White children were left in tears and admitted they felt ‘guilty’ and terrified of saying something racist ‘that could follow them for life’ in a new TV experiment that split pupils along racial lines.
Pupils in Year 7 at Glenthorne High School in South London were separated into ‘affinity groups’ of white and non-white students to discuss race and ethnicity during a three-week experiment in Channel 4’s new documentary The School That Tried to End Racism, airing tomorrow at 9pm.
The segregated affinity groups took place once a week, while 24 pupils aged 11 and 12 had further workshops and lessons together on white privilege and racial inequality throughout the programme.
Experiments included showing pictures of black children to see seeing how quickly students could associate negative words with them, versus positive words with white children; discussing ‘what it means to be white’, and doing a ‘privilege walk’, where they stepped forward or back in response to questions about their lives.
The programme was devised by Mariama Richards, an American diversity and inclusion practitioner who introduced mandatory affinity programmes in schools in New York and Washington DC, for children as young as eight.
When asked to discuss race, a student named Henry broke down because he was terrified of saying something which could offend someone, admitting: ‘[Before I talk about race] I think about how it’s going to affect me in the future. If I say something bad, early in life, it could come back later in life.’
Pupils at Glenthorne High School are split into white and non-white groups during Channel 4’s The School That Tried to End Racism to discuss topics like racial inequality and white privilege (pictured, Bright and Henry)
White students, who are all aged between 11 and 12-years-old, struggle to discuss race in the programme, while young people in the non-white group found the topics easier to talk about
A class of 11-year-olds in their first year at secondary school volunteered to take part in the three-week programme, aimed at reducing unconscious bias, at the school which has a nearly 50/50 make-up of white and non-white pupils.
The scheme separated children by race into affinity groups, to allow them to have conversations and discussions about race.
Teachers were trained to run the affinity groups, with Dr Nicola Rollock, an academic who works on race relations, and Professor Rhiannon Turner, joining the school throughout the experiment to observe how the children behaved.
Dr Nicola explained: ‘The approach to race in this country has been one of colour blindness. We pretend we don’t see race. That approach isn’t working.
‘You could say, ‘I’m not racist.” But actually the actions might contradict what was coming out of our mouths.’
Headmaster Steve Hume said that if successfull, the programme would be built into the curriculum and explained why he felt it was vital to educate the children on the topic.
He said: ‘We’re not just responsible for exam results.’
The first task was a game built by a group of professors at Harvard University, which is now widely accepted as a benchmark for measuring unconscious bias.
During the test, students were shown pictures of black faces and white faces with a list of positive and negative words.
They were told to associate the negative words with black faces and positive words with white faces, and were timed to see how quickly they did it.
Halfway through, the test changed to match negative words with white faces and positive words with black faces.
After the test, Mr Grant asked the children to tell him their thoughts, with one student called Henry explaining: ‘Personally, I don’t think that there was too much of a problem. People overthink it.
He added: ‘I don’t think much about race. It’s just not normally something I discuss.’
Meanwhile Farrah said: ‘I think when it said make sure to put negative words with people who are white, and positive words with people who are black, I found that a bit difficult. I don’t know why.’
Professor Rhiannon explained: ‘Research shows for 11-year-olds, making friends from different racial groups is easier.
‘But as children get older, there is a process of self segregation where children split off into different racial groups on the basis of their ethnicity.
‘Intervening at this age if crucial if we are to target and change children’s attitudes before they become crystallised with adulthood.’
After a break, the teacher explained that the results showed there was an unconscious bias, with the majority of the class showing the bias towards white people by completing the task of associating positive words with them more quickly.
Eighteen out of the 24 pupils showed a significant preference towards white people, with two showing a black preference and four showing no bias at all.
Discussing the news with the group, Farrah said: ‘We usually think of a white person with better connotations, we don’t usually think that black people have bad connotations. It’s just that we find it easier to have good connotations with white people. I don’t know if that makes sense.’
Meanwhile Mahkai, who said he has encountered racism already as a young black man, explained: ‘I just try not to let it play on my mind too much.
‘For me, it’s never going to go. It’s always going to be there. People are always going to be treated differently because of their race.’
Dr Rhiannon explained: ‘We are exposed at an early age to white people in positions of power, white heroes and heroines.
‘All of these influences tell us that white people are better than black and ethnic minority people in society.’
The school adopts the affinity group in the TV experiment for three weeks in an attempt to tackle unconscious bias
Speaking at the water fountain with his friend Bright, Henry admitted: ‘I know they say not to feel bad about it, but you still feel bad about it because you know you’ve done something wrong.’
Mariama joined the class, explaining to the camera: ‘I love affinity groups. I think we get more push back when we start younger with students because people believe that they are colour-blind and don’t see people in a bad way because of their race.
‘Unfortunately, we just know that is not the case.’
She told the children: ‘We’re separating out for a little bit, with the purpose of coming back together. You got me?’
Students in the programme are split into groups based on their race for one session a week, before coming back together to discuss what they have learnt
Students, including girls Beth and Miyu and boys Bright and Henry, were asked to divide into white and non-white groups, with the idea that the children could discuss their experience of race without judgement.
Farrah admitted she was struggling to know where she belonged, saying: ‘Where do I go? I’m half white and half Asian and I didn’t know which room to go in.
The pupil, who has a white English mother and Sri Lankan father, said her parents usually describe her skin as ‘olive’ colour.
She explained: ‘I don’t really think about that to be honest.
‘Even though I look different to white people and black people, I don’t think about it really.
‘I don’t want to be described by my race. I want to be described as my personality and who I am.’
Meanwhile the other pupils in the non-white group told her: ‘You stay here, with us.’
Henry is among the students who struggle the most with the experiment, crying as he says he feels ‘awful’ talking about race (pictured right, with Bright, left)
Farrah, whose father is Sri Lankan and mother is white, opens up about her feelings about identity on the programme, revealing she has felt the only way to be pretty is to be white
In the white group, discussion was stilted and the pupils struggled to know what to say, as Mr Grant asked them: ‘Have you ever thought what it means to be white?’
One of the girls admitted: ‘It doesn’t really mean anything to be white.’
Meanwhile in the non-white group, the children danced and laugh and sang as they discuss their respective ethnicities and heritage.
Bright revealed: ‘I love being described as black.’
Observing the difference between the two, Dr Nicola said: ‘The contrast between the two rooms is phenomenal. This room is like a carnival, and this room is like a funeral.’
Henry told his group of white peers: ‘Listening to their group, it sounds like they’re enjoying it a lot. But I don’t know if that’s because we’re not there…or…’
Teachers at the school are trained to lead the affinity groups, with Sotonye Odugbemi calling it a ‘privilege’ to hear the young people of colour talking about race in the non-white set
Meanwhile Professor Rhiannon said: ‘Henry’s experience, as an outsider, is a new experience and it’s quite an uncomfortable one.’
And, after the lesson was over, Mr Grant explained that it easn’t easy getting his white group to open up about race.
He said: ‘It was hard work. You never really talk about what it means to be white with white people. Especially year 7 students.’
In contrast, Ms Odugbemi welled up as she recalled discussing race with her non-white group, saying: ‘I felt so privileged to be in the room with them to discuss these things.’
Meanwhile David Grant admits that it is harder to talk to the young white children about race, saying it is ‘hard work’ encouraging them to
After being separated, the groups came back together and are asked to provide feedback.
Mahkai said: ‘I feel like it’s a lot easier. I feel like it’s good for us to talk about it, and how we feel.’
Meanwhile Lauren, who was part of the white-group, explained: ‘We want the non-white affinity group to know that we don’t think any higher of ourselves because of how we look.’
And Henry burst into tears and said he actually felt ‘jealous’ of the other group.
Later, speaking to his parents Kevin and Sarah, he cried again, explaining: ‘What we were talking about is what it means to be white. And it felt really weird. I didn’t feel comfortable talking.
‘If I had the choice, I would be with my friends, not just by race, because that feels awful.’
And Farrah also struggled to discuss the topics with her parents, saying: ‘Even though I am half white and half Sri Lankan, I can’t feel comfortable in a room full of white people because I know I’m different.’
Her parents explained: ‘When she was quite little, she used to say she didn’t want to be brown.
During the sessions, Henry became emotional as he says he is ‘less comfortable’ in the affinity group than he would feel normally
‘She has been dealing with a lot recently, about her own identity and who she is. I think she has been finding that quite confusing.’
In the second affinity group session, the children were asked to bring in objects that reflect their own cultural background.
Members of the non-white group showed off a diverse range of objects, including a certificate for Japanese school, Nigerian dresses and a South-African bracelet.
But the children from the white group struggled to discuss their identity, with one of the pupils bringing in an English flag, and another bringing a policeman’s hat.
During the experiment, the pupils are encouraged to discuss race and ethnicity with the help of a series of exercises and activities
Coming together to discuss the exercise, Farrah teared up as she explained she struggled with her race in the past.
She recalled looking at magazines when she was younger and seeing ‘beautiful white women’, saying: ‘I just thought, I’m not pretty. I just thought that the only way to be pretty is to be white.’
She went on to say that she’s realised almost all of her friends are white, and said the affinity group was giving her a chance to make friends with people of other races.
But while Farrah revealed she was feeling more comfortable because of the affinity group, not everyone agreed.
Some of the students struggle as they grapple with the complex discussions including Farrah, whose father is Sri Lankan and mother is white, who admits she doesn’t know whether to join the white or non-white group of pupils (right)
Henry explained: ‘I think we should not have affinity groups. Nearly every single person in our group said they feel less comfortable in affinity groups than in the whole group.’
And after Mr Grant asked why the white pupils found it so difficult to discuss race, the students admitted they were worried about upsetting others.
One of the pupils said: ‘If we say something, that they think is or might be racist, it might be asking a simple question, they might be like ‘Wow.”
Meanwhile, Henry said he was scared of saying something offensive, which could follow him around for life.
In another session of the experiment, the children took part in a privilege walk, with the people of colour left behind while the white pupils raced ahead
Meanwhile Ms Odugbemi asked pupils about their experiences of racism, with Mahkai crying as he explained he was once asked to leave a shop after being accused of shop-lifting.
In another experiment the children tried ‘the privilege walk’, with each child beginning at a start line and stepping backwards or forwards depending on their answers to different questions.
Questions included if anyone in your family has been stopped by the police, or if your parents speak English as a first language.
The white children typically stepped forward each time and ‘won’ the contest, with Dr Nicola explaining: ‘It was clear many of the black and minority ethnic pupils have experienced racism.’
After several more days, Henry said he was learning to feel more comfortable about having the conversations, revealing: ‘I’ve learnt that race is actually a bigger issue that I thought it was, and it’s not talked about enough.’
Meanwhile Mahkai explained how he has already encountered racism and cried as he recalled being accused of shoplifting
Dr Nicola added: ‘The children thought they were alone in their experiences. Talking about these things as a group, they could see they weren’t.
‘For the white pupils there was a discomfort and a guilt, but as we introduced more activities there was an understanding.’
Later in the experiment, the children took a school trip to visit an art gallery and were amazed by the lack of diversity on show.
One of the boys gasped: ‘There’s not much about black history’, while Henry says: ‘It’s literally all white.’
Mahkai added: ‘I thought it was outrageous.’
The School That Tried To End Racism airs Thursday at 9pm on Channel 4.