• Pardesi

Op-ed: Racism in British Private Schools

Updated: Aug 23, 2020

Janisha Perera


I was called a p*ki at age 10 by a school friend I had known since I was 3, ‘but you are though?’ I was winded. 

In nursery a peer told a girl her dad did not want her playing with black kids.

In sixth form a girl wiped my makeup off, rubbed it on some paper and exclaimed ‘ God you’re dark’ whilst the sole black girl in our year was tokenized and put on the front and back of the school prospectus.

My mother routinely recounts being told to ‘go back to her own country’ on her night shifts by the very people she earnestly tries to nurse.

My form tutor from years 9-11 assumed my surname was Patel because I am Asian so often that I even have a school report with the wrong name.

These are a handful of the overt and subtle racist situations I’ve experienced at school and uni. Knowing me, I probably gave off an impression of cool detachment to avoid the spectre of awkwardness. I always knew private schools were synonymous with exclusivity and whiteness, but the persistent underlying racism was nevertheless damaging. 

I am very confident in my culture and can take a joke better than anyone but 2 decades of microaggressions are taxing on the brain and take effort to unlearn.


A lot of these comments/actions were so automatic, disarming, and simple that you risked looking overly sensitive, “too woke” or “too pc (politically correct)” if you ever addressed them.


Probably the most disappointing thing was that my friends would also avert their eyes, pretend they didn’t hear, feign ignorance or nervously laugh it off to avoid changing the temperature of the room and bursting the little Surrey bubble.

I could never label my schools as inherently racist but there were strong undercurrents, supported in part by the teachers. Whether it was the PE teacher with a weird fascination for white, blonde girls or a history teacher who overlooked potent and valuable ethnic students, an uneasy environment persisted. I saw racists wearing suits and given legitimacy.

Now I see a lot of the same people who laughed at the smell of my mother’s cooking posting for racial equality in light of recent events in the USA and it is a little hard to swallow. Racism is in constant metamorphism; you no longer have to wear a white hood, red armband or kneel on somebody’s neck to be one. I implore you to take this time to reflect on yourself, have you been a bystander, said racist things or had a nonchalant attitude to those who did? Humans have a tendency to take the path of least resistance but speak up for your friend, sit in the unpleasantness, acknowledge that 70 years of democracy cannot compete with 400 years of colonial rule.

The dichotomy between white and POCs' view on race in the UK stems from their understanding of the British Empire. It is taught heroically as ‘The White Man’s Burden’ but REMEMBERED by its subjects as brutal, bloody, and unjust. Eurocentric racism is derived from the notion that the West ‘discovered’ and ‘civilised’ ethnic groups via industrialisation. In actual fact Britain had Boer concentration camps of their own, massacred Sikhs, raped Kenyans and tortured their own citizens. There is a lot to feel ashamed about. 


Teach yourself how these institutions contribute to the handling of Grenfell, the metal health sector, the Windrush scandal, literacy rates and media depictions.

Race is a lens through which we are all still judged, whether it is on a school trip to Nettlecombe, a boardroom, take away shops, in overcrowded boats off the Mediterranean or even in our Cabinet.

I finally feel like we are starting to tackle underlying racism in the UK, but it comes from individual personal growth. Just because you do not identify as a racist doesn’t mean your actions aren’t; Introspectively examine your potential biases and speak up when you encounter racism, inadvertent or otherwise.