Equality, Diversity and Awkward Moments

I was talking with a colleague on the train home last night about religion and the uncomfortable moments which can derive from it in the ESOL classroom. It’s one of the PARSNIPs, and often avoided in class, but given that on Monday we were talking about the 9 protected characteristics of the Equality Act 2010 in my Level 1class, the issue was pretty much unavoidable.

In case you had forgotten, or live outside the UK, the 9 Protected Characteristics, that is, characteristics against which it is illegal to discriminate under British law, are as follows:

Sex
Religion
Race
Gender reassignment
Marriage and civil partnership
Pregnancy and maternity
Disability
Sexual Orientation
Age

(Definitions here: http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/advice-and-guidance/new-equality-act-guidance/protected-characteristics-definitions/ as well as some excellent resources and general information.)

We had some interesting group discussions and a short role play discussion based around sets of scenarios where discrimination was taking place, identifying what was being discriminated against and what the individuals could do about it (lawsuits seemed a popular option), and it was quite an interesting experience to note what some learners viewed as acceptable discrimination and what wasn’t. Things like “not getting a job because…” were easily and quickly identified as discrimination, although some subtleties were missed. In a scenario where a black woman was not just discriminated against (not given a job) but also quite openly insulted (“because the employer has said he thinks that black people are less able to do a job” was the phrase used in the scenario), the learners picked up the former but missed the naked insult.

Some of the quieter, more thoughtful, moments came about when there were clear divides between learners’ moral and religious attitudes and the freedoms the equality act emphasises. And this is where it got awkward. As a teacher it’s not my place to force my own religious and moral viewpoints on my learners, and most certainly not to deride the views of my learners, however different or even repellent they may sometimes be.

However, there are issues around the role of ESOL in the UK as a tool for cultural as well as linguistic education. Culture and language are bound up together: musicians and artists may disagree here, but language is the primary tool for cultural communication. We use language to enforce and to develop our own cultures, and for learners, becoming accustomed to the culture of the language is as necessary as understanding grammar and vocabulary. Simple things like the correct form of address, or taboo words and concepts, what to say in small talk, how and when to interrupt, as well as more complex social issues such as attitudes to homosexuality and religious belief.

So the stance I try to take is to open learners’ minds, and make it clear that they are entitled to their belief, but by the same measure, that belief is not allowed to be used as a tool to discriminate against others. A religion may proscribe homosexuality as sin, but the secular law of the country, and the majority (I hope) belief that there is nothing wrong with it means that those religious morals take second standing. I have my own little surprises for learners: I will correct them if they assume I am a Christian, for example: an attitude as wrong as claiming that anyone from southern Asia is Muslim. And in a discussion over why I had a civil wedding rather than a church wedding, my own religious stance was clear. But my argument is simple: we are free to think and believe what we want to believe and that we respect the rights of others to believe and do as they want, as long as it does no harm to others.

That is simplistic, as I said, but as moral viewpoints go, it has some mileage. I’m not a moral philosopher (although that is very interesting, and I can appreciate some of the gaps in my argument), but I am a language teacher, and I need to think in terms which work as a means to explain things in straightforward terms at low levels of English.

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