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Going back to the roots at the Connected Sociologies Summer School on Race, Class & Colonialism

I recently attended my third summer school of the year. This time it was a two-day, in-person summer school, organised by Connected Sociologies curriculum project. The theme was ‘Race, Class & Colonialism’, so you don’t have to guess why I had to be there! Utilising the building space of BSix college in Clapton, East London, it was nice to quite literally go back to college- a joyous time when I regained my ‘mojo’ & love for education after my challenging schooling experiences. College was where I was first introduced to the discipline of sociology as an A-Level subject, diversity within a curriculum & where I truly felt a sense of belonging at an educational institution.

Artwork by Limma Ali & picture taken from the Eventbrite page of the summer school

A free event, tailored towards “sixth formers, undergraduates, teachers & interested members of the public”, I thought that hosting it at a sixth form college was a nice touch, making it accessible to its targeted audience & breaking away from the hostility that often characterises the academy. Excited by the sessions on offer, despite it not being tailored to me, per se, I was intrigued to learn with & from the perspectives of young people, as well as teachers & practitioners who are out on ‘the field’ that I research. Though my love lies in the research & writing parts of academia, & though I may occasionally present an odd lecture, I don’t teach much. As I was awarded a Ph.D. in education, my passion is in making the education system socially just through intersectional equity therefore, one of my worst fears is to become a disconnected academic, spouting about irrelevant issues in my work, claiming to speak for & represent a sector, from the relative comfort of the ivory tower. This summer school provided me with a chance to reconnect with those at the forefront of my discipline & reignited my love & appreciation for sociology, especially how it facilitates analysis to better understand society & its mechanisms.

Over the course of the two days, we were able to choose from 22 different sessions on topics that included, but were not limited to: Empire & Indenture, World-making, space & place to Settler-Colonialism; Black Power & the cultural politics of Jungle Pirate radio, which were spread over three parallel sessions. I personally found it very difficult to choose! But I was impressed with my final choices.

Daren Getty’s session on children’s literature, race & empire particularly stood out to me. I was left perplexed how he eloquently broke down just how important children’s literature is in creating denial & the managing of memories centring whiteness. As Professor Rudine Sims Bishop asserts:

“Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of a larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.”

Therefore, as Darren argued in his session, though there has been some change in recent years, children’s literature as it largely stands, fails to reflect the world as Black and Brown people are literally imagined out of existence. Referring to the ‘golden age’ of British children’s literature, which is characterised as the last half of the nineteenth century, while a hopeful, utopia is created within children's’ stories, they are also places where there are only white people (or animals and mythical creatures) e.g. Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Winnie the Pooh etc. Considering Britain’s history with the world and the presence of Black people and other communities of colour in Britain since Roman times, this should really not be the case. I especially resonated with Darren’s summary of the 3 Stages of how racially minoritised people have been present in children’s literature from the golden age to present- to find out more, read Beyond the Secret Garden? 'Black Asian and Minority Ethnic' Representations in Children's Literature. | Darren Chetty - Along with the other mind-blowing insights, examples & research he shared from his & others’ work, he also got us to think about how white adults often subconsciously believe the stories they read to children, and how this essentially creates the infantilisation of the white adult mind. Perhaps this establishes a collective racial illiteracy & the often negative views held about racially minoritised people? Darren really got me to realise that though childhood is supposed to be a time of colour blindness, innocence & where the social world & its issues are avoided, in the children’s books regarded as ‘classics’, there has been a weaponisation of this innocence, rendering Black and Brown people either invisible or offensively misrepresented. Ultimately this has damaging effects on how white, Black and Asian children alike, write their own stories and come to know themselves in the world. Darren has previously considered & written about this here.

Another session that I really liked was one titled ‘What is education?’ led by Dr Sita Balani. I really liked the conversational, discussion format of the session which facilitated the sharing of ideas. I enjoyed hearing teacher perspectives based on their first-hand experiences of providing education, as well as the views of current students in the open conversations. Based on these discussions, it was clear to see a mixture of cynicism of the education system, as well as optimism about how it should & could be changed. At the end of the session, we were given some time to summarise our discussions using the prompt ‘Education is……’. Here is what I wrote:

"Education is... whatever you make it. It’s the navigation of unequal structures, it’s the connections & bonds you make to/with people, subjects & places. It’s the trying out of new things, it’s the opening up of the mind to new possibilities. It’s finding a way to locate yourself in the world, first through nursery, then school, then college, then university &, to break free- or at least overstand how you can, with the tools you have acquired, along the way".

I’ll leave you to decide whether I am a cynic or an optimist!

Saved until the last session of the final day, all attendees were invited to participate in the live recording of 'The Surviving Society Podcast' hosted by the brilliant Dr Chantelle Lewis with Tissot Regis & produced by George Ofori-Addo. In this episode, they were in conversation with the legendary Stella Dadzie, a well-known Black British Feminist, a founding member of the Organisation for Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD), the co-author of 'The Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain' & the recently published 'A Kick in the Belly: Women, Slavery and Resistance'. Throughout the hour, she imparted her experiential knowledge & wisdom about her important & continued anti-racism work, tips about what we can all learn & do to uphold anti-racism, like finding ways to bring people together around common causes; her hopes for the future & the role of elders like herself in passing the baton to younger generations. While I didn’t agree with everything she said, I respect it & I was honoured to be in the presence of such a formidable leader who has done so much for people like me to access the opportunities I have in British society. You can listen to the full episode here.

Overall, this summer school was a pleasure to attend & I am grateful to the organisers, speakers & other attendees. I characterise it as going ‘back to the roots’ as the sessions wonderfully went back to the foundations of race, class & colonialism, stripping it back & unpacking its manifestations, histories & how they intersect & are part of the very fabric of Britain & its Empire. It was nice to catch up with old friends & colleagues too, as well as creating new connections. While it reminded me about just how harmful the legacies of race, class & colonialism continue to be, it also reaffirmed my small but significant role in dismantling it with my presence & work. As Stella said, the fight continues “by any means necessary” which she interprets as ensuring that Black, Brown & allies with anti-racism as their goal have “a voice in every forum and on every level”.


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