Meet Dr Zetta Elliott

At about 5pm today I received a message from my colleague J.S Shah, about the first of their new podcast series. She asked for my support in spreading the word. What she did not know was that she was doing me a favour. Except for little breaks, I had all day been engaged with writing and the occasional reading. What I needed was some audio input. This came in the form of a conversation Jo was having with the writer and academic Dr Zetta Elliott. 

I took some notes while I was listening, which I used to tweet and now I am using them here. My learning style is such that unless I highlight what I read or take notes on what I watch or listen to, it does not register with my knowledge bank. 

Dr Elliott explained that her writing journey began with her English teacher, saying to her: if you want to be a writer, you will be. And it became true. “It was amazing to think I could write a book”, she said. 

Listening to her tell her story brought back memories of my own. I was about 15 and still at school. I had been England for about three years. Round the corner from us was the office of the Saltley Community Development Project. Based there was the bilingual community newspaper, Saltley News. Its Editor was Mahmood Hashmi, the writer of the reportage Kashmir udaas hay, who later had founded Urdu journalism in the UK and edited the first newspaper Mashriq. 

Hashmi became my role model and mentor. A little while later (1974) he published my first article in the Urdu section of his paper. I still have the original copy and use it to uplift myself; seeing my name in print does the trick, still. 

Dr Elliott explained that she had found that story telling was a good way to get some attention; “it felt I had control over something”. As a child she learned that language had power. She also experienced being ‘othered’ at school. This had the potential of taking my mind down very dark memory lane but I gained control and pulled myself back to the podcast. By a complete coincidence I had shared my experience (90 minutes onwards) in my talk at a seminar which Jo had organised over a year ago. 

Dr Elliott touched on internalised racism: “you can’t be more than you were raised to be.” She also spoke of writing a dissertation on lynching. It reminded me of writing my P Word book. I wondered whether like me she would have found it challenging to manage the emotional from her writerly self. 

She explained that poetry for her was a “response to the immediate situation; most economical form. A poem can be written in 30 minutes.”

I agreed with her when she advised self-publishing “if you want the freedom from commercial expectations.” With my earlier writing I was told no one would publish what I had written so I did it myself. 

She reminded us that one does not have to be a consumer of books; “you can be a creator. Writing can be empowering; it can heal …”

Jo spoke of the writer Hanif Kureishi. I thought “oh yes. I too grew up with him. He gave me a presence too.

There was reference to decolonising one’s mind and dealing with racism that all of us in the danger of internalising. 50 years in the UK, I have done that on many occasions. 

There was discussion of how to select names of characters one writes about and how it feels when your name is not there amongst the key-rings etc being sold in shops. 

Jo explained how she acquired her shortened name from the beautiful Javaria and how she was now preparing to recover her original identity. Such is the pressures on minorities to anglicise their names, to make it easier to pronounce for fellow (White) Brits. 

Dr Elliott offered advice to writers: “Feed your imagination; to avoid writer’s block.” And reminded people: “What is your own definition of success?”

There was a passing reference to the commodification of racism. Also how to talk to young children about Black Lives Matter! I was glad our children were already adults.

Jo said “I am loving this conversation”. I thought ‘me too’. 

At the end Dr Elliott was asked what her advice would be to her younger writing self: 

“Trust your experience. Don’t try to become other writers. Don’t try to become Charles Dickens or Alice Walker. Be authentic. Give yourself a chance to find your own voice.”

I now look forward to the second podcast.

What place for white children in talk of diversity, identity, and educational underachievement?

Reading the Runnymede Trust (2020) report by Joseph-Salisbury, reminded me of another area dear to my heart; that of the white working class underachievement. Professionally my interest dates around 2001. This was when I made a submission to the Birmingham Stephen Lawrence Commission, where I had said that we should not neglect the poor whites. Later, when I joined  the Birmingham Advisory and Support Service as an Equality Adviser. The service already had two Achievement Groups in place: African Caribbean and Asian. A couple of years after arriving there, I instigated the White Achievement Group (launched 26 January 2004).

Soon after, 20 May, I was at the ‘Raising Achievement – towards a whole school agenda’ seminar. There were another 34 delegates, from across the country. They had titles such as: Raising Achievement Coordinator, Head of Service, Ethnic Minority Achievement, Race Equality Education Coordinator.  

After the Chair’s opening comments, an officer from the Aiming High Project at DfES, began proceedings. Her session was entitled:  Raising achievement – the national context. She put up a slide with bar charts: Deprivation, ethnicity & achievement. The data provided the details of the 2003 GCSE Cohort: proportion achieving 5+ A*-C GCSE/GNVQs for pupils with PLASC record. The shortest bar was for White British free school meals (20.4%) and the longest bar was Chinese non-FSM (75.7).

The second session ‘Deconstructing underachievement’ by a university professor and other sessions on making sense of monitoring, effective parental engagement, the critical role of Afro-Caribbean teachers and towards a whole school agenda; none of the speakers nor the delegates made any reference whatsoever to the white underachievement. My own role at the time was ‘Lead Adviser Equalities’, with a focus on ethnic minority underachievement.

‘Championing’ the white working class

Upon return to my office, I investigated the published data and concluded that both nationally and locally poor white boys and girls, i.e. those on free school meals, were the lowest achieving group. I instigated the practice of focussing on numbers of children rather than percentages. I was of the view that this was a better way of drawing attention to the fact that these children were all individuals, who had been entrusted to the school system by their parents and which, in turn, had let them down.

The report I produced showed the very large numbers of white children (the largest group locally and nationally) leaving school without the benchmark qualifications i.e. 5 GCSEs at grades A*-C. Worse than this my report showed that nationally 25,000 white children left school with ‘no passes’ whatsoever (with 1194 Black and 601 Pakistani), meanwhile in Birmingham 486 white children left with ‘no passes’ (with 89 Pakistani and 56 Black).

I also showed that there was a correlation between white underachievement and support for extremist political parties (British National Party and the National Front). The most recent data had shown that 1815 people had voted for these two parties in the Sheldon Ward and 1633 in Kingstanding; both these areas had high levels of white underachievement. Several other wards also had significant extremist support and underachievement: Oscott (1515), Hodge Hill (1420), Stechford (1339).    

The report stated: “A number of teachers described how their schools had implemented policies that directly targeted white working-class students.” It goes onto recommend that “Policies that focus specifically on the attainment of white working-class students should not come at the expense of BME students.” I agree. The focus should be determined by the data on who is underachieving, who needs what help and who needs more resources than other children (yes positive discrimination if you wish to label it).   In my view best people to lead on this work are those who are racially literate especially those who engage with concepts such as whiteness and diversity.

Following the report, I made a several presentations and wrote numerous articles. This included: White Plight (BVSC Update July/August 2008); White Working Class- a Case for Positive Action (BVSC Update March 2011) and White Working-Class discrimination (Equal Opportunities Review February 2011).

In 2008, the then Head of Equality and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips, came to Birmingham to make a speech at the site of the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech by Enoch Powell, 40 years before. I made a comment from the floor, about my work. The newspaper reported my comment and referred to me as the champion of the white working class.

I quoted from my report that “there is hardly a single voice being raised about this tragic state of affairs (meaning white underachievement) from anywhere, locally or nationally, sometime with the sad exception of the extreme right who purport to represent this constituency”. Coincidentally, a few days later Mr Phillips wrote an article on the subject.

The most significant of my articles was a two-page spread in the Times Educational Supplement      

My 15 minutes (well a couple of hours) fame

I was of the view that the White Working Class had been abandoned by New Labour. I wanted to change that. With the help of the Headteacher of Colmers School, I arranged to see Richard Burden,  MP for Northfield. I presented my research to him and persuaded him to raise the matter at Parliament. He agreed, by using the Adjournment debate route. Normally it takes a very long-time to be selected for this, but he got lucky. I worked with his office on the speech he would make, on 19 May 2009: White Disadvantaged Pupils (Birmingham).

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) responded for the government. She listed several ways in which the government was responding already and promised to do more. On the matter of providing “opportunities for disadvantaged white pupils to celebrate their culture and identity”, she pointed to the Extra Mile initiative as one of the ways disadvantaged pupils, especially white, were being catered for.  Sadly, the government changed the following year otherwise who knows what might have happened because of my report.   Since then my work has shifted focus, namely to my doctoral research related to the education of British Pakistani boys. However, I did make a submission to the House of Commons enquiry published as Underachievement in Education by White Working-Class Children (2015).

Nationally, several other reports have been produced by researchers much more capable than I and with a lot more resources at their disposal. The most longstanding work I know of has been happening at Lambeth Council, under the leadership of Dr Feyisa Demie.

The National College for School Leadership produced several excellent reports on the subject.

The National Union of Teachers published Opening Locked Doors– educational achievement and white working class young people.

Ofsted published ‘White boys from low-income backgrounds: good practice in schools’.

In 2009, the Runnymede Trust asked: Who cares about the White Working Class?

In a Foreword to the report the Vice-Chair Kate Gavron stated:

“The poor white working class share many more problems with the poor from minority ethnic communities than some of them recognize. All the most disadvantaged groups must be helped to improve their joint lot. Competition between them, real or imagined, is just a distraction.”

The absent presence of white in the talk on diversity and identity

In my report I had pointed out the omission of white children and their identity in the talk on multicultural education. I had recommended that “when addressing equality and race equality in particular one must not ignore the needs of the white population, especially those who live in disadvantaged neighbourhoods”.  

This view was confirmed by Keith Ajegbo and colleagues in their report of diversity and citizenship.

The following are a few quotes from their report:

All children and young people need to understand their identities and feel a sense of belonging – as important for an indigenous white pupil as a newly arrived immigrant.

But we have emerged in a new world in which there is worse underachievement by white working-class boys

It makes no sense in our report to focus on minority ethnic pupils without trying to address and understand the issues for white pupils. It is these white pupils whose attitudes are overwhelmingly important in creating community cohesion. Nor is there any advantage in creating confidence in minority ethnic pupils if it leaves white pupils feeling disenfranchised and resentful.

Many indigenous white pupils have negative perceptions of their own identity. We spoke to one white British pupil in Year 3, for instance, who, after hearing in a class discussion how the rest of the class came from countries such as the Congo, Portugal, Trinidad and Tobago and Poland, said that she ‘came from nowhere’.

In the case of white working-class boys, their sense of linkage with a tangible history is often as absent as – or even more absent than – for other groups.

White pupils in areas where the ethnic composition of their neighbourhood is very

mixed, or made up predominantly of different ethnic groups, often suffer labelling and discrimination, giving them a different take on how we live together.

They can feel beleaguered and marginalised, finding their own identities under threat as much as minority ethnic children might not have theirs recognised.

If we want community cohesion and for the UK to be at ease with its diversity, as much thought and resource for education for diversity need to be located with the needs of indigenous white pupils as with pupils from minority ethnic groups.

Considerable support is channelled into inner city, multicultural schools, but predominantly white schools need support for education for diversity too.

The diversity of the indigenous white population is also key to the diversity of the UK and should be studied.

Teachers need to be able, in different contexts, to promote the identities and self-worth of indigenous white pupils, white working class pupils, mixed heritage pupils and minority (and sometimes majority) ethnic pupils, and at the same time to be aware of religion and the multiple identities we all live with.

Critical literacy is crucial: if you are white, for example, living in a white area, how do you relate what you see on the television to your idea of being British and the nature of British society?

Schools need additional help and support. To develop schools’ approaches to education for diversity further, and to work with local authorities in predominantly white areas around diversity issues, new approaches need to be developed.

It is also perpetuated by factors such as economic deprivation; feelings of marginalisation within the community exacerbated by housing allocation; a lack of community and school engagement; a perception that their identities are not being affirmed in school; low literacy levels and parental low aspiration of their children’s education.


As I finish this blog, I note that the current government has commissioned another enquiry into education of white working-class children. As has been said in response to their setting up a commission on race inequalities, they would have been better to implement the recommendations of the previous report. It had pointed out that, compared to other ethnic groups, white working-class British children are less resilient in the face of poverty, deprivation, and low socioeconomic status. 

Race and Racism in English Schools

I have spent much time with white working class people, working class folk from other ethnic groups and, of course, have belonged to the working class in my own ethnic group, the Kashmiri/Pakistani community (before becoming middle class). Through most of my adult life I have had a left-leaning political tendency. So, I have been of the general view that white working class, black working class, Kashmiri working class and indeed any other working class have much in common in terms of their problems and needs which result from their structural and systemic disadvantages. We should whatever we can to remind working class people (black, white, whatever) of their commonalities and encourage them to resist being divided on grounds of colour.

In my education work I have focused on underachievement amongst black students, white working-class students, and latterly Pakistani students.

I recently read the report, for the Runnymede Trust, by Joseph-Salisbury . This covered many issues facing our education system. It stated, “racism is an enduring and fundamental problem for our times” thus reiterating Dubois – “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line”.

Using the examples of Shukri Abdi and Caleb Hills, the report reminded us of situations when schools fail our children. It also reminded us of the misguided advice from Katherine Birbalsingh who said:  

If [a] child says [a] teacher is being racist, back the teacher. Whatever the child says, back the teacher … If you don’t, you are letting the child down and allowing them to play you for a fool’.

I would say: ignore such advice and stick to what Macpherson Report said: “an incident is racist if the victim says so”. This article from a victim of such abuse should remove any doubts you might have on this.

The author lists a number of areas where the education system continues to fail and concludes with “there is evidence of deep-rooted institutional issues that do not so easily make the headlines” and “Two decades on from the Macpherson Report, and almost half a century on from Bernard Coard’s report (1971), evidence suggests that racism still plagues our society and our schools.”

It is worth remembering here the Rampton Report (whose chair was replaced because he identified racism)  and its successor the Swann Report; both commissioned and dismissed by the then Tory government.

We are also reminded that “education as an enterprise that is far greater than student attainment….. the purpose of schooling has to be about more than metrics, attainment, examinations and the production of a future workforce.”

Representative diversity in the school workforce

The report found teachers speaking of “schools where the teaching force was ‘mostly white’, and in some cases exclusively white.”

This reminded me of two quotes where the Department for Education had made its position quite clear:

“School workforce should reflect the diversity of the school population”

“Minority teachers affirm a positive sense of identity among ethnic minority children” (Blair & Bourne 2000).

Here, it is worth considering what the advantages might be. In my doctoral thesis and later book, I pointed out that minority teachers provide role models, act as cultural brokers/experts, advocate for minority students and act as a ‘bridge’ between, and ‘translators’ of, minority and dominant cultures. Here is an earlier blog on the subject.

Joseph-Salisbury points out: “it is vital that hiring more BME staff is not seen as a panacea for solving all of the issues of deep-seated institutional racisms in our schools. There is a danger that such ideas place the burden on individual BME people, while absolving white staff of their duty.” He reminds us that “it is not enough for the teacher to be someone of the same colour, but it needs to be someone that does not believe the stereotypes”.

He also points to the importance of teachers becoming racially literate, which refers to them understanding the ways in which race and racisms work in society. “It also involves having the language, skills and confidence to utilise that knowledge in teacher practice.”

“Racial literacy and anti-racism should not be left to the volition of individual teachers but need to be part of a whole-school, institutionalised approach.” Equipped with such literacy means all the staff (not just teachers) can own the issues pertaining to race and racism.

He reminds us that to understand racism “as institutional (and structural) is to recognise the ways in which racism is woven into the fabric of society’s institutions.”

The report draws attention to the failings of teacher training as the main cause of low levels of racial literacy. The teachers who were committed to acquiring such literacy “drew on a range of resources, particularly contemporary literature on race and racism written by popular authors”. Maybe we can encourage a whole school approach on this: Every Staff (not just teachers) member a Reader on Race

In terms of curriculum, the report points out that an “anti-racist curriculum would involve showing how the history of modernity is shaped by racism, coloniality and white supremacy” and that anti-racist education “should be based on an understanding of racism as a structural and historical phenomenon as well as an interpersonal one.”

Finally, I noticed the report saying “School policies play a significant role in how schools operate. This extends to the context of racism and anti-racism.” Why is it necessary to make such a statement? We have known this since at least the 1970s.

Black and White; common and competing issues and needs – Guest blog by Bruce Warren

I’m told many white poor & working classes are angry these days with all the talk of white privilege and black lives matter when they feel no white privilege and no favours done by the systems. “White privilege” means a cruel joke to them, and probably is more appropriate among the middle class. While the white poor & working classes may have marginally less headwind than black people, they still experience significant headwinds at every turn. Only the indomitable survive and thrive.

Does this mean that racism is not a valid thing? No. It means that we have systemic injustices that are pervasive, some of which cross race boundaries and some of which are specific to race. Since much of the western world is listening right now, maybe if we tackle the fact that black lives matter, any systems reformed through this movement will help other vulnerable groups too.

These groups should be allies, not adversaries. But that is hurt also by the history of those with power or influence telling lies to one group that the other group are their competitor and therefore enemy. So many poor white people have been told that black and Asian people were taking their jobs, when actually we needed the labour in the 50’s-70’s because we couldn’t fill the jobs in the UK and Europe. Then when industry started failing across the western world in the 70’s and 80’s, thousands of jobs disappeared and the working class of all races had to scramble to find something. We need to expose the lies that have been told, which have stoked racism. “Divide and conquer” is a generational sin we must root out from the powerful.

But I am noticing is that this is about more than racism. It is about treating the vulnerable as though it’s all their own fault and making it very hard for them to move out of that place of vulnerability. So, this affects the vulnerable: those are black and other ethnic minorities. It also includes those who grew up in poverty and those who are “in the system” because of significant mental health issues or because of crime or other reasons. There is a way that society have come to see them as less valuable, less deserving humans.

This is witnessed by the way police treat them. It is witnessed by the way some social or mental health workers treat them. It is witnessed by the legal, financial, transportation, and other legal requirements that these public and private systems place in front of them as though they have the same capabilities as white middle class do, and penalise them when they don’t.

Maybe if we educate ourselves, hear people’s own stories, hear the stories of those who work with the vulnerable, then we will learn about and be able to advocate for the changes that need to occur in our society. Tackling systemic racism will likely sweep up issues of systemic prejudice and unfairness of other kinds too.

Micah 6.8 He has told you what is good
and what it is the LORD requires of you:
to act justly,
to love faithfulness,
and to walk humbly with your God.

The role of White students in challenging white curriculum in Higher Education.

Kay Sidebottom posted this excellent thread, on Twitter (@KaySocLearn), of potential actions students can take to challenge the whiteness of university curriculum. It was based on discussions in their BA Issues and Ethics class.

I suggested it might benefit from stressing the role of White students at the outset, rather than wait till Point 9. In my view struggle for race equality is always more successful with white involvement.

1. Critically examine your reading list – whose voices are missing? Ask your lecturer to re-balance it if necessary.

2. Glasgow University  recently introduced a programme of reparative justice measures to acknowledge their connections to, and profit from the slave trade. Is your university doing the same? Find out!

3. Keep the momentum of Why is my Curriculum White? campaigns going by raising the issue repeatedly with your students’ union. Ask them to invest in material reminders such as mugs, posters and badges. These linger in lecturers’ staff rooms!

4. If you find sources and materials by writers of colour remember to share them. Encourage lecturers to create dynamic reading lists using sites such as Padlet, which can be added to – by you.

5. Order books from your library! (Yes, you can do this!) Why not crowd- source a list and then submit it with others?

6. Cite theorists of colour in your own work. Scrutinise your essays – are you perpetuating your own white curriculum? Remember citations are powerful – every time you quote someone and submit through turnitin, there will be algorithmic changes.

7. How many black professors are employed at your university? How many black staff are in senior management? Ask these questions and share your findings in staff-student forums. Then ask to see action plans addressing any deficit.

8. What is the ethnicity attainment gap at your university? (Difference in success rate between white and BAME students). It is usually around 13-15% 😱. Find out and again, ask to see action plans.

9. If you’re white, take time to reflect on your own privilege and complicity. Check out resources on this Whiteness resources and links padlet.

10. Keep questioning, challenging, and discussing this issue with other students and lecturers. Remember the power and agency you have.

Javed Iqbal 1961-2018

It’s a sad day. Javed Iqbal has left us, hopefully to go to a better place, without pain and sickness.

I have fond memories of Javed. I met him only twice. The second occasion was when he interviewed me at The Drum, after I wrote my book, Dear Birmingham. My one regret is that I did not get to know him better while he was still with us. I hope to make up for it however I can.

A few years ago Javed and I were included in a heritage project ‘Four Fathers’ which had been set up by Faisal Hussain. Listening to the interview is a good start in getting to know something of the person Javed was.

In addition, the following entry on Facebook, by Mukhtar Dar, who had brought us together also provides a glimpse into Javed’s life.

1961 – 2018
My dear Comrade & friend

It is with deep sadness that I heard of the passing of my dear friend and comrade Javed Iqbal. Javed had fought cancer over the last year and a half with the same fighting spirit that he had, throughout his life, fought injustice. He was courageous, dignified, compassionate and focused – this is why I will miss him and love him always.

It was in 1981, on a coach, heading towards Leeds to demonstrate in support of the Bradford 12, that I first met Javed. We exchanged views, he was learned, thoughtful and incredibly humble – we had so much in common. We both came to England at the age of 11, with our mothers to join our fathers who worked in the steel smelting foundries of the northern cities – our political awaking in the 80s was forged out of the anti-racist struggles in the belly of the beast and we understood the need to connect and support the struggles of our peoples back home in Pakistan.

Javed was born in Mirpur, Kashmir, he was a member of UK’s Militant Tendency and The Jadojehad group (The Struggle) in Pakistan; he returned to Pakistan in 85 and spent several years helping to build the movement. He was instrumental in forming the Labour Party Pakistan and worked closely with Dr Lal Khan’s Pakistan Trade Union Defence Campaign. As a Marxist socialist he worked tirelessly for the socialist transformation of Pakistan and supported the worldwide struggles of workers, peasants, women and the downtrodden oppressed peoples and minorities.

I was fortunate along with my comrades to have worked with Javed as members of the Birmingham based South Asian Alliance. Javed’s easygoing chilled-out demeanour along with his welcoming smile made him the natural choice for hosting and chairing many of our events. Amongst the many of the events that he helped to organise and chair included the Faiz Ahmed Faiz Centenary symposium in 2011, the international conference on the 150th anniversary of the 1857 uprising, the 70th anniversary of Partition with international speakers, as well as many meetings with invited guest speakers from Pakistan, he was also the longstanding chairperson of the Asian Resource Centre.

Javed engaged and brought together socialists from across the ideological divides, Trotskyites, Marxist Leninists, Maoists, liberals, believers and non believers, he was a humble organiser, a movement builder and not an egotistical limelight seeker, he brought us together when we fell out and knocked our heads together to focus on the bigger picture, he was fondly described by our women comrades as a gentleman and a feminist and to us all he was ‘Yaraan da Yaar’.

Our deepest sympathies go out to Javed’s wife Miriam, his daughter, his family, his comrades and his friends – we salute you with Lal Salaam comrade Javed!

This article by Lal Khan in Asian Marxist Review gives an insight into the political activism of Javed Iqbal.

Here is the above article in Urdu.