Institutional Discrimination in the Early Years by Jane Lane

This is an article was first published in the TCJ in 2010, and is part of our ‘Through back to the TCJ’ series

The principles of institutional discrimination apply to all inequalities covered by present legislation, whether based on sex / gender, ethnicity / ‘race’ / culture / language, religion / belief, age, sexual orientation and/or ability / disability.

They could also apply to other inequalities not covered by current legislation, for example, social class. Institutional discrimination is so bound up with policies, procedures and practices that it is usually difficult to untangle its various facets. Both those affected and those not affected by it may be unaware of how it operates, even if they may identify its various manifestations. But a key element in analysing and dismantling it is to recognise and acknowledge the differential power and influence between those affected by it and those, however unconsciously, perpetuating it. It is only with such recognition and acknowledgment that it is possible to understand and accept how it disadvantages those who are not in positions of power and just how difficult it is for them to speak out and challenge it. If we are concerned about inequality we ignore this reality at our peril. This paper focuses specifically on institutional racism as one facet of institutional discrimination.

It can, however, be adapted to illustrate institutional discrimination on other grounds.* What is racism? Before considering the details of institutional racism, it is important to understand what racism itself is. It may be perceived as being mainly overt racist violence, abuse, discrimination and aggression. But racism also includes other less overt aspects such as stereotyping, holding prejudiced attitudes, making assumptions and negative judgements. It may sometimes be just not noticing what is happening around ourselves (and maybe choosing to ignore it) or not being sufficiently alert to issues of equality and the consequent implications for everyone. Sometimes neither perpetrators nor wronged people will be aware of the racism that is taking place**. Racism is deeply embedded in British society.

While the overt aspects seldom occur in the early years and are mostly recognised as unacceptable, the less obvious forms may not be noticed or may occur, but be interpreted as not really being a part of racism. So the reality of racism that may affect the lives of children and their families from all ethnic groups may be denied and not taken seriously because it is not seen as such. Furthermore, even where its effects on the lives of black children and their families are perceived, its damaging (though different) consequences for white children may not be acknowledged – damages that include distorting their notions of reality (see ‘The effects of racism on children’ in Lane (2008), page 90, below).

To add to this reality the daily media in general tend to reinforce negative comments on already sensitive concerns such as ‘political correctness’, immigrants, asylum seekers, inequalities and people who believe it is important to talk about racial equality with children. They seldom take time to consider seriously the damaging influence of racism on young children. This drip-drip stereotyping is then perpetually reinforced in casual everyday talk and embeds itself in the mindset of those who are receptive to such prejudice. For all sorts of reasons many white people (like me) are fearful of being called racist or of being accused of racism. Opportunities are needed to think calmly and in non-threatening ways about what racism is and why it occurs.

It is usually unhelpful to apportion blame to people or to wag fingers at them for being racist, despite the frustration this may engender in black people who live with it all their lives. Blame may lead to stubborn defiance, resistance to future participation in discussions and resentment, feelings that do not encourage reflection, acceptance of racism’s awful reality and a commitment to do something about it. The power of racism in Britain lies largely with white people. Black people, although they may be racially prejudiced, rarely have this power. It is important that the existence of racism in all its forms is acknowledged and accepted before institutional racism can be understood and countered.*** A fundamental part of this acceptance is listening to, and being open and receptive to, what black and other minority ethnic people say about it.

Institutional Racism

It is because of the inevitable consequences of the history of racism in British society that many white people have more power, influence and opportunities to organise their lives in the way that they wish than black and other minority ethnic people.**** This results in some people from black and other minority ethnic groups not getting equal chances, not being treated fairly. Furthermore, traditional ways of doing things may disguise any unfairness; habits of a lifetime that may superficially sound fair are often difficult to break down – for example, ‘first come first served’ procedures where some people are more familiar with the traditional ways of operating than others.

In the early years any unfairness is seldom intentional but the key point is that many people do not notice it is happening. It does not cross their radar. In some instances there may be a reluctance to consider changes, so practices become just part of the ‘system’, of how things are done, with little thought being given to other ways of doing things in an evolving society. But behind all this, and fundamental to it, is the fact that many majority white people are not alert to what is going on and may deny that racism is happening.

Unless they make a conscious effort to be aware of this reality, the discriminatory policies, procedures and practices may remain hidden and continue to be denied. This is how institutional racism operates and is perpetuated. Similarly, some black people may deny that they experience racism. Because it is so hidden they, in the same way as white people, may not be aware of it and its influence on their lives. For example, a black person may not know that they have not been short-listed for a job because of their name – clear discrimination. They may be unaware of the subtle and possibly unconscious actions that are taken to disadvantage and discriminate against them.

Such actions may be so much a part of their everyday experiences that they have been obliged to accept them or perhaps no longer even notice them. Or they notice but, in the particular circumstances, feel powerless to do anything about them. Black people, like white people, may also be unaware of the subtle ways of job promotion that may encourage and support white people to leadership roles. Institutional racism engulfs black people as well as white people, though in different ways. However, it is important to recognise that not all white people have equal power and influence.

Those holding power and influence in corporate, media, government and other state institutions are in positions to maintain and exert their privilege at the expense of those without such power and influence. Furthermore, in our celebrity and media dominated society certain people and organisations have a significantly disproportionate and potentially dangerous influence on inflaming public opinion against those they choose to pillory. In their turn, those without such national power and influence, but with significant education and life skills, are more powerful and influential than those with limited education and life opportunities. This is the hierarchy of the social class / power / influence system – a system that operates in both black and white communities. In such situations racism and classism may intersect in complex and often hidden ways.

How is Institutional Racism Defined?

Institutional racism can be basically defined as: Organisational structures, policies, processes and practices that result in some people being treated unfairly and less equally than others, often without intention or knowledge because of their ethnicity, skin colour, culture, religion, nationality or language. Although, in principle, institutional racism can occur anywhere, in Britain it is the organisational power of, usually, white people, combined with often unconscious prejudice, that results in detrimental, unfair and differential treatment and biased decision-making. The effects would be the same (that is, institutionally racist) if the power lay in the hands of black people. There is nothing specific about white people and racism / institutional racism – it is just the different historical and socio-economic implications that determine who is powerful.

It is critical that whoever has the power gives consideration to the potential for negative outcomes and takes appropriate action to avert those that are the result of discrimination. The report of the Inquiry into the murder of the black student, Stephen Lawrence (the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry), defined institutional racism as: The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people. (Macpherson 1999)

It is a very important definition because it takes away the concept that racism is always intentional, deliberate and personal. It also identifies some aspects that are almost certainly outside the control of each of us as individuals within an institution, whether we are black or white – although, as black or white individuals or groups, we can challenge them. The definition partly focuses on those policies, practices and procedures that may have been in place for many years and were never deliberately intended to discriminate but have the effect of discriminating. But it also identifies a lack of attention by institutions to its consequences for those people affected by it and a lack of evaluation of the policies, processes, procedures and structures which have led to adverse outcomes.

Key terms for early years workers in the definition are ‘unwitting prejudice ‘ and ‘thoughtlessness’, terms that should remove any concepts of personal blame but, in considering them, identify a responsibility to be alert to their damaging and potentially discriminatory effects. The term ‘institution’ here covers most national organisations and all local authorities and early years settings. Institutional racism has some similarities with the concept of indirect racial discrimination referred to in the Race Relations Act 1976 but has a wider application not limited by the Act’s strict legal aspects. As a result of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, the Race Relations Act 1976 was amended by the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 to place a statutory duty on all public authorities to ensure that racial equality issues were placed firmly in all their policies, practices and procedures.

An Example of Institutional Racism

A rather bizarre but clear example of institutional racism is of a hospital in a multi-ethnic town that offered a white foot, or the option of paying a considerable sum specially for a black foot, to a black woman requiring a prosthetic foot. The offer was not intentionally discriminatory or deliberately offensive on the part of the person offering it but reflected a lack of thought, sensitivity and preparation for the potential needs of a multiethnic community by the hospital, the institution.

There is another dimension to consider: if the situation had been reversed and the woman seeking a prosthetic foot had been white, would she ever have even been offered a black foot or given the option of paying for a white one? Another particularly personal and intimate example cites a black woman requesting a prosthetic breast after a mastectomy and being offered a white one, an experience which was very emotionally upsetting. The first example shows how, unwittingly, an inappropriate foot was offered.

Thinking carefully about whether a black foot would ever have been offered to a white person brings the unlikelihood of such a situation to the fore. The security of being white in most situations contrasts with the possible expectations of black people of being faced with different standards because of their different skin colours. While the use of limited funding might have meant that only white prosthetic feet were bought, the thoughtlessness that allowed a white foot to be offered reveals the lack of attention given to the issue. An alternative buying practice would have ensured that people from black and white communities were offered an appropriate service.

Thoughts about Institutional Racism

How many of us notice and roughly count the number of black and other minority ethnic people attending early years events – for example, national or local early years conferences or government updates on the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) – particularly those that do not have a primary focus on racial equality or wider equality issues? Or members of national / local government advisory / support / policy groups? Or groups undertaking research into the early years? Or on early childhood studies / Early Years Professional (EYP) / leaders courses? Or celebratory events of national organisations? And how many of us do something about it? Yet the conferences of the Black Voices Network are over-subscribed.

How many of us notice that it is relatively rarely that black people are working in authority positions? And questioning may elicit the reply that “They do not apply”, “We can’t find any, we’ve tried” or “They must be competent for the job”, somehow implying, but not saying, that none are. How many black speakers, workshop facilitators or chairs of conferences / meetings are there?

What Might be Done to Recognise and Identify Institutional Racism?

Understanding racism makes it easier to consider the possibility of institutional racism. It is important :

· to collect, analyse and evaluate ethnic data (monitor) on all processes where decisions are made (including employment, admissions, promotions);

· to be alert to, observe, and possibly record, the ethnic composition of practices that involve children’s activities (including in play, in any specific allocations, access to resources);

· to be very clear that any apparent unfairness, disproportionality or under-representation may not be the result of racial discrimination but that every situation or set of circumstances should be investigated with an open mind and sensitive, informed awareness;

· to be aware that, while being sensitive to friendship patterns between children as well as a recognition that familiarity often provides comfort and support for them, some ethnic groupings may derive from unfamiliarity and, possibly, from prejudice – barriers that may be removed by sensitive, supportive and caring encouragement between children;

· not to approach institutional racism in a punitive fashion, not to seek to find individual fault or blame people generally or individuals in particular;

· to recognise that greater receptivity happens when the reasons are understood;

· to be alert, at all times, to the way groups are devised, who makes decisions, who writes documents;

· to assess the ethnic composition in all circumstances and situations and, if people from black and other minority ethnic groups appear under-represented, to ask questions about how the membership in question was determined; and

· to ascertain the reasons / explanations for any under-representation.

Institutional Racism in the Early Years

Significant and pertinent terms, referred to above, used in the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry report include ‘unwitting’ and ‘thoughtlessness’. Very few people working with young children would deliberately discriminate against children because they are from a black or other minority ethnic group. Most would probably accept the reality and advantages of a multi-ethnic workforce, especially in urban areas. But institutional racism may occur because people have not had the opportunity or the concern to think about the issues involved. They may not have given themselves the time to do this. Perhaps they carry on doing what has always been done in the same way without considering its implications for living in a multi-ethnic society (in which racism is embedded) and the consequent changes that might be needed. Being alert to the possibility of institutional racism occurring is especially important if the research, policy or any other project has national implications.

It is also important if the particular area is largely white and is not seen as a part of the wider society. Institutional racism needs to be very carefully thought about. It is vital to have a real and deep understanding of what both racism and institutional racism are. They are not complicated once the principles are accepted. But without this understanding it is almost impossible to deal with them in ways that are constructive and sensitive and which resolve situations where they occur. Without this understanding, loose and ill-informed talk of either racism or institutional racism often entrenches attitudes and resolves nothing. Denying the existence of either racism or institutional racism without this understanding may only expose the reality of its presence.

Leaders in the early years field, in government departments, in services and in settings need to be willing to acknowledge publicly that institutional racism is a fact and that the long-term challenges that it represents need to be addressed. Without these challenges, a strong leadership and a commitment to root out systemic discriminatory practices, there is unlikely to be meaningful change. Political leadership at every level, with powerful consistent antiracist messages and responses to counter negativity, is key to making these changes happen.

There is also a responsibility to raise these issues in early years groups and teams as well is in training. All of us have some power. Every one of us has a role to play in eliminating racism from the world of all our children. Notes *This paper is partly adapted from my book Young children and racial justice – taking action for racial equality in the early years – understanding the past, thinking about the present, planning for the future. National Children’s Bureau 2008 **The term ‘wronged people’ is used here in preference to ‘victims’ which may be seen as being people who are unable or unwilling to defend themselves. ***A discussion of racism and institutional racism is in the above book, and also in Bourne, J (2001) The life and times of institutional racism, in Race and Class, a special report on ‘The three faces of British racism 43, 2, October-December. ****The phrase ‘black and other minority ethnic’ is sometimes shortened in this text to ‘black’.

Appendix A : A Detailed Example of Institutional Racism in the Early Years

An early years setting that operates a waiting list and offers places on a first-come-first-served basis, with those at the top of the list having priority, may well be operating institutional racism. At first sight the waiting list seems as fair a method as any, but in practice families who are unfamiliar with the concept of waiting lists or the way early years services are organised, or do not yet live in the area, do not put their children’s names down as early as others. This means that their children will be lower on the list and so will be less likely to gain a place than children from families who are familiar with the system and are already resident. People who are unfamiliar with the system are likely to include families:

· for whom English is not the first language,

· that have recently arrived in Britain or do not yet know about early years organisations – are not part of the ‘system’,

· that move about a lot,

· that have been placed in the area under the dispersal arrangements,

· have not yet arrived in the area.

The waiting list will disproportionately affect Travellers, Roma and Gypsies; refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants; South Asian and some other minority ethnic families; as well as majority or minority ethnic families moving to the area. Looked after children (that is, those for whom the local authority shares or has exclusive parental responsibility) and children in emergency accommodation, such as a refuge or hostel, can also be disadvantaged by the waiting list system. There may be no specific intention to give them less of a chance but that will be the effect. This does not mean that waiting lists should be dispensed with altogether, as they are useful sources of information about the people who wish to use the early years setting.

However, fair, clear and open ways of organising admissions should be implemented alongside waiting lists (of those children wishing to attend), and attempts should be made to contact families of all groups living in the community. Such admission arrangements should be part of the setting’s policy for equality as required by legislation and/or government. A setting could consider holding back a small number of places to cater for transient families or late arrivals, especially where it is known that some communities may settle temporarily but regularly, for example where there is emergency accommodation used by the local authority nearby or a women’s refuge.

Appendix B : Potential Examples

The early years service or setting (the institution) needs to be aware of the pitfalls – factors, actions or lack of actions – that could bring about a collective failure to address potential institutional racism and could, thereby, contribute to discriminatory outcomes. These actions or inactions include the following. Not examining all aspects of the local authority early years service, for example having an effective non-discriminatory selection procedure for potential employees but not considering whether the ethnic composition of those applying at all levels reflects that of the local community, and how this may be affected by the advertising strategy. Not considering post-employment practices, that is, whether other aspects may be discriminatory once people are employed, including access to training, attendance at conferences and promotion. Not being given, or having sufficient, time to reflect on these issues and to understand them (for example, in management or staff meetings, in training and in talking with families)

Not enabling people to raise issues of concern about racial equality, that is, not ensuring that regular opportunities are provided for people, including those with less authority than others, to raise such issues (within an ethos of trust and no-blame). Often the result of not facilitating this is that people fear reprisals if they do raise their concerns and this allows frustration and feelings of powerlessness to fester. Such situations may cause workers from black and other minority ethnic backgrounds to feel that they are not valued and that there is deliberate discrimination against them. Not examining all aspects of the workings of a setting, for example, not considering how the admissions procedures or recruitment of employees or volunteers might discriminate on racial grounds, even though there has been very careful thought given to the need for positive and anti-discriminatory curricular practice. Wondering, in passing, why no black people appear to apply for jobs, or not for particular jobs, but doing nothing to find out the reasons for this – or, worse still, not even noticing.

Thinking that collecting and monitoring ethnic data is irrelevant, either because it is seen as too bureaucratic, too difficult to implement or because the workforce is already multi-ethnic, without considering whether all ethnic groups are treated equally or, more commonly, collecting data but not using it to monitor outcomes. Not spotting whether racial discrimination applies, that is, when the general facts of racial discrimination are known, doing nothing about finding out if they are relevant within an institution, even when in a position to do so. Not noticing that it is mostly white people who make important decisions. Not realising that one does not know what one does not know and, instead, assuming that you already know ‘enough’ about issues of racial equality. Not offering a platform, that is, not understanding that it is crucial to encourage black communities to contribute to discussions from their own experiences and to listen to them and take them and their stories seriously. Applying ‘fault’ where none is due, that is, where research or other findings indicate inequality of outcome for different groups, assuming some apparent ‘inadequacy’ or ‘failing’ on the part of the particular minority ethnic groups or families, and not questioning whether there might be alternative explanations before coming to final conclusions.

The explanations might concern the methodology of analysis, negative stereotyping, inappropriately trained people carrying out all aspects of the research, including interviewers, or inappropriate procedures. Being proud of black people being appointed to jobs, but… not really noticing that they are at low grades and not doing anything about the fact, or noticing that they are not appointed at higher grades but thinking that racism is not possible because the director or leader is black. Not questioning a disproportionate impact of decisions and policies on particular racial groups of people.

Not thinking about the ethnic composition of participants when setting up an advisory or planning group, speakers at or invitees to a conference, or making a list of delegates, or just asking black people to speak (only) about ‘diversity’ issues. As a national conference organiser, being peripherally aware that everyone attending is white but not pursuing the possible reasons for this either at the time or subsequently. Using ethnocentric resources, that is, not considering whether a display, resource or journal presents an ethnocentric view of Britain. Not using positive images to reflect a multiethnic society in the resources used; and not discarding resources which give a negative or stereotypical image of people from black and other minority ethnic communities. Thinking it doesn’t matter because everyone ‘here’ is white, that is, thinking there is not an issue about racism because everyone in the setting, or living locally, is white. Thinking that there is only one way to bring up children – ‘our’ way, the ‘best’ way.

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