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Reflection on Steve McQueen’s ‘Small Axe: Education’ Film


ALLFIE’s Disabled Black Lives Matter pressure group reviews Steve McQueen’s new BBC film, highlighting the deep impact of systemic racism, disablism, intersectional and interlocking oppression in education.

“‘Small Axe: Education’ reveals the way the education system intentionally wanted Black and Disabled children to fail. The film has contemporary relevance today. It shows us how structural racism and disablism happened and still happens. It points to unfulfilled lives, lost talent and ignored potential. Young people are segregated into a system which leads to further segregation and exploitation in adult life.”

During our recent ALLFIE Disabled Black Lives Matter meeting we discussed Steve McQueen‘s ‘Small Axe’ film entitled ‘Education’. We also used the opportunity to apply the learning from the training sessions ALLFIE received on ‘race’, disability and intersectionality. This led to the writing of this reflective piece as a way of highlighting the impact of disablism, intersectional and interlocking oppression. It also led to discussing how these issues are experienced by Black Disabled people in the UK.

Shown on BBC 1, in a primetime slot, Steve McQueen’s ‘Small Axe’ film anthology series is set between the late 1960s to the mid-1980s. Small Axe tells stories of where we were, where we are and where we want to go, with regards to the lives of London’s Caribbean community. The film is based on real life events; showing how individuals’ lives were shaped by their own determination to succeed. It also highlights Black oppression and the cruel racial and disability discrimination.

The film takes a reflective look at the systemic racism prevailing in schools in the 1970s. Whilst disability discrimination was not the focal point of the film it did reveal, not only the deep impact of segregated education of disabled children and children labelled with ‘Special Educational Needs’, but also the link with segregated education today.

Twelve-year-old Kenyah Sandy portrays Kingsley Smith – a Black young boy with a fascination for astronauts and rockets who also struggles with reading. Kingsley was very conscious about the difficulties he had with reading and this was made worse particularly when he was asked to read aloud in front of the other students.  The teachers did not help the situation because they called him ‘blockhead’. This public humiliation and insult amplified Kingsley’s fears of reading which resulted in him being targeted and labelled as having ‘disruptive behaviour’. The film showed how such behaviour, often assumed to be innately belonging to Kingsley, was compounded by institutional racism which was further upheld and masked through using disability as the reason for Kingsley’s negative schooling experience.

Kingsley’s school was not representative of people from different backgrounds and difference was considered as problematic at the school. Kingsley, described as a Black boy with dyslexia from a Caribbean, working class background, had characteristics which were at odds with the school profile and society at large.

The film shone a light on the lived experiences of intersectional and interlocking oppression of ‘race’, disability, gender and social-class bias. Experiences of powerlessness, segregation, humiliation, deprivation, cultural prejudice and violence were, and are, common.  ‘Special schooling’ pollutes society and is used to support and mask ideologies to justify the division of groups of people and communities to uphold segregation.

Kingsley was labelled as ‘educationally subnormal’ because he has dyslexia. Both Kingsley and his family rejected the label of ‘educationally subnormal’ due to ramifications on education and learning.  Kingsley’s mother did not deny that her son required support but recognised that disability was used to mask racist practices and was used to justify removal from mainstream school. When Kingsley’s mother attempted to challenge her son’s exclusion with the headteacher she was treated as someone with no influence, importance and sent away.

Kingsley is moved to a school for students with ‘Special Educational Needs’, where the children were not valued and therefore were not being prepared to be contributors to society. Here the children are treated with the lowest of expectations and effectively taught they will never achieve anything in life. We further saw this institutional practice being repeated with a young Asian boy named Sajid played by Jairaj Varsani. Sajid shared his serious concerns about the long-term impact of Kingsley’s attendance at the segregated school and how it would have an impact on his future. Kingsley’s experience highlighted the lasting impact of segregated education on other areas of our lives; as pointed out by a Disabled Black scholars and activists, such as Millie Hill, Nasa Begum, and Ossie Stuart.

‘Small Axe: Education’ reveals the way the education system intentionally wanted Black and Disabled children to fail. The film has contemporary relevance today. It shows us how structural racism and disablism happened and still happens (refer to ‘Timpson review on School Exclusion’). It points to unfulfilled lives, lost talent and ignored potential. Young people are segregated into a system which leads to further segregation and exploitation in adult life.

The key message of the film is ‘If we do nothing, nothing will change’. It is important that we not only challenge the systematic exclusions of Black children but that we challenge the discrimination experienced by Disabled Black children.  This programme highlights the problems and weaknesses of policies and laws when they are used to support segregation.

This is why we must have solidarity for the progression of any human rights development.

ALLFIE’s DBLM group’s hope is that this programme will kickstart a conversation to:

  • Further highlight the serious issues of intersectional and interlocking oppression experienced by Disabled Black people.
  • Address intersectionality within mutually exclusive movements / groups.
  • Recognise and understand the damage of segregation and its lasting impact on wider society.
  • Express the need for solidarity between the both the Black and Disabled People’s Movements, so they can come together and see that modern day segregated schooling is damaging to both groups. With mutual recognition both groups could bring a speedier end to segregated education in the UK.

We must educate not segregate

In power, unity and solidarity

ALLFIE DBLM

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