Letter from the dorm: Traditional schools need to start talking about race

Cyril Ip

It's important to have open conversations about diversity and multiculturalism from an early age

Cyril Ip |

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This is my sixth year studying and living in Britain. I’ve spent four years at a traditional, private, Catholic boarding school in Chelmsford, and two years at university in Bristol. When comparing the two cities, Bristol seems a lot more lively and multicultural – there are museums, theatres, historic sites, shopping arcades, bars and clubs in the densely packed city centre. Chelmsford, other the other hand, had an average-sized town centre with all the necessities – nothing more, nothing less.

As a young adult who loves the city life, you might think that I probably didn’t care very much for Chelmsford. In fact, life at the quiet, peaceful boarding school was a unique experience.

The stillness that I am describing doesn’t just refer to the quietness in the boarding house at bedtime. I also mean the lack of intrusions and disturbances to the development of my mind.

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Everything was very predictable: I learned the curriculum, I asked for help if I needed it and the teachers would happily assist, I attended open mornings as a prefect, and introduced parents to the school as an ambassador – nothing was even slightly shocking or outlandish.

Yet, towards the second half of my time there, when I grew to become much more racially aware, things didn’t seem to quite right.

All the teachers were white, except for my Chinese teacher. There were black members of staff at the school, but they were not teachers. The racial make-up of the teachers did not reflect reality at all. The lack of representation often made me feel that I was not as important (which I know isn’t true) as my white peers.

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This feeling grew stronger when my article on slavery was rejected by the school magazine because it was “too controversial” – no elaboration on what exactly was too controversial – and when my white peers would tell me that “racism isn’t real” or “you should go back to where you’re from if you don’t like this country”. The school even introduced a new rule which did not allow a Chinese student to sit with more than two other Chinese students during lunch – what?

I wish there had been a teacher who I was comfortable enough to speak to regarding my feelings about race and diversity. Now I’m at university, I realise this discomfort isn’t uncommon among minority groups. Most of my black friends in Bristol feel the same – under-represented, misunderstood and regularly uncomfortable.

Rocking the status quo takes courage, but don’t rock it for the sake of rocking it. Always pinpoint the cause of your discomfort, and if everything lines up to show that you are not at fault, there must be something wrong with the bigger picture – rock that, and progress.