Skip to content

Blog post Part of series: BERA Conference 2023

Jumping and pushing through the cruel optimism of racial justice work

Penny Rabiger, PhD Student at Leeds Beckett University

Asking research participants ‘How did you come to be leading antiracism work across your school – were you pushed or did you jump?’ elicited varied responses, with most citing one event as a motivator. In America in spring 2020, the brutal public execution by a White police officer of a Black citizen, George Floyd, brought the concept of structural racism into sharp focus for some school communities in the UK, pushing them to want to do something about racism. Among the many responses to the seemingly suddenly revealed realities of structural racism in our public institutions, schools sought out structured programmes, awards, courses and kitemarks that could support them on their journey to learn about racism, ‘tackle’ race inequality (Miller, 2019), and distance themselves from being complicit as racists.

Over the course of three years, I worked with a group of around 100 teachers and school leaders whose schools chose to embark on the two-year Anti-Racist School Award programme designed and delivered by the Centre for Race Education and Decoloniality. Through in-depth interviews with 10 Award leaders, I explore three key research questions: what are the motivations for embarking on and persevering with the Award across two years; how do leaders stay motivated; what transformations happen during the Award process?

Two linked theoretical and evolving disciplines of Critical Race Theory (CRT) and Critical Whiteness Studies (CWS) underpin analysis of my findings. Despite many pushing for the chance to lead on antiracism in their school, ‘the complete racialisation of daily life’ (Leonardo, 2009) that is reproduced within institutions such as schools ‘jumps’ participants as they comprehend how embedded and usualised racism is. Some Award leads were occupied with unravelling where the social construct of ‘race’ (Delgado, 1995) comes from, and how notions that they previously held about staffing, curriculum, pedagogy and educational outcomes are a direct result of constructions of race that correlate with deficit narratives around the potential and capabilities of Black and Global Majority people.

In some ways, the cruel optimism of racial justice work (Meer, 2022) may mean accepting the unattainable goal of a post-racial society and the permanence of racism, while trying to improve conditions where gains can be made – although it is clear that powerful elites in structurally racist societies do not reform willingly (Bell, 1992). An understanding of racism in this way brings some Award leaders to acknowledge that racism is not a coincidental and unfortunate output of human social life, but rather that it is embedded in ‘everything, everywhere, all the time’ (IMDb, 2023). It is so ingrained that it looks ordinary and natural; as a consequence, the strategy for Award leads often becomes ‘one of unmasking and exposing racism in its various permutations’ (Ladson-Billings, 1998) for others to see and comprehend. The Award process provides tools to ‘see’ racism in situ and develop racial justice strategies for potential strategic protection against it.

‘In some ways, the cruel optimism of racial justice work may mean accepting the unattainable goal of a post-racial society and the permanence of racism, while trying to improve conditions where gains can be made.’

CRT and CWS are powerful ways to see clearly how White identities are created, co-opted and mobilised through systemic power structures which uphold and maintain White supremacy within their infrastructure (Picower & Kohli, 2017). For some participants, antiracism work in their schools became clearly about life and death, pushing them to an understanding that this is going to be ‘forever work’ requiring ‘deep understanding’ (Walker et al., 2022) beyond jumping through the hoops of a programme or an award.


Bell, D. (1992). Faces at the bottom of the well: The permanence of racism. Basic Books.

Delgado, R. (1995). Critical race theory: The cutting edge. Temple University Press.

IMDb. (2023). Everything, everywhere, all at once

Ladson-Billings, G (1998). Just what is critical race theory and what’s it doing in a nice field like education? Qualitative Studies in Education, 11(1), 7–24.

Leonardo, Z. (2009). Race, whiteness, and education. Routledge.

Meer, N. (2022). The cruel optimism of racial justice. Policy Press.

Miller, P. (2019). ‘Tackling’ race inequality in school leadership: Positive actions in BAME teacher progression – evidence from three English schools. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 48(6), 986–1006.

Picower, B. & Kohli, R. (Eds.) (2017). Confronting racism in teacher education: Counternarratives of critical practice. Routledge.

Walker, S., Bennett, I., Kettory, P., Pike, C., & Walker, L. (2022). ‘Deep understanding’ for anti-racist school transformation: School leaders’ professional development in the context of Black Lives Matter. Curriculum Journal, 34(1), 156–172.