Are school principals racist? Fresh insights from an intersectional approach

Year: 2015

Author: Charles, Claire, Pluim, Caroline, Moran, Claire

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Nearly a decade ago, an interview study of 35 Western Australian school principals by Nado Aveling, published in Discourse: Cultural politics of education (2007), found that the majority of school principals either denied the existence of racism in their schools or constructed racism as the idiosyncratic ‘bad behaviour’ of individuals, a pattern that was consistent for all principals. However, recent scholarship has observed a contrasting pattern of disavowal of racism in schools and society: ‘[w]e live at a time when politicians, the media, and practitioners are increasingly confident in their assertion that race no longer matters’ (Gulson, Leonardo & Gillborn 2013, p. 475).

We examined these claims as part of a large, multi-method, ethnographic, ARC project on ‘Intercultural Understanding in Primary and Secondary Schools’. Contrary to the earlier work, our study revealed clear, discernible differences in how different principals construct, understand and deal with racism and found these differences were shaped by the specific and different social and structural relationships in their schools.

This paper shows how these differences played out in the views and work of three illustrative cases of schools that were very different in terms of the social, economic, racial and religious profile of their students and families. In each case, the principal was aware of and acknowledged the pernicious operation of biological, cultural and institutional racism but engaged with the problem of racism through different discursive constellations and intersections with class and religion depending on the social context of their schools. This intersectional approach shaped how principals viewed their school community and understood racism in their schools and the strategies/actions they took to disrupt the consolidation of racism by class and religion.

The inflection, stabilisation and destabilisation of racism by structural issues, such as class and religion, suggests that an intersectional approach may be relevant for understanding the operation of racism, not only among principals but in Australia more broadly. In this respect, we take up Gregoriou’s (2013) proposition that using an intersectional approach to examine ‘sites of practice’ rather than subjectivities is a better way to understand the complex connections of social structures and categories contributing to both subjection and empowerment.