Opinion: The Power of Education to Change Perceptions

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Ultimately the power to change our conceptions lies with education and the willingness to challenge ourselves. Adam Rutherford’s How to Argue with a Racist systematically challenges the different dimensions of racism, from a discussion concerning skin colour to an analysis of how DNA testing is fundamentally flawed. Indeed, as the demand to become actively anti-racist rather than purely stating or believing ‘I am not a racist’ grows, education becomes an increasingly powerful tool. The way in which we can truly challenge racism comes from a willingness to accept the limits of our knowledge, and to seek out information on why this prejudice still exists. 

To become a socially just society, we must be prepared to ask ourselves: why does racism still exist? What racist myths continue to be prevalent among some individuals? We must accept that there is some way to go before we reach the point where we achieve racial equality. Rutherford’s book is an enlightening text in which he critiques DNA testing (in the section ‘Your Ancestors Are My Ancestors’) and other issues with racism such as identity. Indeed, on the topic of identity he is incredibly thought-provoking. We are encouraged to ask ourselves: why do some want to identify as 100% British? More importantly, what do we even mean by 100% British? Why do some resent those who seek refuge in the UK? Why is the xenophobic narrative still powerful? When white supremacists and racists talk of ‘racial purity’, what does that even mean? On the topic of race there is a growing narrative which acknowledges white privilege and the structural barriers that continue to affect people of colour. Writing as a white woman I do not claim to understand all of the complexities of racism, but I do have the ability to educate and challenge myself to become increasingly aware of how racism continues to impact people’s lives. 

Somewhat linked with racism is the issue of identity. The desire for a sense of belonging is common – we all know that it is relatively normal to want to feel that we belong, to feel as though we have something in common with those around us. There is a point, however, when this becomes harmful – particularly when we use it as a means to exclude others. As argued by Lorde amongst others, we should actively strive for a society in which we recognise difference and ultimately embrace it. In addition, in the context of identity, we must come to terms with the commercial aspect, which is an important dimension in Rutherford’s How to Argue with a Racist. Using ancestry and DNA as a way to separate people is something that we are all too familiar with, yet we have seen a growth in the number of people who wish to understand their ancestry. However, in doing so, we lose ourselves in the constructed nature of identities, particularly in the modern world. As highlighted in Rutherford’s book, we are fascinated with where we come from, which is reflected in the high demand for ancestry test kits. It is only through research and willingness to learn that we discover that such tests are, in the words of Rutherford, “scientifically unconvincing”. This, of course, has wider implications when it comes to the issue of migration; once we accept that we are all interlinked, harsh and often inhumane immigration policies become nonsensical. 

Although it may seem blindingly obvious to some that there is no such thing as ‘racial purity’, Rutherford places this debate in a scientific context. Rutherford writes: “[I]t isn’t quite clear how racial purity would be established”, which demonstrates that there is no scientific merit for the argument of so-called ‘racial purity’ which is used to legitimise racism. It calls into a deeper question of why we even seek to legitimise reasons for both creating difference and using it as the basis for prejudice. As argued in the academic sphere, historically speaking, creating a dynamic of ‘us v. them’ was deemed integral to legitimising dominance and control over colonised peoples. Returning to the issue of education however, reading Rutherford’s book clearly demonstrated to me that using science as an educative tool is incredibly powerful. Using scientific knowledge to debunk racist myths is poignant and something that ought to be used more widely when discussing race. We so often study racism as a social issue – one that can only be challenged through progressive social policies – but to fundamentally challenge the origins of such beliefs we must use science to categorically demonstrate that such racist claims have no scientific merit, and thus are harmful nonsense. 

Reading anti-racist books is valuable because it deepens our understanding of how the current Conservative government is actively pursuing thoroughly xenophobic and racist legislation. A closer examination of the new Nationality and Border Bill demonstrates that assisting unlawful immigration will be an offence punishable by up to 14 years in prison. To put it bluntly, this government does not want to help those who are in need, and will criminalise anyone who tries to help an illegal immigrant. This is both inhumane and a violation of human rights, whilst simultaneously being the makings of an authoritarian regime. Furthermore, it raises a deeper question: why do we make the distinction between legal and illegal immigration? Anyone who has studied refugee claims will know that these individuals more often than not are desperate to escape persecution, death threats and to help themselves and their families. Thus, trying to create a distinction between who is legally entitled to refuge in this country and who is not is deeply harmful, as we get entangled with legality rather than addressing the fundamental causes of migration by refugees. Ultimately, as the government continues to pursue such harmful legislation, it continues to legitimise the archaic racist and xenophobic narrative. 

The political debate surrounding immigration raises the importance of education to change our perceptions. If we accept the narrative that uncontrolled immigration is fundamentally threatening, an individual is more likely to accept claims that such extreme legislation is necessary to maintain law and order. As evidenced by Brexit and the consequent changes with immigration, the Conservative government is unwilling to acknowledge its flawed logic. We are willing to restrict immigration when it suits us, but when the need for social care workers arises, the government loosens its own restrictions and by doing so, entirely undermines its own political message. 

Increasing awareness through education has the power to change our conceptions, beliefs, and most importantly, lead to productive social change. Awareness of the government’s new legislation on immigration is vital to challenge it because, of course, the government would ideally like to keep people in the dark and gradually pass legislation without scrutiny.

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