Perspectives #9: "Seeing beyond BAME"
"Perspectives" is a series of blog posts written by people different to James, the usual writer of this blog: a white heterosexual non-disabled male. Through this series, we will hear from people from Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic, LGBT+, and faith communities, as well as women, people with disabilities, and people from a low socio-economic background. Each individual is speaking from their own experiences alone, not speaking on behalf of a group of people. The aim is for all of us to hear voices of those who are different to us, so we can understand and build a culture in our schools and organisations where the wellbeing of all is at the centre, not just the wellbeing of those who are the same as us.
Ninna Makrinov is an occupational psychologist working in Higher Education, and Chair of Governors at Water Mill Primary School. Originally from Chile, she has lived in three countries and worked in many more. She is passionate about education, wellbeing and equality.
I write this blog as a white immigrant fat woman, a second language English speaker, and a solo mum, living in the UK. I went to private school and my parents worked hard to give me this opportunity. I was a bright child who did well; school was generally my safe space. However, this is only part of the story: I was also always considered fat. I was the intelligent one, my sister was the pretty one – this marked us both. I could write a book on my childhood, so I will stop there!
I first became aware of my privilege at University. I am originally from Chile and I studied a 5-year BSc and professional qualification in Psychology there. In Chile, my middle class accent and white skin were definitely an advantage. My best friends were from other backgrounds and they challenged the way I saw the world. They also accepted me as I was; it was the first time in my life I didn’t have anyone constantly reminding me that I had to lose weight if I ever wanted to be loved, be successful, and find a job. Trying to fit in took its toll, and I had my first period of depression (undiagnosed) at 20.
When I arrived in the UK I felt that there was no discrimination in this country. For the first time in years I could find clothes that fitted me! I completed a MSc in Occupational Health Psychology, started a career in academia, and met my children’s dad. Fast-forward 10 years: I had lived in Mexico, had two children, been through a second period of depression, separated from my husband, and completed an MBA.
I migrated to the UK for the second time in 2015. My British passport made that possible; it was much harder to convince immigration that my then 6 year-old Mexican son should be here with me. I had never felt unwanted in this country until that point. I am one of the lucky ones: I am British, I am white, I had support networks, a job, a British postgraduate qualification. But the current anti-immigration climate is affecting so many of us. What does ‘come back to where you are from’ even mean? I was born in Chile, my family migrated there (two of my grandparents after the Second World War), I have lived in three countries. Home is either anywhere or nowhere; depending on my mood I feel like a citizen of the world or like I don’t have roots at all.
I went through a third period of depression in 2016. I had lost a job, and a boyfriend. By then, I had realised I was also discriminated against in this country. I had been told that a landlord wouldn’t rent a house to me because I‘m a solo mum, and I had been told to find a role that better suited my caring responsibilities. Although I hadn’t actually been told that I’m lazy and disorganised due to being fat, there is enough research to prove that people were probably thinking it. Having studied abroad, if I wanted to work as an organisational psychologist, my professional qualification would not be recognised. Because of this, I have jumped around jobs: one of my managers called this a portfolio career, another thought I had no expertise in any of the areas I thought I did.
Through all this, I have met wonderful people who have helped me see what I can achieve. I hold many of my teachers, at school and university, close to my heart. Close friends have held me, lent me money, listened. Family members are still in contact, even though I have been gone for almost 20 years. I have had great managers who saw me as a person, guided me and gave me wings; managers who understood when I was ill, who encouraged me, who thought my accent was not a problem, who genuinely cared about misconceptions on obesity even when they were thin themselves.
I am successful. This is partly because of my privilege, partly because of my hard work and resilience. I have a job I love. I am chair of governors in a lovely school, working with an excellent leadership team; I feel I make a difference. I have discovered that although I didn’t see it at first, discrimination does permeate our society and I know it is so much harder for others; it is not about me. So I have committed to be part of the solution.
These are my recommendations on how school leaders can foster a culture where everyone’s wellbeing can genuinely be protected:
1. Celebrate diversity: Talk about your commitment, your values. Be genuine in showing that you see differences. Our brains naturally create classifications, as a simpler world is easier to navigate; people are not simple. Find examples of when you have been great. If you make assumptions about a group, check them. Foster a culture where asking questions and having conversations about diversity is welcomed. Listen and learn. We all get things wrong, but when it comes to diversity, I think it is best to be brave.
2. Recruit for diversity: Write clear job descriptions that include your values. Include diverse members in your recruitment panels. Commit to manageable workloads. Consider adopting the DfE’s Flexible working in schools guidance and mentioning this in your recruitment packs. Remember what international staff can bring, so add language requirements in a clear format. I would recommend the self-assessment grids for the European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). Learn about international qualifications. I don’t see many international staff at schools and I have seen overseas teachers with years of training and experience struggle to get a job here, even as a TA. Guidance is hard to navigate, but you can start with the DfE’s Overseas-trained teachers: departmental advice for overseas-trained teachers, local authorities, maintained schools and governing bodies.
3. Question the status quo: Most leaders and teachers do work they love. You are committed to the success of your students. You are facing pressures from all fronts. Question where you focus your attention. I have heard countless times that teachers know that working hard is part of the role, this is not helpful. Question the workload and not people if tasks cannot be completed during the school day. Look at your data through a new lens. Look at race (please go beyond BAME), nationality, disability. Look at staff and student data. If you lack diversity, check it out. If there are differences in the data, find the structural issues that explain it. Work with unions to address concerns before they happen.
Above all, remember that every member of the community is a person, not only a role; I am baffled at how many organisations forget this.
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Editor’s note: Ninna’s use of the word “fat” in this article is a deliberate choice: when I asked her if it would be better to choose an alternative, she said she intentionally “want[ed] to reclaim the word fat. It is a weird thing that it is used as an insult. It would be like saying 'man' as an insult. As a description, it is absolutely what it is. The body positive movement would say that ‘overweight’ [an alternative word that I had in mind] has an implication [...] that there is an ideal weight we can be over or under.”
Our conversation helped me learn, challenged my assumptions, and prompted me to make a small change in the language I’m using. I would encourage you, as you keep grappling with issues of ethnicity, sexuality, gender, disability, and faith, to keep having open, honest and inquisitive conversations rooted in mutual respect: this will help us understand each other better and build a kinder, more empathetic society.