Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education

supporting inclusion, challenging exclusion

frequently asked questions about racism in education

developed in collaboration with Show Racism the Red Card


What is racism?

Racism is the belief that people who have a particular skin colour, nationality, religion or culture are inferior. It can take the form of an individual’s actions (for example verbal or physical abuse or exclusion) or an institution’s procedures which disadvantage a particular group of people (institutional racism). Racism can also be very subtle; sometimes there may be a sense of unease, without any particular comment or action that can be identified as racist. In 1999 the Macpherson Report defined a racist incident as “any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person” and this remains the most widely accepted definition today. Racist beliefs, systems and laws have led to oppression, harassment, hate crime and, in extreme cases, genocide.

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Where does the word racism come from?

Many years ago people believed that it was possible to categorise human beings into groups that were called ‘races’ and that such categorisation could establish some physical characteristics (for example skin colour, hair type or facial features) as well as particular abilities or qualities. The belief that by looking at a person’s physical characteristics one can draw conclusions about their abilities, and that some ‘races’ are altogether inferior, or superior, to others, has come to be known as racism.

Through research into genetics, and other advances in scientific knowledge, it is now very clear that only a very small number of genes determine our physical appearance and they are not in any way connected to genes that influence our abilities or qualities. Research confirms that there are more biological differences within any one so-called ‘race’ than between any two. This effectively means that there is only one race – The Human Race – to which we all belong and that people of all colours and appearances can have similar potential.

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Why do racist incidents happen?

As with any form of prejudice-based bullying or harassment, racist incidents happen because some people try to hurt others at times when, or in places where, they think they can get away with it. Racist incidents may also happen because of ignorance.

Each person has their own world view. This is the way in which we understand the world; the way we make sense of people and their actions, and the way we feel about what goes on around us. The beliefs that shape our world view come from our personal experiences and our environment; from everything we see, do, hear, read and feel.

People who have racist ideas and attitudes are acting in line with their world view. Perhaps people who are important in that individual's life have shared their racist ideas with them or they may have had a bad experience with one person and, from there, drawn conclusions about an entire group.

Our families, education, friends, wider community and the media can all influence our beliefs and, therefore, our world view. Everything we read or hear will be based on someone else’s world view, so will not be neutral. It is important to always question where our beliefs come from.

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Is it OK to call someone a 'Paki' or 'Chinky'?

Definitely not! Paki and Chinky are racist words no matter how, when or why they are used. Even if these words are used to describe a local shop or take away, the words still have racist meaning. A common argument is that the word ‘Paki’ is simply short for Pakistani, or that ‘Chinky’ is short for Chinese. Even if the words originally did refer to a nationality, the way the words have been used has changed their meaning and they have become damaging, hurtful and racist words. Even if the person using them has no intention of hurting or upsetting anybody, the fact remains that these words have been used as weapons to hurt or scare people and can be very painful or threatening to those who hear them. It is also true that many people who are called these words are not actually from Pakistan or China, so often people are being judged on their skin colour or appearance.

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Are white people ever targeted by racism?

Yes! We all have a skin colour, nationality and culture and some of us have a religion; this leaves every single one of us vulnerable to experiencing racism. Racism can take place between people who have the same skin colour but a different nationality or religion. For example a white English person could be racist to a white Irish person, or a black Christian person could be racist towards a black Muslim person. It is important to remember that racism is usually directed at people from minority groups by people who are in the majority in that location. In Britain, racism is much more likely to be experienced by people in minority groups, but not all of those people are black. For example some Muslim people, Polish people, Gypsy, Roma and Travellers can be the targets of racist abuse, even though many of these people are white.

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Why can’t I have my own views, even if you call them ‘racist’?

People are always entitled to their own views, but there are laws that determine how people can or cannot treat one another. In UK law it is illegal to treat someone in a way that makes them feel harassed or discriminated because of their particular skin colour, nationality, religion or ethnicity (Equality Act, 2010). It is illegal to commit an offence which incites racial or religious hatred (Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006) and if someone commits a crime which is racially motivated, it is considered a racially aggravated offence which increases the seriousness of the offence and results in a heavier sentence (Crime and Disorder Act 1998). People can also be prosecuted and charged with ‘Malicious Communication’ (Malicious Communication Act, 1988) if they are being racist online, via social media, text message, email or telephone.

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Do we have to avoid racist language even in friendly dialogue?

Yes! People who use racist language may mean no harm, but those who hear it can be hurt by it. Using someone’s skin colour or ethnicity as an insult can have a deep effect. It implies that it is negative to be of that background and attacks something which is an integral part of that person’s identity. It is not just an attack on the individual, but on other members of their family, community or group. Allowing ‘jokes’ or ‘banter’ about someone’s skin colour, nationality, religion or culture creates a society where that behaviour appears acceptable and paves the way for ridicule, name calling, exclusion and more serious forms of racism like violence and murder. American psychologist Gordon Allport, in his 5-point scale for the manifestation of prejudice in society, lists as the first step “Antilocution” (which means ‘speaking against’ and implies a majority group freely making jokes about a minority group), followed by Avoidance, Discrimination, Physical attack, and finally Extermination.

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Is it better to describe somebody as 'black' or 'coloured'?

Describing people as coloured is old fashioned and comes from a time when black people were treated very unfairly; it is much better to use the term black. Coloured was used to refer to anybody who was not white, which could imply that to be white is considered ‘normal’ or default. The fact remains that every human has a skin colour, so technically we are all coloured. Sometimes people are worried about using the word black and think it might be rude or even racist, but as a descriptive term it is absolutely fine, and is a term that has been chosen by and is used by black people.

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Is it OK to ask questions about why people are different?

Some people may feel uncomfortable about asking others directly about differences in skin colour, religion, nationality and/or culture, but not asking these important questions can lead to assumptions, which are often based on prejudice or stereotypes. If you want to know something about a person, for example how they would like you to refer to their skin colour or why they are wearing a particular piece of religious clothing, it is best to ask them politely. This is much better than guessing and potentially offending someone. It is also important to remember that a person’s answer will be personal to them and that no individual can be expected to speak for a whole culture.

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Other people in my school think of Muslim people as terrorists. How can I reassure them?

A small number of people of any religion may engage in extreme violence but that doesn’t make all people of that religion extremists. There are approximately 1.7 billion Muslims in the world and only a very tiny percentage has ever been involved in any terrorist activity. Worryingly, many people are being attacked and blamed for the actions of this small number of extreme people, because they may share a faith or skin colour. In 2013 more than 1,400 children and young people contacted ChildLine about racist bullying, an increase of 69%, with young Muslims reporting that they are being called “terrorists” and “bombers”. Being a Muslim is only one part of a person’s identity and may not be the most important part. Within a large group of people who share the religion Islam, there is a massive amount of diversity! It is so important that we question information that we see in the mainstream media about Muslim people and look for alternative evidence to back up our opinions.

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Other people in my school think of Muslim people as terrorists. How can I reassure them?

Recent advances in communications and transport industries have meant that people move from one country to another with much more ease than ever before. Some people choose to leave the UK and others choose to enter it. An estimated 4.7 million British born people have emigrated and now live abroad (Home Office, 2012). Those who fear the UK is being “flooded” by immigrants should be directed to the most recent census data, which shows that 87% of the population of Britain are UK born and just 13% are foreign born residents.

Immigrant is an umbrella term to describe someone who comes from one country to take up residence in another. People move from one country to another for different reasons. Some of the most common are:

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Page last updated: Tuesday 03 February 2015

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