Leadership Identity in Ethnically Diverse Schools in South Africa and England Opening a dialogue about diversity



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The individuals
Staff identity
Staff were asked to describe their identity. The resulting data was analysed to discern the implicit conceptualisations of diversity. One respondent did not see any connection between characteristics and identity:


  • I do not think any personal characteristics has (sic) anything to do with my identity

In contrast, in the majority of cases, self-description implied a wide conceptualisation, foregrounding particularly non-visible attributes, noting beliefs and professional orientation. For example, in England, the responses included:




  • I am fair and that is important for me. I like to think I prefer to listen more than I talk or do.




  • Generally someone who does all the background work and passes it on and that’s it.




  • Competent and calm

Another listed a large number of personal skills such as being a good listener. In South Africa, the responses also included personal qualities:




  • I am a lover of mankind. I love people. It does not matter who it is.




  • I want people to see me as a person with justice and who can be objective.




  • I like to think of as many options as possible. I never believe there is one way, a right way of doing things.



  • I am perfectly designed to teach. I never get mad. I never lose control. I love kids.

Others gave narratives of their life or opinions, in one case a career history and in another an account of the demographic profile of the school. Another, while he acknowledged that skin colour was part of his identity, emphasised more his sense of humour as a really important aspect of his professionalism. His explanation of humour was lengthy and seemed invested with more significance for him than other characteristics. It was explained to be the quality that was most relevant to relating successfully to learners:


Identity is about background and culture. Your identity is also about your skin colour. It can also be about the political group you belong to…. I am professional and diligent and I can also make jokes in the class. You must not always be serious in the class. The children must be able to see that you can make jokes. You must be approachable for the children.
A minority in both countries noted their ethnicity, gender, religion, language or socio-economic background:



  • I am going to answer this out of a Christian perspective. I believe I have a role to play and I have been put on this planet by my creator to do so; that I think was my destiny and I was designed for that. I am one of a kind. By that I mean that I have been perfectly designed to teach.




  • I am a white male and I may be the only white male these children see. I am also a Christian.




  • I am a South African, Suid Afrikaner, which talk (sic) Afrikaans and loves the language.




  • I am from a large family... I come from a very humble background

Three cited their religion as an important aspect of their identity, two their language and two their socioeconomic background. One might anticipate that South Africans would see their ethnicity as a critical aspect of their identity, given the history of racial segregation, but only one referred to himself as white in describing his identity. In England, again, a single respondent referred to himself as white; other staff did not refer to their ethnicity. Within the sample across both countries, the two who included skin colour within their description of their identity placed it as of less importance than other characteristics. The English leader stressed his religion more. The South African, asked the most significant of his characteristics, ordered them as first religion, second language (Afrikaans) and third belonging to a high income group. He explicitly rejected ethnicity as important.


Intersectionality theory suggests that consideration of any single dimension of diversity risks oversimplification of the individual and the socially constructed response to their characteristics (Valentine, 2007). It is therefore comprehensible that each leader might mention numerous dimensions of their identity, including both those characteristics which are the focus of narrow conceptions of diversity, particularly ethnicity and gender, as well as those which are part of wider conceptions, language, background, religion, professional attributes. However, what demands greater consideration is the weighting of elements within each self-created depiction of identity. The visible characteristics which might be most apparent and arguably most significant to the school community, particularly whiteness, were given relatively little consideration and explicitly rejected as relevant by some: ‘Race does not matter.’ More attention was given to professional characteristics.
One might understand in numerous ways why the majority of staff chose to foreground their non-visible characteristics, professional attributes and beliefs, rather than their ethnicity or other detectable characteristic. Gurin and Nagda (2006) draw on social psychological theories to present strategies by which people attempt to minimise the stigma of low status identities such as minority ethnicity or gender. The first is de-categorisation, where members of a stigmatised group personalise relations with the majority or dominant group so that they are perceived as just that individual, rather than as a member of a group, thereby avoiding the stereotypes attached to out-groups. The teacher is perceived as ‘Mary’ rather than as of Indian origin or, in the case of SA, the teachers emphasised their Christian identity rather than their whiteness. In contrast, re-categorisation draws out-group members into the in-group, through common tasks and symbols. Difference is set aside in order to create one single group, rather than an in-group and out-groups. The teacher is viewed as a member of the senior management team rather than as a coloured person.
The two strategies were evident in the leaders’ descriptions of their identity. Through foregrounding their personal qualities and skills they stressed their membership of a professional group. They were re-categorising into a more prestigious group, that of educational leaders. De-categorisation was also evident in the insistence that skin colour did not matter. The single member of the SMT in SA who was not white believes that ‘I do not recognise colour any more’. Speaking of her, another leader believes that staff do not ‘think there is a non-white person’. Yet, in the South African responses, the Afrikaans word ‘anderskleurig’, meaning ‘other colour’, was used more than once. The concept of ‘anderskleuriges’ was common before 1994, used by whites to refer to people who are not officially white. Although the word ‘anderskleurig’ was employed only a few times, related terms like ‘the other’ or ‘we differ’ or ‘they are different’ were used many times alongside assertions of colour blindness:
One of the ladies here is anderskleurig….. We have one non-white lady who is very dynamic …….. She functions very well. I do not think that people think there is a non-white person with us……I do not think our people see any colour.
Another SA respondent reflected on the fact that the staff had recently had a discussion about the concept of anderskleurig:
We talk about others, who are not whites, as anderskleurig. Who said that we are not the right colour? Particularly in this new political environment and the situation, it is for me the reason why people wonder nowadays which word to use. We are not really the right colour. Why do we call people anderskleurig?
There is, of course, irony in the assertion that people do not see colour when the interview transcripts are shot through with acute awareness of it, generally in others. As in the title of Walker’s article (2005), race is nowhere and race is everywhere. The staff discussion centres on the illogic of continuing to use a word which means ‘other’ when the group using it has become ‘other’. The previously dominant white Afrikaans population had the political, social and cultural power to perceive those who were not white as belonging to a homogenised mass of other ethnicities. Now, the previously dominant group is not only a minority in terms of ethnicity, but has lost political power. And yet it continues to adopt an anderskleurig perspective within the changing context of school and country, asking the critical question about the view ‘Who said we are not the right colour?’ and appears to have a wakening realisation that it is not the only group labelling people according to their own perspective on skin colour. Becoming a minority in the school community as well as the national population has not removed a sense of the majority as ‘other’.
The colour blindness in both countries is striking. On the one hand whiteness is presented as salient by only one member of staff in each, and yet whiteness:
has been a historically privileged category insofar as people with white or light skin have benefited from historic legal, social, and economic advantages that shape a common history and have resulted in long-term inequities (Simpson, 2008: 141).
It is, of course, complex. Some white people are advantaged or disadvantaged in particular ways and their ethnicity may intersect with other characteristics such as gender or disability which can also lead to dis/advantage (Valentine, 2007). Nevertheless, despite the changes that followed majority rule in South Africa in 1994 and the increasing diversity of British and SA society, whiteness has continued to confer privilege on many. As Simpson (2008) argues, whites think of themselves as neutral, normative. Awareness of their ethnicity is an optional extra. Consequently, the absence of explicit self colour consciousness in all but two of the respondents may be rooted in differing imperatives. The white respondents may be genuinely unconscious of their ethnicity as a salient feature of their identity: It is the norm. For the two minority ethnic respondents, avoidance of ethnicity may relate to de- or re-categorisation: One group has no need to escape; the other has a persisting impetus to do so. It is a collusion of those who see themselves as the norm with those who know that the experience of difference matters, to feign that difference is irrelevant (Cochrane-Smith, 1995; Mabokela and Madsen, 2003).
How can discussion about difference take place if there is a denial of difference? Simpson (2008) constructs a range of criteria for assessing if dialogue is genuine, that is allowing people to ‘think together’ (p. 140). Colour blindness is suggested to prevent such dialogue, because it:


  • is hypothetical and acontextual insofar as it imagines a race-neutral social context.

  • is reproductive of the lived experience of dominant groups over subordinated ones.

  • passively accepts the status quo and resists challenges to it.

  • demeans and devalues the experience of racism as irrelevant or inaccurate.

  • is ‘politically correct’ in its avoidance of difficult or challenging explorations of race.

Certainly, in relation to the first criterion, there was somewhat more awareness of ethnicity issues in society in the South African school, where staff discussed ‘anderskleurig’ and considered the issue of diversity in relation to nationhood and the history of the country.




  • Mr Mandela said, one nation. It’s everybody together, no matter who you are, where you come from, we all have to take hands and stand together. Let this country grow financially, politically, all aspects. We must take hands and stand together. That’s how I see it and if you look at any situation, any problem, don’t keep the past in mind, especially in our country.




  • I am a lover of mankind. I love people. It does not matter who it is. Race does not matter. Language does not matter. I think it is very important in our work that you must not hang on to certain groups, although there is drastic culture differences. The things that you were brought up with. Things that you must overlook that are very difficult.

The acknowledgement that difference exists and has mattered is set alongside insistence that it no longer does so. Similarly, in the English school, while staff were acutely aware of the issues of ethnicity and language in relation to learners, they did not generally recognise ethnicity as a dimension of the experience and relationships of leaders.


In relation to the second criterion (is reproductive of the lived experience of dominant groups over subordinated ones), the perspective of the dominant group that there was no issue appears the accepted view, even though the two minority ethnic staff who were interviewed challenged this view. Both felt that the way they were perceived related to their ethnicity and was limiting. They felt perceptions of their identity foregrounded their ethnicity, (this even though everyone, including themselves, asserted its irrelevance), and that consequently their experience was differentiated from white leaders. Ethnicity did matter. The status quo was accepted, as in criterion three. Finally, there is a strong sense that political correctness shaped the dialogue. Staff repeated their positive orientation to diversity, particularly in relation to learners; this, despite their insistence that they did not see colour. Other research in South Africa has similar findings. For example Gaganakis (2006: 368) quotes Pumi, a young woman of colour: ‘We have to put this thing of race behind us… It’s nothing…. It’s just a natural thing. Just a colour. It does not mean anything to me.….. It’s about being equal’. In South Africa and in England leaders appeared to be unwilling to engage with the implications of the minority status of whiteness in the school staff. The assertion that ethnicity was not seen and did not matter may have been meant as a stance, asserting equality, but its effect was to exile discussion of the ways in which ethnicity does matter and may result in inequality.
The non-acknowledgement of whiteness is, of course, in a different context in each country. The minority white school leaders are part of a national majority in the UK, hence it may be more difficult for them to think about their minority status in school when they are part of the dominant majority in the population. In the case of South Africa, the white majority in the school is at the same time a minority of the national population, hence the possible consideration by some of the educators about what it may mean to be other or anderskleurig. Milliken and Martins’ (1996) assertion that the degree of ‘minoritiness’ matters appears to be supported by this data. The white SA staff are constructing identities in a context in which they are a white minority within the school, the province and the nation. While they may assert colour blindness the discussion of anderskleurig and the more frequent assertion that skin colour does not matter suggest that the insecurity of minoritiness may be causing some consideration of the impact of ethnicity. The white English staff are minority in the school but majority in the region and nation. The norm of whiteness in the region and nation may account for the lack of reference to the ethnicity of staff. The insecurity of feeling a minority may heighten both awareness of the minority characteristic and the desire to direct attention away from it. The result in both cases was however similar; a failure to consider one’s own place in the system.

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