Equality and Inequality in Education Policy, Clevedon: Multilingual Matters. 250 pages. Discusses the history and gendered nature of education policy and the impact of policies on practice in education.

Sargant, N. (1993) Learning for a Purpose. Participation in education and training by adults from ethnic minorities, Leicester: National Institute of Adult Continuing Education. 117 + viii pages. Follow-up study to Sargant (1991) that highlights significant differences in participation and the role of educational aspirations, cultural backgrounds, and occupation environments in decisions to participate in, and access to, adult education.

Lifelong learning, difference and ‘race’

Aluffi-Pentini, A. and Lorenz, W. (eds.) Anti-Racist Work with Young People. European experiences and approaches, Lyme Regis: Russell House Publishing. Collection of material which explores racism and the nation state; oppositional and relational identities; pedagogical principles and approaches plus case material from Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands. Particularly welcome as the editors contribute substantial chapters concerning pedagogy.

Cassara, B. B. (1991) Adult Education in a Multicultural Society, London: Routledge.

Dadzie, S. (1993) Older and Wiser. Participation in education by older black adults, Leicester: National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.

Dadzie, S. (1993) Working with Black Adult Learners. A practical guide, Leicester: National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.

Dadzie, S. (1997) Blood, Sweat and Tears. A report of the Bede Anti-racist Detached Youth Work Project, Leicester; Youth Work Press. Account of a three year project in Bermondsey that worked with potential or actual perpetrators of racial violence. Examines the project’s history and discusses key issues.

Ellis, J. (1989) Breaking New Ground. Community Development with Asian Communities, London: Bedford Square Press. Study of a number of projects and initiatives that spreads light on developments in practice in the late 1980s.

Hazenkamp, J. L. and Popple, K. (eds.) (1997) Racism in Europe. A challenge for youth policy and youth work, London: UCL Press. 162 pages. The editors provide an introductory chapter of a ‘fragmented picture’, and this is followed by chapters examining the position in different countries – UK (Popple); the Netherlands (Leeman and Saharso); Spain ( Cartea and Gómez; Germany (Leiprecht, Inowlocki, Marvakis and Novak) and Flanders (Wildemeersch and Redig).

Jacobs, S. and Popple, K. (eds.) (1994) Community Work in the 1990s, Nottingham: Spokesman. 177 pages. Includes chapters on the values base; socialism as living; community work praxis; Black British to Black European; women, community work and the state; feminist work; Black empowerment; rural community work; community organizing.

John, G. (1981) In the Service of Black Youth. The political culture of youth and community work with Black people in English cities, Leicester: National Association of Youth Clubs. 245+viii pages. Bibliography. Influential report of the Youth and Race in the Inner City Project. Its significance lay in its rigorous and committed exploration of the experiences of Black young people in youth and community work and the way this is set in within a political analysis (more in the review in the youth work and ‘race’ section). Its significance here lies in the accounts of various projects and initiatives; and in its analysis of the relationship between local authority funded projects and those geared to ‘the black sector’.

Leicester, M. (1993) Race for a Change in Continuing and Higher Education, Buckingham: Open University Press. Examines various issues around ‘race’ in higher and continuing education. Gives practical guidelines.

Lorenz, W. (1994) Social Work in a Changing Europe, London: Routledge. 206 + xii pages. Excellent discussion of social work in Europe this century – especially strong on animation and social pedagogy. Chapters on social work within different welfare regimes; ideological positions; social work Fascism and democratic reconstruction; social work and social movements; social work , multiculturalism and anti-racist practice; and emerging issues.

Ohri, A., Manning, B. and Curno, P. (eds.) (1982) Community Work and Racism. Community Work 7, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Sargant, N. (1993) Learning for a Purpose. Participation in education and training by adults from ethnic minorities, Leicester: National Institute of Adult Continuing Education. 117 + viii pages. Follow-up study to Sargant (1991) that highlights significant differences in participation and the role of educational aspirations, cultural backgrounds, and occupation environments in decisions to participate in, and access to, adult education.

Stuart, M. and Thomson, A. (eds.) Engaging with Difference. The ‘Other’ in adult education, Leicester: NIACE. 214 pages. Collection of pieces exploring the process of engaging with difference. Based on the experience of the new opportunities programme at the University of Sussex.

Williams, L. O. (1988) Partial Surrender: Race and resistance in the youth service, Lewes: Falmer Press. 194 + viii pages. Part one of the book examines youth clubs as a site for struggle – the class origins of the youth service, the official response to racism and the role of youth clubs in the Black struggle. Particular attention is paid to the analysis of Gus John (1981 – see below). Part two looks at the formation, implementation and experience of equal opportunity policies within the Inner London Education Authority. Part three is a study of a group of young Black men and their use of the Youth Service. Lincoln Williams brings out a number of the tensions in provision and gives some indication of the potential of critical practice – and the pitfalls of approaches that do not engage with the lived experiences of young people.

Acknowledgement: The picture “Shadow Work” is by Tony Hall and is reproduced under a Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)- flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/anotherphotograph/3389627948/

© Mark K. Smith. First published July 1996.