Education

Diversity and Race in the Classroom: Q&A With Educator Antoinette Blain

12 January 2022

Interviewed by Cicely Belle Blain; transcribed by Mariana Trujillo-Lezama; edited by Stephanie Butler.

How diverse is your classroom? Does this impact how and what you teach (especially as it relates to social justice)?

Working in an African context, the concept of diversity is very different. My classroom, like the school, is only really intentionally diverse because of the scholarship programs that our parent organization offers to Ismaili students. These students tend to come from remote places in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. In some cases, Ismaili people have been persecuted, so the school has programs to bring Ismaili children from more remote regions to study in Mombasa. Right now, we have a cohort of students from Tajikistan that’s very culturally and ethnically different even from our local Ismaili community. In terms of ethnicity, they’re white; and culturally, they lived under Soviet occupation.

In Kenya, the coastal region has a distinct culture that’s different from the rest of Kenya and includes Swahili people and people of Indian descent, who were brought to Kenya by the British many generations ago to work as indentured labourers.

In my classroom, I have Indian kids, many of whom are Muslim, some Swahili Muslim kids, and some East African Christian kids from Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. I think there’s a few mixed-race and white kids.

At what age do you think kids should start learning about racism in a classroom setting?

They should start learning about racism along with all other aspects of personal, social, and health education, in grade one, nursery, kindergarten, or whatever you call it!

Is critical race theory (or something similar) being taught in your school? Do you think it should be?

Critical race theory definitely has not been taught in our school. If it was, it would need to focus on the local context and prepare students to understand how systemic racism works in countries that are dominated by white people.

Students come to elite international schools like ours to apply to universities in white English-speaking countries like the U.K, Canada, the U.S., and Australia, and then come back to their home country to be a leader. Our teachers aren’t preparing these students — and aren’t equipped to prepare them — for the reality of being just another Black or Brown face in these countries. Many of our students come from wealthy, powerful families. These kids really have no idea about what sort of attitudes they will come across if they go to university in white-dominated countries.

The thing about teaching racism is that it’s a whole different board game here. Here, there is racial tension and tribalism between local communities or Indigenous Africans and other ethnic groups. It’s very different from North America.

Is there anything you think is missing from the curriculum or think should be omitted?

We’ve trying to teach the vision and mission of the academies: governance, civil society, pluralism, ethics. Our parent organization just published a course on pluralism, which will be included in the curriculum. So that would be the space in which to discuss racism and diversity, I think.

If you’re educated in the West, it takes extra work — and time — to find those references and you would probably have something to say about white fragility.

In Mombasa, we have descendants of slave traders and colonial families that have made money from slaving in the U.K. and the U.S. There’s no acknowledgment or discussion or even an understanding about what that means.

How does your experience as a teacher of colour differ from your white peers?

For sure, it has inhibited my ambition and my progress to senior leadership.

I have seen a lot of white male teachers whose privilege really impeded their ability to be self-reflective about applying for a job that was clearly beyond their reach. Their privilege allows them to get into leadership positions, even if they are underqualified. Furthermore, they are more likely to lack the empathy and anti-racism skills necessary to work with a diverse group of students.

I think this really impedes women and women of colour. It’s not that I don’t believe in myself — it’s that I actually stop and think when I see a job description about whether I have the experience and can do the job well. When you couple that with the question of ‘will my face fit if I apply for this job?’ it becomes a deterrent for moving into more senior roles, where you would be the face of the school.

In the Facebook groups I’m in — for teachers, international teachers, and teachers of colour — you can see the difference between the U.S. schools and international schools. In the U.S., the International Baccalaureate (IB) program is offered in more public schools, and they’re picking up more quickly on diversity recruitment. In the Middle East and in China, they’re desperate for native English speakers and British-trained teachers, yet you don’t see brown-skinned people in leadership roles.


Antoinette Blain

Interviewee (she/her)

Antoinette Blain (she/her) is an educator, coach and leader in visual and expressive art education, with over 25 years experience. She currently teaches Art and Design in Mombasa, Kenya. Originally from London, UK, Antoinette has built up a wealth of experience and passion for inclusive, creative and forward-thinking arts pedagogy. Her teaching and leadership experience is global, having taught in the UK, the Netherlands, Italy and now Kenya at both local and world-renowned international schools, including a United World College and Aga Khan Academy.

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