In this guest seminar for the Centre for Research on Education and Social Justice, Dr Oakley Welply of Durham University presented her recently published analysis of discourses of discrimination towards Muslim children. She drew on case studies with two primary schools (one in France and one in England) which were conducted as part of her doctoral research and consisted of focus groups, individual interviews and some pupil diaries. Setting the scene for the recent use of these case studies, Dr Welply invoked discussion from European heads of state who claimed that “multiculturalism is dead”. She explained that in the wake of terrorist attacks in Western Europe over the last few years a “climate of fear and mistrust” has surrounded discourses of Muslims in education. National media discourses in the UK has presented Islam as a threatening ‘other’ and reported responses have included the securitisation of public spheres and Prevent strategy. Similarly, in France Islam has been central to debates around integration in schools, though these have been related to the concepts of French republicanism and laïcité (secularism).

It is within these national and political contexts that Welply has turned her attention to analysing the case studies. She used a lens of Critical Race Theory, considering Microagressions, and a broader framework of Critical Discourse Analysis. These theories offer a way to conceptualise the pervasive and cumulative nature of discrimination (Atwood and López 2014; Peréz Huber and Solórzano 2015 etc), while also considering the ways in which victims of “subtle forms of racism” may be caught in a double-bind between not reacting but being offended, or being seen as oversensitive (Kholi and Solórzano 2012, p.446).

At the English school, students’ responses reflected 4 main themes of discourse: essentialising segregation, using discursive buffers, intersecting otherness and constructing the threatening ‘other’. Through ‘otherizing’ talk, pupils at the English school suggested that segregation of social groups was natural and displaced blame to the ‘other’. Of particular interest was the use of discursive buffers to frame implicit racism as non-offensive e.g. “I’m not being offensive but…”; “I am not trying to be like mean or anything” and “I’m not being racist or anything”. In these semantic manoeuvres, pupils constructed themselves as different from ‘other’ while simultaneously silencing potential rebuttal.

At the French school the principle of secularism and the universal French republic influenced the discourses found in pupils’ utterances about religion and difference – in which religion was seen as illegitimate in the school forum, and as such, no public space was available for discussion of difference. Welply found that participants in France constructed an undesirable ‘Arab other’ rather than focusing on religion, and normalised the idea of ‘otherness’, thus actually reversing norms.

In her own words, Dr Welply recognised that the findings here “present more questions than answers” but recommended critical literacy and open fora for the discussion of difference in schools. Her seminar gave a comprehensive view of media discourses on the topic, which provided ample rationale for her analysis. Her in depth analysis of the conversations between primary school students provided much insight into the ways in which racism and Islamophobia pervade education.

Dr Oakleigh Welply is a Lecturer in the School of Education at Durham University. More information about her research and for recent publications, look at her staff profile.

Image By Azlan Mohamed from Maebashi, Japan.