Developing an anti-racist curriculum

Reflecting on the concepts of ‘tokenism’, ‘single story’ and ‘the Other’

Louise Holyoak

Head of Geography (Co Leader of Humanities)

At School 21, we are thinking deeply about diversity, equity, and inclusion. This is multi-faceted, complicated, and often difficult and uncomfortable work. We hope to share much of what we are doing over the coming months.

One of the many areas of focus is, of course, our curriculum. On an INSET day in January, we dedicated a whole day to explore diversity in our curriculum. One way to develop an anti-racist curriculum is to consider the concepts of ‘tokenism’, ‘single story’ and ‘the Other’ and reflect on how these may appear.

Here are some ideas, concepts and questions we used to help refine our curriculum offer.


Is the practice of making a superficial effort to include a diverse range of stories or representation within a lesson or scheme of work. The resultant activities are likely to be presented out of context, lacking in significance and at worst, can perpetuate stereotypes about particular groups. 

An example of this in the classroom would be to mention the Ivory Bangle Lady in a lesson about the Romans without any context and failing to explain how she is significant in our understanding of a diverse, globalised Roman Britain.

Avoiding tokenism

  • Are diverse stories woven into your curriculum plans, or are they considered an additional extra?
  • Are diverse stories taught inconsistently across your team e.g. by one member of staff only?
  • Are your current examples of diverse stories in your curriculum a result of requests to ‘do something for Black History Month’?
  • When introducing aspects of other cultures into your curriculum, is this done in a superficial manner or is the historical and cultural context explained to students?

Single story

Is a concept to describe how a complex narrative may be simplified and repeated without nuance, leading to stereotypes being embedded in students’ minds. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains how this happens and outlines the consequences of allowing single stories to go unchecked. An example of this would be to only teach about slums and poverty in India, without considering India’s rapid economic development and subsequent wide range of incomes and lifestyles.

Avoiding the single story

The Other

Is the reductive action of labelling another person or group of people as existing outside social norms or power structures and/or lacking in agency in decisions relating to them. An example of this in the classroom would be to consider the indigenous tribes of the Amazon Rainforest as silent victims of deforestation who are to be pitied, without considering the activist work and campaigns carried out by this group.

Another example is to consider the difference between these two videos and how they represent charitable aid projects. Both are created by Oxfam, however the first represents aid recipients as the Other, as the experience of British charity donors is centred and narrated throughout. By contrast, this video centres local aid distributors and recipients by allowing them to speak throughout.

Avoiding the Other

  • Who is being othered in your schemes of work?
  • Are there elements of your curriculum that may inadvertently other your students?
  • Do you assume a common point of view or cultural reference when teaching?
  • Do the people being studied have a chance to speak for themselves, whether through visits or watching YouTube videos that centre people within the community?

. Case study: Anti-racist curriculum development in Geography

At School 21, we are committed to creating a geography curriculum which ‘supports students and young people to develop the knowledge, critical thinking and imagination to foster anti-racist and environmentally just futures’ (Puttick and Murrey, 2020). Engaging with the concepts detailed above are necessary in order to achieve this aim, and we strive to do this across all of our schemes of work, from KS3 to GCSE and A-Level.

One way I have attempted to avoid tokenism is to build entire schemes of work around fertile questions which allow students to explore complex issues in depth. The first geography topic year 7 students studied this academic year was centred around the question ‘Why is Newham the most diverse borough in London?’ This allowed students to explore changing migration patterns into Newham, and explain how this was driven by structural economic change in the area. I used Terraformed by Joy White as a grounding text, and structured our Scheme of Work around the themes in Chapter 1: Newham Past and Present. Reading Terraformed allowed all teachers in the department to contextualise Newham’s historic migration within its present landscape, and served to ensure they had the subject knowledge necessary to teach this unit.

To avoid reinforcing the single story that  diversity in Britain began with the arrival of the Empire Windrush, I included a task in which students compiled an overview of migration into the area, beginning with the Huguenots in the 17th Century. I planned this using McGlynn’s (2015) summary of demographic changes and historical migration trends. Students were able to examine how the area we now call Newham has a long history as a diverse community and home to people from all over the world. 

Following the broad overview, I then zoomed in to focus on post-war migration to Newham. 

Students learnt about the push and pull factors driving migration from countries including Barbados, Somalia, Bangladesh and Poland. These were chosen to reflect the heritage of many of the students in the year group and was an attempt to avoid Othering any individual communities. Next year, I plan to build in opportunities for the students to explore the migration stories within their own family history.

I have chosen this example to highlight the various steps of designing a scheme of work which addresses tokenism, single stories and the Other. In summary, these were avoided by considering the demographics of the students and using core texts at the point of curriculum design. Furthermore, we ensured consistency of subject knowledge across the department by providing these resources to the class teachers. Feedback from the students was positive, and I look forward to developing this unit for teaching next academic year.

In collaboration with @DiverseEd2020, this blog series, is a way to showcase a range of voices, giving space to share examples of practice, personal reflections, and calls to action #DiverseEd

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