Setting the Scene, Shifting the Lens: Reflections on my Students’ Reflective Narratives on Race and Racism

Earlier this year, I taught a module on the sociology of “race” and “ethnicity” with my beloved colleagues Bindi Shah, Pathik Pathak, and Luiz Valério P. Trindade; which was partly assessed by a reflective narrative that my students had to write in response to a fieldtrip that I organised and accompanied them to. The fieldtrip was composed of a visit to two photography exhibitions at Tate Britain and Goldsmiths College, both of which captured some pivotal moments in the experience of racism as suffered by Black Britons in a place that they could only nominally call or make “a home”. Our first stop was the ‘Stan Firm Inna Inglan’: Black Diaspora in London, 1960-70s’ exhibition at Tate Britain, before making our way to Vron Ware’s ‘13 Dead and Nothing Said’ exhibition at Goldsmiths College which featured, previously unseen, archival material from the Black People’s Day of Action (March 2, 1981) following the ‘New Crass Massahkah’ earlier that year (January 18, 1981). The fieldtrip proved to be a glittering success, if I may say so, and the three best reflective narratives were selected for publication here; not only to demonstrate the quality of our students’ work, but also to encourage us to design our teaching and learning activities in a way that entices and releases our students’ imagination from simply scoring high marks and accumulating credits towards their degree.

The thinking behind and the purpose of this choice of assessment, therefore, was hardly instrumental but entirely substantive. In fact, the entire module was designed with the aim of jerking some vitality into the curriculum by engaging and alerting my students to the experiential dimension of racism, while also allowing them to ‘come to voice’ (hooks, 1994: 148) and speak their minds about what they saw and thought both as a result of the fieldtrip and in relation to the overall module content. Much of the module itself was in fact organised not just around dusty documents (academic texts), but also stories (personal/literary), records (music), and images (photography, art, video) which narrated racism as a lived reality and a form of social exclusion, rather than an abstract (sociological) concept. Making that leap from concept to reality was essential to sensitise ourselves to the processes by which racism is, can be, and has been experienced not as an accident, but an essential ingredient of human societies, whose roots and reality is historically and socio-culturally embedded, (re)produced, and sanctioned despite desperate attempts to deny, whitewash, or wish its legacy away.

In reading my students’ work, I can’t help but feel not just a sense of foolish (?) pride, but also a deep sense of admiration for the way in which they have engaged with and responded to the module content and the exhibits too. Their acute observations, sensitive perception, robust thinking, and playful imaginations don’t just move me to tears, but also remind me of the importance of building, what pioneering educationalist and novelist Beryl Gilroy called (1976: 160), ‘sensory thresholds’ into our teaching in order to transform ‘knowledge’ into ‘human understanding’ as John Blacking (1977: 5) put it so nicely. What follows is just a selection of the many great narratives I read and was keen to share, as an example of how we can make our teaching and our subject relevant to the human experience, while also working against worrying signs of ‘students [who] often do not want to learn and teachers [who] do not want to teach’ (hooks, 1994: 12) in an educational context that often discourages ‘the education of desire’ to teach and learn ‘worthily (Thompson, 1976: 791,721).

Nikki, Holly, and Ola’s contributions hold great promise and call for a certain amount of optimism about the ways in which we can forge a strong relationship between our students and what they study, as well as create a proper, human bond between our students and ourselves. Without creating opportunities for such engagement to happen in and out of the lecture room, the way sociology is taught, understood, shared, and talked about will inevitably suffer; especially if and when it is pursued in the instrumental manner that our students and ourselves otherwise rail against. Sitting back and thinking just how much intensity, care, warmth, as well as insight and perspective informs those students’ writing, I can’t help but feel that these three intelligent young women, as well as their peers, have not simply acquired but also applied and contributed to sociological knowledge through the power of their observations and the immediacy of their writing.

Look how imaginatively Nikki compares and contrasts the racist ‘Keep Britain White’ graffiti with Trump’s pledge to ‘Make America Great Again’, ponder over Ola’s sensitive curiosity about the ‘community feeling’ she saw in Colin Jones’ photographs of The Black House or how she reacts to the sight of the lone skinhead in Syd Shelton’s photo of the Rock Against Racism Carnival in Southall, and see how thoughtfully Holly gives an account of her sociological education, and how skillfully she filters her thoughts on the fieldtrip through that sharp “sociological eye” that pervades her entire narrative. Having read, re-read, and thought about my students’ written work I am convinced that these are not just a few isolated, emotionally-charged moments to live for but the very principles and aims that our teaching practice should continually be infused by.   

  1. A Reflective Narrative: Black Diaspora in London & 13 Dead and Nothing Said (Ola Dirisu)
  2. Reflective Narrative Essay of Two Photos observed at Stan Firm Inna Inglan’: Black Diaspora in London, 1960-70s Tate Britain (Nikki Achilleous)

  3. A Critical Narrative; A sociological reflection upon two photographic exhibitions in London exploring race within the Black community (Holly Wayman)

Here are links to the two exhibitions discussed in these narratives:

  1. http://www.guap.co.uk/stan-firm-inna-inglan-black-diaspora-london-tate-tate-britain/
  2. http://autograph-abp.co.uk/exhibitions/13-dead-nothing-said

Dr. Lambros Fatsis is Lecturer in Sociology and Criminology at the University of Southampton. He tweets @lfatsis


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