MAUSHAMI CHETTY: Race, the elephant in our classrooms


In 1992 my sister and I were the first children of colour in our newly desegregated primary school. It was traumatic. We were children on the frontline of mammoth changes in South Africa; changes which some people voted “no” to during the referendum.

The experience ranged from ignorance, with children asking when we had arrived from India, to exclusion, blatant racism and bullying. There was intense pressure to conform to standards of whiteness from our accent, mannerisms and even religion. It is heartbreaking reading the manifestos and accounts of racism faced by children today and seeing how little has changed in 28 years.

These experiences, while traumatic, built a resilience and striving for equality that informs the work I do today. That work includes unconscious bias training for teachers and learning how to talk about race in the classroom.

What are tangible ways we can make the classroom a safe space for all?

A useful approach is to set racism aside, for a moment. It’s hard to fight racism at times because the concept suggests that there is a bad guy out there and no one wants to accept that they are the bad guy. People become defensive and fragile when race is brought up. Instead we might start by admitting that we are all biased, whether consciously or unconsciously. This is an ingrained human trait. It is a function of human evolution.


Our brains absorb massive amounts of information each second and form multiple mechanisms to sort that information quickly. Much of this is done below the level of active thinking.

One of these mechanisms involves short cuts to tell you who is safe and who is a threat. As you can imagine, our ancestors learnt quite early on that a springbok was safe whereas a lion was not. The same applied to identifying who was in your tribe (in-group) and who was from a hostile tribe (out-group).

This is a useful trait to have developed thousands of years ago when we lived in small, remote and homogenous groups and rarely bumped into people who looked different to us, but is problematic in today’s cosmopolitan world.

Unconscious bias is defined as learned stereotypes that are automatic, unintentional, deeply ingrained, universal, and able to influence behaviour.

Children as young as three develop unconscious biases. They pick these up from the adults around them by deed and not necessarily word. Children will notice whom you are relaxed around and whom you lock your car door for.

Our biases can also run contrary to our stated beliefs given that they are based on learned behaviour we pick up from society. While it is mostly overlooked or swept under the carpet now, there can be no doubt that a state policy based on racial separation had a profound effect on people’s inherent biases.

One cannot have existed under apartheid and not have absorbed some of the national ethos that black people were lesser or even dangerous. This applies equally to people who actively rejected apartheid and to black people internalising these feelings.

Even though I am committed to anti-racism and consider myself a feminist, I have caught myself in biased thoughts because of societal framing.

I’ll give you an example. Ten years ago, I was doing an inspection at a client regarding their readiness for the 2020 World Cup. The meeting had been running for 10 minutes when a young black woman walked in dressed casually in jeans and a sweater. My immediate thought was that she was here to take our drinks order. When she was introduced as a civil engineer, I internally kicked myself. I share this anecdote to show that it is not scary to own the biases that you have picked up from the world around you as it is the only way you can bring the unconscious to light and ensure you are making more fair and rational decisions.


The impact of unconscious bias and racism in the classroom is particularly problematic as the research shows that teachers’ perception of students’ performance impacts directly on their ability to perform and confidence.

In a US based study in 2004, it was found that ethnic minorities were marked lower and labelled disruptive and problematic more often by teachers in the ethnic majority. While black students are the majority in South Africa, it should be remembered that this is often not the case in elite and former model C schools.

In a study called “Who Believes in Me? The Effect of Student-Teacher Demographic Match on Teacher Expectations”, it was found that non-black teachers of black students have significantly lower expectations of them than do black teachers. These effects are larger for black male students and maths teachers. Fostering diversity in teaching staff should be a goal.

Research also shows that unconscious bias is more likely to affect your decision-making when you are under stress or are tired, both constant factors in pedagogy.

So, what needs to be done?

Teachers are human, a product of their environments and have not had an anti-racist education. They need to be provided with that education in a way that encourages openness and lifelong learning.

This is an essential step in creating a safe and successful learning environment for all.

Maushami Chetty is the CEO of Aarya Legal, a legal, B-B BEE and transformation consultancy.