Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Sensible approach to 'racist' taunts

Sun cream and glasses

A newspaper report earlier this year on the explosion of racist incidents in Norfolk schools (including 90 pupils aged 5 and 6 apparently reported for racist name calling) was slightly defused when it transpired that the majority of incidents involved comments about white pupils who returned from holiday with suntans.

There is no doubt that young children do need to be taught that there are things that should not be said, even as jokes. Whether they need to be reported as racial incidents may be more open to question.

Courts have been showing signs of trying to avoid creating a culture of excessive sensitivity. In general, in cases of racial harassment it is necessary to demonstrate that the conduct is unwanted, that the purpose or effect is to humiliate, and that the ground for the conduct is clearly racial. Where the insult is manifestly racial, however, the motive can be assumed.

And what is race? The legal definition has nothing to do with genetics. Essentially, if a group of people see themselves, or are seen by others, as a distinct group, including on grounds of religion, and have a shared history, then the law will treat them as a race.

So Scots are a race, even though they have diverse genetic origins; and Sikhs are legally a race, even though genetically they are indistinguishable from others from the Punjab.

Race also has no necessary connection with nationality. So, for example, a Croatian was unable to claim racial discrimination when dismissed from his job in an English school.

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