I have been thinking about whether to write and if I do what to write for days. I don’t know what to say. All of this is out of my comfort zone and that in itself makes me uncomfortable. Part of me feels I have nothing to add, nothing to say that matters in any way at all. But staying silent is worse. Staying silent is not really an option. Yesterday I saw the following tweet by Tahir, a researchers at Leeds Uni and the SLSA postgrad rep (who pops up in my time line so frequently I didn’t realise until today that I didn’t actually follow him) and I think that captures some of why not writing a post is not an option.
But what can I possibly say? The Association of Law Teachers tweeted
The landscape and narratives of legal education are indeed overwhelmingly white. My own history, my own education was overwhelmingly white, my world is in so many ways overwhelmingly white. So where to start. Of course I would like to think I am not racist and I would hope that in many ways I am anti-racist but I am also a white relatively privileged woman and therefore so much part of a global system and lots of national and local systems that are fundamentally racist. There are so many things here that I could write about and I know very little about all of them. As the #BlackLivesMatter protests continue and calls for white people to educate ourselves and do better increase, I think it is really important that we don’t all suddenly start pretending we know about race. It’s our time (and well overdue!) to shut up, listen and learn. So here I want to reflect on what all of this might mean for me as a law teacher. And by ‘all of this’ I mean, my emotional reaction to the murder of George Floyd and the protests which have followed, the call to learn more, the call for solidarity that is more meaningful than a building lit in purple for one night and a call for action which genuinely supports black and brown people in their protests and struggles, which amplifies their voices and helps to make them heard.
So before I start, I know very little, I have read not nearly enough and I have not engaged sufficiently with the question of race in the legal classroom. What I have engaged with is different ways of teaching law, treating all students as human beings rather than student numbers and building relationships with students. As part of that I have always been keen to listen to my students and learn from them. I remember listening to a student asking whether she could leave her research on abortion law in my office as she wouldn’t be able to take it home in case her parents saw it. I remember talking about language use in the classroom and whether teachers being excluded through the use of languages other than English was problematic. I remember conversations in class about intersections of law, race and religion and instinctively recognising them as important even when they appeared to be off topic and I remember a powerful and moving student presentation of a review of the book ‘Learning the Law’ (Glanville Williams) which was entirely focused on the discriminatory and colonial undertones of the word ‘the’ in the title.
I remember thinking about race and particularly religion a lot as Head of School – how do we design a legal curriculum that is meaningful for what was actually the majority of our students and which does the experience and realities of all of our students justice, which listens, which empowers and which does not simply re-tell the legal and historical narrative of white privileged men? The thinking here was framed by the Bradford context of course, it was about a Muslim, Pakistani and often economically poor cohort of students. I hope that I created a safe space in which to talk about some of the issues, but I also know that I did not centre race generally or even the specific concerns of the majority of our students. What we taught for the most was still a white curriculum, even if we added some questioning of it.
Since moving institutions I have done worse in some ways. I am not in a management role, I don’t have influence over our curriculum which, from what I can see is pretty traditional in many ways. I have made some changes but, perhaps obviously, these have been centred on things I know about. The Public Law reading list now contains some female authors where there were previously none (!) and I created a new module to make space for critical thought around legal education and aspects of law. While that module contains some discussion of race, it is focused on feminist and queer critiques of law and legal education. I hope it created space for thinking about law differently, for challenging our approach, my approach, to legal education and to teaching law and helped to amplify some voices not otherwise heard but I am not sure this is enough.
So what is enough? I don’t know. I need your help here. Tell me what you need from me, what would help, how can help? I wonder whether first recongising that we don’t know anything or very much is helpful. There are people out there who have been researching race in various context for years, decades. The expertise is theirs. It might be helpful to read some things outside of the current mainstream and when working out what that is, let’s talk to each other, let’s help each other. Let’s not laugh at someone for not having read or thought about something. Let’s be firm – we must do better – but gentle – we have to start somewhere and your somewhere will be different from mine and that’s ok – but we must start. Adding one or two things to the reading list to include some black and brown authors ain’t gonna do it though. In many cases doing something and starting somewhere means challenging the established and accepted curriculum in a given area, doing things differently, leaving out or re-framing things that we feel confident with and have always ‘known’ should be there. It won’t be comfortable. But I also don’t think we have to do this alone. Talking about what we are doing and why with our students is also really important. Creating space to challenge the orthodoxy, to hear other voices, to listen, I mean really listen, to our students, particularly our black and brown students is part of creating an inclusive legal curriculum which begins to challenge the dominant white narratives.
So as I think about my teaching I am partly confident that I can begin to make changes and partly totally lost. In Perspectives on Law and Society I will start with discussions on race in legal education and law. This section of the module used to come at the end, this year I will put it up front because I want to create a space where we can talk about recent events and think about how they impact on us and on how we think about law, social justice and legal education. That module is relatively easy because it’s not about legal rules or content and because it is not a traditional legal module so it is not weighed down by tradition or a textbook. The same is true for my Law in Literature and the Arts module which also allows for lots of opportunities to talk about race and racism and challenge the traditional stories. I feel ok about these modules, I feel like I can do something with them which is meaningful for all my students and which can help us all learn. I feel like in these modules I can say ‘I don’t know, I understand that sometimes I am part of the problem, help me be better’. I feel like with those modules I can make a start.
Then there is Public Law. Thinking about Public Law really highlights just how ingrained the dominant white narrative of our legal history is. I find myself sitting with a blank piece of paper staring at it. How do I make this module anti-racist? And I have to admit that I don’t know where to start. How can it be that in a module about the relationship between the State and its citizens I cannot think about how to logically frame an anti-racist curriculum. This should be easy. And yet, every time I put pen to paper to map out what the module should look like I end up with something that is so remarkably like the module I took over, the textbooks, hell, even the module I was taught. Adding women to the reading list and using their writings in seminars etc was easy, it didn’t challenge much. This though is much harder.
I am not an expert on race – either in specific fields of law or in legal education – but that’s no excuse to perpetuate racism in the curriculum and classroom. So what do I do? I teach Public Law to first year law students. I have a powerful platform which can help set the tone for students’ legal education and the way they see their place within the Law School and the wider world. It’s a platform which I can use to highlight that the dominant narrative of legal education, or Public Law specifically, is white but that there are stories missing and that the stories usually told have been whitewashed. I can point to alternatives and draw on the work of those with expertise and most of all I hope I can create space for genuine discussion and learning. So for now that Public Law outline is staying blank while I go and seek out the other stories and the missing bits in the stories I have always been told and that I have re-told. It stays blank while I deliberately go and seek out the things which make me uncomfortable, have conversations which highlight the whiteness of our Constitutional set up or the colonial assumptions which sit behind human rights frameworks for example. It will stay blank until I have thought about what is really important about Public Law as a thing – until I am clearer in my head what it should be – maybe if I can begin with a conversation about what public law should do, together we can work out what stories we need to tell about it.
So is there a point to this rambling? Well yes, sort of. My emotional reaction to the protests has been quite strong. I have felt angry and helpless and paralysed and motivated to facilitate change all at once. At the same time as thinking there was nothing I could do, feeling part of the problem with little power to make any difference I also remembered that I do have a powerful platform from which to start discussion and from which to hear and amplify voices. I am able to encourage real dialogue and learning. That’s where I can help make a difference – probably mostly to my own understanding and maybe that is more important than I often think. But mostly I hope that my students read this and see it as a genuine invitation to talk to me about race and your experience of it in law, in the classroom and in life. I hope that it is clear that I know that sometimes I have been part of the problem, and maybe always will be and that this has never been intentional. I hope that it is clear that I am listening and that I will, where I can, help you find your voices and amplify them. I hope you feel safe enough to get in touch, tell me what you think I should read/watch/listen to, tell me what’s important to you and help me to learn to be a much much better anti-racist educator.