Qualitative Inquiry 2015, Vol. 21(3) 277–287

Qualitative Inquiry
2015, Vol. 21(3) 277–287
© The Author(s) 2015
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1077800414557827
My title today will displease many people. For some, it will
be too provocative; any attempt to place race and racism on
the agenda, let alone at the center of debate, is deeply
unpopular. In the academy we are often told that we are
being too crude and simplistic, that things are more complicated than that, that we’re being essentialist and missing the
real problem—of social class (cf. Maisuria, 2012). In politics and the media, race-conscious scholarship is frequently
twisted 180 degrees and represented as racist in its own
right. By focusing on racist inequity, and challenging a colorblind narrative that sees only millions of individuals
engaged in meritocratic competition, critical race theory
(CRT) is itself accused of racism. This argument was most
dramatically played out in the disgusting posthumous
attacks on Professor Derrick Bell, in March 2012, when
recordings of him and (the then student) Barak Obama were
paraded in the U.S. media in a shallow attempt to smear the
President. Initially broadcast by the right-wing web-based
“news” site Breitbart.com (Adams, 2012), the story was
rapidly relayed by Fox News (Martel, 2012) and picked up
internationally, for example, by Britain’s most influential
national newspaper, The Daily Mail (Keneally & Gye,
2012). The blogosphere echoed to entries such as
TWICE VISITED WHITE HOUSE IN 2010” (http://tundratabloids.com/2012/03/records-show-racist-bigot-derrick-bell-twice-visited-white-house-in-2010.html), while
Fox News featured Bill O’Reilly describing Bell as “antiWhite” and Sarah Palin calling him a “radical college racist
Similar attacks have been rehearsed by academic detractors keen to portray CRT as peddling a view of
White people—all White people—as universally and irredeemably racist. The following is from a university professor and prominent educational commentator in the United
For all its supposed academic credentials, critical race theory
boils down to one simple claim: “If you are white you are
racist!” . . . Critical race theorists will dismiss my claim as
absurd, but that is because they avoid saying what they really
think. The fact that their basic, shared assumption is never
stated—that is, if you are white you are racist—allows their
views to be promoted . . . (Hayes, 2013)
For scholars capable of more nuanced understanding,
this article’s title may still cause unease; isn’t it contradictory to link the idea of “intersectionality” and the “primacy”
of racism in the same sentence? In the first part of this article, therefore, I address the notion of intersectionality and
its relationship to CRT. I then use qualitative research with
Black middle-class parents in England as the empirical site
to explore the intersection of numerous bases of inequity
557827 QIXXXX10.1177/1077800414557827Qualitative InquiryGillborn
University of Birmingham, UK
Corresponding Author:
David Gillborn, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15
2TT, UK.
Email: [email protected]
Intersectionality, Critical Race Theory,
and the Primacy of Racism: Race, Class,
Gender, and Disability in Education
David Gillborn1
The article explores the utility of intersectionality as an aspect of critical race theory (CRT) in education. Drawing on
research with Black middle-class parents in England, the article explores the intersecting roles of race, class, and gender in
the construction and deployment of dis/ability in education. The author concludes that intersectionality is a vital aspect of
understanding race inequity but that racism retains a primacy for critical race scholars in three key ways: namely, empirical
primacy (as a central axis of oppression in the everyday reality of schools), personal/autobiographical primacy (as a vital
component in how critical race scholars view themselves and their experience of the world), and political primacy (as a
point of group coherence and activism).
race inequality in education, disability studies, ethnicity and race, critical race theory, Whiteness studies
278 Qualitative Inquiry 21(3)
(including race, class, gender, and dis/ability).2
Finally, I set
out the arguments for understanding the primacy of racism,
not as a factor that is the only or inevitably the most important aspect of every inequity in education, but in terms of
racism’s primacy as an empirical, personal, and political
aspect of critical race scholarship.
CRT and Intersectionality
There is no single unchanging statement of the core tenets
and perspectives that make up CRT but most authoritative
commentaries identify a similar set of characteristic
assumptions and approaches (cf. Crenshaw, Gotanda,
Peller, & Thomas, 1995; Delgado & Stefancic, 2001;
Gillborn & Ladson-Billings, 2010; Tate, 1997; Taylor,
2009); key among these perspectives is an understanding
that “race” is socially constructed and that “racial difference” is invented, perpetuated, and reinforced by society. In
this approach, racism is understood to be complex, subtle,
and flexible; it manifests differently in different contexts,
and minoritized groups are subject to a range of different
(and changing) stereotypes. Critical race theorists argue that
the majority of racism remains hidden beneath a veneer of
normality and it is only the more crude and obvious forms
of racism that are seen as problematic by most people:
Because racism is an ingrained feature of our landscape, it
looks ordinary and natural to persons in the culture. Formal
equal opportunity—rules and laws that insist on treating blacks
and Whites (for example) alike—can thus remedy only the
more extreme and shocking forms of injustice, the ones that do
stand out. It can do little about the business-as-usual forms of
racism that people of color confront every day. (Delgado &
Stefancic, 2000, p. xvi)
CRT challenges ahistoricism by stressing the need to
understand racism within its social, economic, and historical context (Matsuda, Lawrence, Delgado, & Crenshaw,
1993). Scholars working within CRT place particular
emphasis on the experiential knowledge of people of color
and challenge common assumptions about “meritocracy”
and “neutrality” as camouflage for the interests of dominant
groups (Tate, 1997, p. 235). Similarly, CRT adopts a view
of “Whiteness” as a socially constructed and malleable
“Whiteness” is a racial discourse, whereas the category “white
people” represents a socially constructed identity, usually
based on skin colour. (Leonardo, 2009, p. 169)
White-ness, in this sense, refers to a set of assumptions,
beliefs, and practices that place the interests and perspectives of White people at the center of what is considered
normal and everyday. Critical scholarship on Whiteness is
not an assault on White people themselves; it is an assault
on the socially constructed and constantly reinforced power
of White identifications, norms, and interests (LadsonBillings & Tate, 1995). It is possible for White people to
take a genuine, active role in deconstructing Whiteness but
such “race traitors” (Ignatiev, 1997) are relatively uncommon. A particularly striking element of CRT (and one seized
upon by conservative critics during the Breitbart attacks in
2012) is its understanding of White supremacy. In contrast
to commonsense understandings of the term (which denote
the most extreme and obvious kinds of fascistic race hatred)
in CRT White supremacy refers to the operation of much
more subtle and extensive forces that saturate the everyday
mundane actions and policies that shape the world in the
interests of White people (see Ansley, 1997).
For all of its emphasis on the central role of racism in
shaping contemporary society, many CRT scholars are keen
to explore how raced inequities are shaped by processes that
also reflect, and are influenced by, other dimensions of
identity and social structure: This is where the notion of
intersectionality is crucial.
“Intersectionality” is a widely used (and sometimes misused) concept in contemporary social science. The term
addresses the question of how multiple forms of inequality
and identity inter-relate in different contexts and over time,
for example, the inter-connectedness of race, class, gender,
disability, and so on. The term originated in the work of
U.S. critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw (1995) but
has been deployed widely across the social sciences to the
point where it is sometimes viewed as a “buzzword,” whose
frequent iteration often belies an absence of clarity and
specificity (Davis, 2008). In an attempt to bring some clarity back to the discussion of intersectionality, it is instructive to look at how Crenshaw has applied it to real-world
problems. In addition to being a professor of law at
University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Crenshaw
is co-founder and executive director of the African American
Policy Forum (AAPF; http://aapf.org/) and the AAPF’s
(n.d.) approach to intersectionality is especially useful:
Intersectionality is a concept that enables us to recognize the
fact that perceived group membership can make people
vulnerable to various forms of bias, yet because we are
simultaneously members of many groups, our complex
identities can shape the specific way we each experience that
For example, men and women can often experience racism
differently, just as women of different races can experience
sexism differently, and so on.
As a result, an intersectional approach goes beyond
conventional analysis in order to focus our attention on injuries
that we otherwise might not recognize . . . to 1) analyze social
problems more fully; 2) shape more effective interventions;
and 3) promote more inclusive coalitional advocacy. (p. 3)
Gillborn 279
So, intersectionality—as envisaged by Crenshaw and
other critical race activists—has two key elements: first, an
empirical basis; an intersectional approach is needed to better understand the nature of social inequities and the processes that create and sustain them (i.e., to “analyze social
problems more fully”). Second, and this connects to CRT’s
earliest roots as a movement of engaged legal scholars,
intersectionality has a core activist component, in that an
intersectional approach aims to generate coalitions between
different groups with the aim of resisting and changing the
status quo.
The AAPF’s concise and direct statement on intersectionality is valuable in cutting through the layers of debate
and obfuscation that often surround the concept. In particular, the AAPF highlight the importance of intersectionality
as a tool (of analysis and resistance) rather than as an academic tactic or fashion. Similarly, Richard Delgado (like
Crenshaw, one of the founder’s of CRT) has highlighted the
need to remain clear sighted about our goals rather than
become engaged in never-ending academic games of claim
and counter-claim. As Delgado (2011) notes, intersectionality can be taken to such extreme positions that the constant
sub-division of experience (into more and more identity
categories) can eventually shatter any sense of coherence:
. . . intersectionality can easily paralyze progressive work and
thought because of the realization that whatever unit you
choose to work with, someone may come along and point out
that you forgot something. (p. 1264)
As Delgado points out, identity categories are infinitely
divisible, and so the uncritical use of intersectionality could
lead to the paralysis of critical work amid a mosaic of neverending difference. In contrast, I want to return to a more
critical understanding of intersectionality—as a tool of critical race analysis and intervention. To understand how racism works, we need to appreciate how race intersects with
other axes of oppression at different times and in different
contexts, but we must try to find a balance between remaining sensitive to intersectional issues without being overwhelmed by them. In an attempt to explore this further, in
the following section I draw upon empirical data gathered
as part of a 2-year qualitative investigation into the educational strategies of the Black middle classes.3
The analysis
explores the day-to-day life of Black parents and children as
they negotiate the social construction of dis/ability within
education and, in particular, the processes of labeling in
relation to so-called “special educational needs” (SEN).
Researching Education and Black
Middle Classes
The empirical data in this chapter are drawn from a 2-year
project funded by the Economic and Social Research
Council (ESRC) and conducted with my colleagues Stephen
J. Ball, Nicola Rollock and Carol Vincent.4
The project
began with an explicit focus on how race and class intersect
in the lives of Black middle-class parents. This focus arose
from a desire to speak to the silences and assumptions that
have frequently shaped education research, policy, and
practice in the United Kingdom where middle-class families are generally assumed to be White, and minoritized
families—especially those who identify their family heritage in Black Africa and/or the Caribbean—are assumed to
be uniformly working class (see Rollock, Gillborn, Vincent,
& Ball, 2015). By interviewing Black parents employed in
higher professional and managerial roles, we hoped to gain
a more nuanced and critical understanding of race–class
The project sample was limited to parents who identify
as being of Black Caribbean ethnic heritage. This group was
chosen because the Black Caribbean community is one of
the longest established racially minoritized groups in the
United Kingdom, with a prominent history of campaigning
for social justice, and yet they continue to face marked educational inequalities in terms of achievement and expulsion
from school (Gillborn, 2008; John, 2006; Sivanandan,
1990; Warmington, 2014). At the time of the interviews
(2009-2010), all the parents had children between the ages
of 8 and 18; a range that spans key decision-making points
in the English education system. As is common in research
with parents, most interviewees were mothers but the project team also wanted to redress common deficit assumptions about Black men (McKenley, 2005; Reynolds, 2010)
and so we ensured that a fifth of the sample were fathers.
All the parents are in professional/managerial jobs within
the top two categories of the National Statistics SocioEconomic Classification (NS-SEC) and most live in Greater
London (although we also included parents from elsewhere
across England). Parents volunteered to take part, responding to adverts that we placed in professional publications
and on the web. Once our initial round of 62 interviews had
been completed, utilizing a technique that has proven successful in the past, we then re-interviewed 15 parents chosen to facilitate greater exploration of the key emerging
themes and questions. In total, therefore, 77 interviews provide the original data for the project.
Our interviews explored parents’ experiences of the education system (including their memories of their own childhood and their current encounters as parents), their
aspirations for their children and how their experiences are
shaped by race/racism and social class. The project team
comprised three White researchers and one Black researcher;
respondents were asked to indicate in advance whether they
preferred a Black interviewer, a White interviewer, or had
no preference, and those preferences were met accordingly.
Following the interviews, around half (55%) felt that interviewer ethnicity had made a difference and almost all of
280 Qualitative Inquiry 21(3)
these felt that rapport with a Black researcher had been an
advantage. The team is split evenly between men and
women, and two of us have a declared dis/ability.
“Special Education” and the
Intersection of Race, Class, Gender,
and Disability
The terms “race” and “disability” have a lot in common:
Both are usually assumed to be relatively obvious and fixed,
but are actually socially constructed categories that are constantly contested and redefined. Historically both have
operated to define, segregate, and oppress. Received wisdom views both “race” and “disability” as individual matters, relating to identity and a person’s sense of self, but a
critical perspective views them as socially constructed categories that actively re/make oppression and inequality
(Annamma, Connor, & Ferri, 2013; Beratan, 2008;
Leonardo & Broderick, 2011). In the United States, for
example, Christine Sleeter (1987) has argued that the category “learning disabilities” emerged as a strategic move to
protect the children of White middle-class families from
possible downward mobility through low school achievement. Whereas some labels might be advantageous, for
example by securing additional dedicated resources, it is
clear that certain other dis/ability labels are far from positive. In both the United States and the United Kingdom,
there is a long history of Black youth being over-represented
in segregated low-status educational provision, usually disguised beneath blanket terms like “special” or “assisted”
education (Tomlinson, 2014). Some of the earliest critical
research on race inequities in the English educational system focused on the intersection of race and dis/ability
(Coard, 1971; Tomlinson, 1981) and, despite the decades
that have passed since those pioneering studies, the issue
emerged as a key element in the interviews with contemporary Black middle-class parents: 15 of our interviewees
(around a quarter) mentioned dis/ability or related issues
during their interviews and some important and disturbing
patterns became clear. In the following sections, I review
our key findings in relation to three simple questions: First,
what processes lead to a “special needs” assessment being
made? Second, what happens after the assessment? Finally,
whose interests are being served by the schools’ reactions
to, and treatment of, Black middle-class parents and children in relation to the question of dis/ability? My concern,
therefore, is to understand the experiences of Black middleclass parents and their children as they encounter labels
being used against them or alternatively how they attempt
to use labels to access additional resources; I am interested
in how racism intersects with other aspects of oppression
(especially class and gender) in the processes that make,
assert, and contest the meaning of dis/ability in schools.6
Assessing “Special” Needs
The British government’s advice for parents of children
with disabilities (Department for Children, Schools and
Families [DCSF], 2009) describes a series of stages that
should lead to a child’s needs being assessed and met:
• The parents and/or school identify that the child is
having problems.
• An assessment is arranged through the school or the
local authority.
• The nature of the child’s needs is identified and
adjustments are recommended.
• The school then acts on these recommendations and
the student is better able to fulfill their potential.
In our data, there is only a single case that comes close to
this model, where the school expressed concern to the parent, and they worked together harmoniously throughout the
process. In every other case, it was the parent—not the
school—who identified a problem and sought an assessment. This involves parents drawing on both their economic
capital (to finance expensive specialist assessments) and
their cultural and social capital (often using friendship and
professional networks to help negotiate the system). In each
of these cases, the school seemed content to assume that the
students’ poor performance was all that could be expected:
Here, Rachel7
describes how her son was criticized for not
paying attention:
I took [my son] to get him educationally assessed and they
said that he had dyslexia . . . I took him up to Great Ormond
Street [Hospital] to get his hearing tested and they said he
can’t hear half of what’s going on. So when the teachers are
always saying “he’s distracted and not paying attention,” he
can’t hear . . . they were just very happily saying [he] doesn’t
pay attention, [he] doesn’t do this, [he] doesn’t do that, but,
you know, he can’t hear . . . (Rachel, Senior Solicitor, Private
According to official guidance where there is a sharp discrepancy between a student’s performance on different
sorts of task, this can be seen as indicating a possible learning difficulty (Developmental Adult Neuro-Diversity
Association [DANDA], 2011). In our research, where Black
children’s performance was at stake, schools seemed happy
to assume that the lowest level of performance was the
“true” indicator of their potential.
A discrepancy was emerging, in that she would get a B for a
piece of work that she had spent time doing [at home] and then
she would get a D or an E even [for timed work in class]. So I
then contacted the school and said, “look there’s a problem
here.” And they just said “well, she needs to work harder.” So
they were actually not at all helpful and I ended up having a
Gillborn 281
row with the Head of Sixth Form because she accused me of
being “a fussy parent.” And what she said was that my daughter
was working to her level, which was the timed essay level, she
was working to a D. (Paulette, Psychologist)
Following an independent assessment (that revealed
dyslexia) and a move to a private institution (that made the
recommended adjustments) Paulette saw a dramatic
improvement in her daughter’s attainment. In her A
(Advanced) level examinations at age 18, Paulette’s daughter went from gaining two passes at Grade E and one
ungraded (fail) result, to three passes, all at Grade B.
In our interviews, there were two cases where the school
made the first move to initiate a formal assessment for special educational needs in a way that shocked and angered
the students’ parents. In both cases, the school’s action
served to divert attention from racism in the school and
refocus attention on a supposed individual deficit in the
Black child. For example, when Felicia told her son’s school
about him being racially bullied the reaction was initially
the Head of Year was quite shocked and quite encouraging in
terms of our conversation; calling and saying, you know,
“Really sorry. We’ve let you down; we’ve let [your son] down;
we didn’t know this was happening” . . . But nothing happened
. . . My son’s class teacher had said to my son that I’m asking
too much but not to tell me . . . I got this telephone call out of the
blue one Sunday afternoon, from his class teacher, suggesting
that he have some test—I can’t remember exactly how this
conversation went because it was such a shock; it was five
o’clock on Sunday afternoon—that there might be some reason
for his under-performing: not the racism at the school that I told
them about, but there might be some reason, that he might have
some learning difficulties. (Felicia, Senior Solicitor)
Similarly, Simon described how his son was expelled for
reacting violently to racist harassment. In a situation that
directly echoes previous research on the over-representation
of Black students in expulsions (Blair, 2001; Communities
Empowerment Network, 2005; Wright, Weekes, &
McGlaughlin, 2000), the school refused to take account of
the provocation and violence that the young man had experienced at the hands of racist peers and, instead, chose to
view his actions in isolation and Simon’s son was labeled as
having “behavior and anger management” problems:
. . . someone called him a “black monkey” and he responded by
beating him up . . . I just don’t think the school really understood
the impact, or how isolated pupils can feel when they stand out
physically, and that’s just something that I don’t think they get.
(Simon, Teacher)
On two occasions in our data, therefore, Black middleclass parents complained that schools had wrongly taken
the initiative in seeking a SEN assessment as a means of
shifting the focus away from racism in their institution and
onto a supposed individual deficit within the Black child. In
both instances, the child was male. In contrast, schools
proved reluctant to support an assessment in every case
where Black middle-class parents themselves felt that their
child might have an unrecognized learning difficulty.
Schools’ Reactions to SEN Assessments
Having used their class capitals to access formal SEN
assessments, despite the inaction of their children’s schools,
Black middle-class parents in our research then faced the
task of making the schools aware of the assessments and
seeking their cooperation in making any reasonable adjustments that had been suggested. In a minority of cases the
school simply refused to act on the assessment but in most
cases the school made encouraging noises but their actions
were at best patchy, at worst non-existent. For example,
when Nigel’s son was diagnosed with autism, the recommended adjustments included the use of a laptop in class.
Nigel was prepared to buy the machine himself but the
school refused to allow its use: “We had a long conversation
with the head [principal], who we were very friendly with,
and they said that it would set a precedent” (Nigel, Human
Resources Manager). Although disappointing the school’s
reaction to Nigel’s request was at least clear; Linda’s experiences were more typical. She found that, although adjustments were agreed with a senior teacher (the “Year Head”
in charge of the relevant age cohort) and the specialist SEN
coordinator, not all teachers knew about them or accepted
them. In several cases, the school’s lack of action started to
look like deliberate obstruction (despite their kind words).
Similarly, Lorraine feels that she lost 2 years of education
struggling to get her daughter’s school to deliver on their
I have a daughter who now has been diagnosed with autism, I
actually do want to get much more involved in the school and
how they deal with her. But I think for the school it’s easier if
they don’t get involved with me. So, for instance, going in and
having meetings; her Head of Year says “oh, you know, I
understand now, we’ll do this, we’ll do that” and then that just
doesn’t happen . . . there were constant visits to try to get them
to take some kind of action to help . . . You know, at first I
thought it was me not being forceful enough, but as I said, I
was accompanied by a clinical psychologist who tried to get
them to help as well and they failed. (Lorraine, Researcher,
Voluntary Sector)
Our data suggest, therefore, that Black parents—even
middle-class ones who are able to mobilize considerable
class capitals (both social and economic)—have an incredibly difficult time getting their children’s needs recognized
and acted upon. In contrast, schools appear much more
ready to act on more negative dis/ability labels. As Beth
282 Qualitative Inquiry 21(3)
Harry and Janette Klingner (2006) note, in relation to the
United States, Black (African American) students face
much higher levels of labeling (what they term “risk rates”)
in SEN categories “that depend on clinical judgment rather
than on verifiable biological data” (p. 2). These patterns
have a long history and they continue today: The most
recent comprehensive study of SEN demographics in the
United Kingdom (Lindsay, Pather, & Strand, 2006) revealed
that rates of Black over-representation are especially pronounced in the category defined as “Behavioral, Emotional,
& Social Difficulties”; where Black students are more than
twice as likely to be labeled as their White peers.8
This category of student are often removed from mainstream provision and placed in segregated units. One of our interviewee
parents visits such units as part of her work. She reported
her distress at witnessing what she described as the “brutalization” of Black boys in segregated provision within a
state-funded secondary (high school): Here, we can see the
intersection of gender (the all-male grouping) alongside
race, class, and dis/ability:
I don’t know for what reason [but] they were in a kind of
different [part of the school] . . . they weren’t in the main school
building . . . The class was predominantly Black, not many
students but they were really unruly, and I was really shocked
at how unruly they were . . . the SenCo [special needs
coordinator] said to me, she said, “well, that’s what you get.”
(Paulette, Psychologist)
In a direct parallel to the racialized impact of tracking
in the United States (Oakes, 1990; Oakes, Joseph, & Muir,
2004; Watamabe, 2012), in the United Kingdom as students move through high school, they are increasingly
likely to be taught in hierarchically grouped classes
(known as “sets”) which are known to place disproportionate numbers of Black students in the lowest ranked
groups (Araujo, 2007; Ball, 1981; Commission for Racial
Equality [CRE], 1992; Gillborn, 2008; Gillies & Robinson,
2012; Hallam, 2002; Hallam & Toutounji, 1996; Tikly,
Haynes, Caballero, Hill, & Gillborn, 2006). Paulette was
in no doubt that the cumulative impact of these processes
had a dramatically negative impact on the Black boys she
. . . the boys are in sets from the time they come in and those
boys are in the bottom sets. And the bottom set has been written
off as boys who are just not going to get anywhere. And literally
they kind of turn into animals, they really had, because of the
way that they had been treated and because of the expectations
. . . And I just felt that there was something that that school—
you know it sounds crazy—but something that that school did,
actually did, to particular Black boys . . . And I just think, I just
thought that what it is, is that maybe the school just brutalizes
those children, unintentionally. Am I making sense? (Paulette,
Paulette went on to describe the fate of a Black student
whom she had known for some time. Despite prior attainment in primary school that was “good” to “average,” the
high school interpreted the SEN label as automatically signaling a generic and untreatable deficit:
because he had dyslexia they had put him in bottom sets for
everything, even though he was an able student. So from year
seven [aged 11], what do you do? He just became completely
de-motivated, completely disaffected. He had completely
given up. And that was such a shock to me, it was such a shock.
(Paulette, Psychologist)
This boy’s fate is particularly significant. Many young
people achieve highly despite dyslexia; indeed, it is exactly
the kind of learning disability that—as I noted earlier—
Sleeter (1987) views as an explicit part of attempts to protect the educational privilege of White middle-class
America. Under the right circumstances (with sensible
adjustments to pedagogy and through the use of simple
assistive technologies), the student might have had a very
different experience. But in this school, the combination of
SEN and race seemed to automatically condemn the student
to the very lowest teaching groups where his confidence
and performance collapsed.
The Intersections of Race, Class, Gender, and
Dis/ability: Whose Interests Are Being Met?
All children with special educational needs should have their
needs met. (DCSF, 2009, p. 5)
The British Education Department’s official guide for
parents is unequivocal about whose interests should be at
the heart of the system but this is not happening and racism is deeply implicated. Drawing on data gathered as part
of the largest-ever qualitative study of the experiences and
perspectives of Black middle-class parents in England
(Rollock et al., 2015), I have shown that when it comes to
understanding when and how certain dis/ability categories
are mobilized, in the case of Black British students from
middle-class homes, it is not the needs of the Black child
that are being served but the interests of an institutionally
racist education system. Let me recap on the evidence to
this point. On the matter of assessment, Black middleclass parents generally had to make their own arrangements for formal assessment in the face of school
indifference or opposition. The most striking exceptions to
this pattern were two cases where, following racist incidents of aggression against Black boys, the schools suggested an assessment and shifted the focus onto the
individual student who suffered the abuse and away from
institutional failings.
Gillborn 283
Numerous qualitative studies have revealed chronically
low teacher expectations for Black students to be the norm
in many British schools (cf. Gillborn & Mirza, 2000;
Gillborn, Rollock, Vincent, & Ball, 2012); consequently,
when faced with a sharp discrepancy in performance on different tasks, rather than view this as a potential indicator of
a learning dis/ability, our interviewees reported that teachers were generally content simply to accept the lower level
of attainment as indicative of the students’ “true” potential.
When Black parents attempted to rebuff these assumptions,
by producing privately financed assessments, the schools’
most common reaction was to sound welcoming and interested, but to behave in ways that are at best patchy and, at
worst, obstructive and insulting. Unfortunately, this obstructive attitude does not reflect a general reluctance to mobilize dis/ability labels, rather it seems to apply to particular
labels (specific or moderate “learning difficulties”) that
might positively benefit the Black child by seeing them
access additional resources. In contrast, labels that apply
“behavioral” judgments within a SEN framework continue
to be applied with disproportionate frequency against Black
students and this was reflected in the interview data, often
leading to segregation from the social and academic mainstream, and ultimately decimating the students’ academic
Despite the reassuring and inclusive tone of government
rhetoric, and in contrast to the often encouraging initial verbal response from schools, in reality the Black middle-class
parents’ experiences suggest that the needs of the Black
child go largely unmet within a system that uses dis/ability
labels as a further field of activity where racist inequities
are created, sustained, and legitimized. The field of “special” education has long been recognized as complex and
fraught area where race and class influences can significantly shape students’ experiences (cf. Artiles & Trent,
1994; Artiles, Trent, & Palmer, 2004; Oliver, 1996;
Tomlinson, 2014). The data reported here suggest that class
advantage fails to protect in the face of entrenched racism.
Despite their considerably enhanced social and economic
capitals, for Black middle-class parents, the field of dis/
ability and SEN appears to be a context where they are
excluded from the potential benefits (of legitimate adjustments and dedicated resources) but remain subject to the
disadvantages of low expectations, segregation, and
Gender has not featured in this article to the same extent
as the other principal axes of differentiation (race, class, and
dis/ability), but it has been a constant presence in the background. In particular, Black middle-class parents expressed
particular concern for male children who could fall foul of
heightened surveillance in schools and the attentions of
police and gang members on the street (cf. Gillborn et al.,
2012). In the present account, gender is also an important
part of the context whereby it was male students who made
up the segregated and “brutalized” bottom set in isolated
provision away from the mainstream school building
(reported by Paulette) and it was boys who were referred for
assessment following their racist victimization by White
Conclusion: The Primacy of Racism
The challenge underpinning any serious analysis of race as a
social relationship is how to understand its false dimensions
while refusing to relegate race and racialisation to the
epiphenomenal dog-kennel. For critical race theorists, race is
not reducible to false consciousness; nor is it mere “product” or
“effect.” (Warmington, 2011, p. 263, emphasis in original)
Dis/ability (like race and gender) masquerades as natural, fixed, and obvious: I recall teaching a masters’ class,
where most students were schoolteachers, when someone
argued that although certain forms of identity and inequity
can be complex, “disability is obvious.” I was tempted to
challenge this assertion by asking whether the student realized that I was dis/abled? He would probably have been
shocked to learn that, having spent more than four decades
of my life hiding the painfully slow rate at which I can read
and process written information, I had recently been formally assessed as having a “specific learning disability.”
Despite the assumptions that are schooled into us, social
identities and inequities are socially constructed and
enforced. As the “social model” of disability has made
clear, even the most pronounced so-called “impairments”
only become disabling when confronted by socially constructed problems and assumptions, for example, “not being
able to walk or hear being made problematic by socially
created factors such as the built environment . . . and the use
of spoken language rather than sign language” (Beratan,
2012, p. 45). Consequently, critical social researchers,
whatever dimension/s of identity and inequity they wish to
grapple with, are faced with making sense of the constant
mutability and complexity of our social worlds. As I hope I
have made clear to this point, an intersectional understanding of the social can be a distinct advantage when trying to
understand how particular inequities are re/made in places
like schools. Drawing on a study of the educational strategies of Black middle-class parents in England, I have argued
that even a brief exploration of their experiences of dis/ability requires some appreciation of the intersecting dimensions of race, class, and gender. This is not the same as the
kind of intersectional trap that Richard Delgado (2011)
warns can ultimately paralyze activist work. It is in relation
to that danger that I wish to conclude by addressing the primacy of racism for critical race scholars.
From the very beginning of CRT as a recognizable
movement, and through to the present day, detractors have
sought to misrepresent the approach (Crenshaw, 2002;
284 Qualitative Inquiry 21(3)
Delgado, 1993; Gillborn, 2010; Warmington, 2011). To try
to avoid any further misunderstanding, therefore, before
explaining what I mean by the “primacy of racism,” it may
be useful if I begin by explicitly stating what I do not mean.
I do not assume that racism is the only issue that matters
(this should be obvious from my statements about intersectionality and the experiences of the Black middle-class
above), neither do I believe that racism is always the most
important issue in understanding every instance of social
exclusion and oppression that touches the lives of minoritized people. Similarly, I am not suggesting that there is
some kind of hierarchy of oppression, whereby members of
any single group (however defined) are assumed to always
be the most excluded or to always have a perfect understanding of the processes at work.
So, what do I mean by the primacy of racism? My argument is that there are at least three ways in which racism
unapologetically remains a primary concern for critical race
First, there is the empirical primacy of racism;
that is, when we study how racist inequity is created and
sustained, racist assumptions and practices are often the crucial issue when making sense of how oppression operates.
Racist inequity is influenced by numerous factors (including
gender, class, dis/ability), but we must not shy away from
naming the central role that racism continues to play. The
case of SEN and race in England is instructive; here the most
personal and supposedly individual issues (dis/ability and
impairment) are revealed as not merely socially constructed,
but as racially patterned and oppressive.
Second, there is the issue of the personal or autobiographical primacy of race, that is, the dimension of the
social world, of our lived reality, that we as scholars foreground in making sense of our experiences and shaping our
interventions and agency. Many scholars who view themselves as working from a critical and/or activist perspective
can identify an issue that touches them most deeply, often
viscerally (see Allan & Slee, 2008; Orelus, 2011). Some
begin with social class inequity, others with gender, sexuality, or dis/ability: Critical race theorists tend to start with
race/racism. This does not blind us to other forms of exclusion and we surely have as much right as any other critic to
begin with the issue that—for us—touches us most deeply
and which generates our most important experiences and
ambitions for change. In the words of Zeus Leonardo
(2005), critical race scholars “privilege the concept of race
as the point of departure for critique, not the end of it” (p.
xi). This may sound unremarkable but, as John Preston and
Kalwant Bhopal (2012) have noted, race-conscious scholarship is frequently challenged to defend itself in ways that
other radical perspectives are not:
When speaking about “race” in education, many of us have
been faced with the question “What about class/gender/
sexuality/disability/faith?” whereas rarely are speakers on
these topics ever asked, “What about ‘race?’” A focus on
“race” in analysis is indicative, for some academics, as a sign
of pathology or suspicion. (p. 214)
A third way in which racism remains a prime concern for
critical race scholars relates to the activist component so
central to the founding of the movement, that is, the political primacy of racism. As Kimberlé Crenshaw et al. (1995)
argued in one of the foundational CRT texts, for many critical race scholars, resisting racial oppression is a defining
characteristic of the approach:
Although Critical Race scholarship differs in object, argument,
accent, and emphasis, it is nevertheless unified by two common
interests. The first is to understand how a regime of white
supremacy and its subordination of people of color have been
created and maintained . . . The second is a desire not merely to
understand the vexed bond between law and racial power but to
change it. (p. xiii)
If we are to change the racial (and racist) status quo, we
must refuse the growing mainstream assertion that racism is
irrelevant or even non-existent. A shared analysis of the racism that patterns everyday life can provide a powerful point
of coherence for activism and political strategy. We live at a
time when racist inequities continue to scar the economy,
education, health, and criminal justice systems (Equality &
Human Rights Commission [EHRC], 2010) but when
merely naming racism as an issue is sufficient to generate
accusations of “playing the race card”—the supposed “special pleading” that Derrick Bell’s “rules of racial standing”
analyze so brilliantly (Bell, 1992, p. 111)—or, worse still,
we are judged to be acting in ways that are racist against
White people. At this time, it is more important than ever
that we take our cue from Derrick Bell and have the courage
to say the unsay-able and follow through in our actions. We
can use intersectionality, but we must not be silenced by it.
Bell’s legacy demands nothing less.
Author’s Note
This article is based on my opening keynote address to the conference “Race, Citizenship, Activism, and the Meaning of Social
Justice for the 21st Century: The Legacy of Professor Derrick
Bell,” the 6th annual conference of the Critical Race Studies in
Education Association (CRSEA), held at Teacher’s College,
Columbia University, New York City, New York, June 2012. The
analysis draws on and extends ideas that also appear in Rollock,
Gillborn, Vincent, and Ball (2015). The interview project (ESRC
RES-062-23-1880) was conceived, executed, and analyzed by
Stephen J. Ball, Nicola Rollock, Carol Vincent, and myself.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with
respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
Gillborn 285
The research reported in this paper was funded by the Economic &
Social Research Council (grant # ESRC RES-062-23-1880)
1. These are verbatim transcripts from excerpts included in a
feature where Professor Bell’s widow answers the claims:
Video available at http://tpmmuckraker.talkingpointsmemo.
2. I follow Annamma, Connor, and Ferri (2013) in using “dis/
ability” to highlight the way in which the traditional form
[disability] “overwhelmingly signals a specific inability to
perform culturally defined expected tasks (such as learning or
walking) that come to define the individual as primarily and
generally ‘unable’ to navigate society. We believe the ‘/’ in disability disrupts misleading understandings of disability, as it
simultaneously conveys the mixture of ability and disability”
(p. 24).
3. School students categorized as “Black” (including those
officially listed as “Black Caribbean,” “Black African,”
and “Black Other” but excluding those of dual ethnic heritage) account for 4.4% of those in the final stage of compulsory schooling in state-maintained schools in England
as a whole but for 32.3% of children in inner London,
21.3% of London as a whole, and 11.3% of Birmingham,
England’s “second city” (Department for Education [DfE],
2012, Table 3).
4. “The Educational Strategies of the Black Middle Classes”
was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council
(ESRC RES-062-23-1880): Professor Carol Vincent was the
principal investigator.
5. We restricted our sample to people whose occupations place
them in the top two categories of the eight which make up the
National Statistics Socio-Economic Classification (NS-SEC);
an occupationally based classification that has been used for
all official statistics and surveys in the United Kingdom since
2001 (Office for National Statistics, 2010).
6. I am not asking questions of over- and under-representation,
as if there were some objective real notion of dis/ability
into which Black middle-class students should gain rightful
admittance or avoid wrongful categorization (see Annamma
et al., 2013).
7. All interviewee names are pseudonyms.
8. The most recent major study of these issues found that, relative to White British students, Black Caribbean students are
2.28 times more likely, and “Mixed White & Caribbean” 2.03
times more likely to be categorized as behavioral, emotional,
and social difficulties (BESD; Lindsay, Pather, & Strand, 2006,
Table 5a).
9. I do not presume to speak for all critical race scholars nor
do I seek to mandate a single “CRT” (critical race theory)
position: My purpose here is help arrest the slide into endless meaningless sub-divisions of intersectionality and
diversity ad infinitum and re-state the courageous and
bold determination that characterized the beginnings of the
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Author Biography
David Gillborn is Professor of Critical Race Studies and Director
of the Centre for Research in Race & Education (CRRE) at the
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Studies in Education Association).

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  • We have a quality assurance that reviews the paper before it gets to you. As such, we ensure that you get a paper that meets the required standard and will most definitely make the grade.

In the event that you don’t like your paper:

  • The writer will revise the paper up to your pleasing. You have unlimited revisions. You simply need to highlight what specifically you don’t like about the paper, and the writer will make the amendments. The paper will be revised until you are satisfied. Revisions are free of charge
  • We will have a different writer write the paper from scratch.
  • Last resort, if the above does not work, we will refund your money.

Will the professor find out I didn’t write the paper myself?

Not at all. All papers are written from scratch. There is no way your tutor or instructor will realize that you did not write the paper yourself. In fact, we recommend using our assignment help services for consistent results.

What if the paper is plagiarized?

We check all papers for plagiarism before we submit them. We use powerful plagiarism checking software such as SafeAssign, LopesWrite, and Turnitin. We also upload the plagiarism report so that you can review it. We understand that plagiarism is academic suicide. We would not take the risk of submitting plagiarized work and jeopardize your academic journey. Furthermore, we do not sell or use prewritten papers, and each paper is written from scratch.

When will I get my paper?

You determine when you get the paper by setting the deadline when placing the order. All papers are delivered within the deadline. We are well aware that we operate in a time-sensitive industry. As such, we have laid out strategies to ensure that the client receives the paper on time and they never miss the deadline. We understand that papers that are submitted late have some points deducted. We do not want you to miss any points due to late submission. We work on beating deadlines by huge margins in order to ensure that you have ample time to review the paper before you submit it.

Will anyone find out that I used your services?

We have a privacy and confidentiality policy that guides our work. We NEVER share any customer information with third parties. Noone will ever know that you used our assignment help services. It’s only between you and us. We are bound by our policies to protect the customer’s identity and information. All your information, such as your names, phone number, email, order information, and so on, are protected. We have robust security systems that ensure that your data is protected. Hacking our systems is close to impossible, and it has never happened.

How our Assignment  Help Service Works

1.      Place an order

You fill all the paper instructions in the order form. Make sure you include all the helpful materials so that our academic writers can deliver the perfect paper. It will also help to eliminate unnecessary revisions.

2.      Pay for the order

Proceed to pay for the paper so that it can be assigned to one of our expert academic writers. The paper subject is matched with the writer’s area of specialization.

3.      Track the progress

You communicate with the writer and know about the progress of the paper. The client can ask the writer for drafts of the paper. The client can upload extra material and include additional instructions from the lecturer. Receive a paper.

4.      Download the paper

The paper is sent to your email and uploaded to your personal account. You also get a plagiarism report attached to your paper.

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Basic features
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  • Unlimited revisions
  • Plagiarism-free guarantee
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  • 12 pt Arial/Times New Roman
  • Double line spacing
  • Any citation style (APA, MLA, Chicago/Turabian, Harvard)

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Delivering a high-quality product at a reasonable price is not enough anymore.
That’s why we have developed 5 beneficial guarantees that will make your experience with our service enjoyable, easy, and safe.

Money-back guarantee

You have to be 100% sure of the quality of your product to give a money-back guarantee. This describes us perfectly. Make sure that this guarantee is totally transparent.

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Zero-plagiarism guarantee

Each paper is composed from scratch, according to your instructions. It is then checked by our plagiarism-detection software. There is no gap where plagiarism could squeeze in.

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Free-revision policy

Thanks to our free revisions, there is no way for you to be unsatisfied. We will work on your paper until you are completely happy with the result.

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Your email is safe, as we store it according to international data protection rules. Your bank details are secure, as we use only reliable payment systems.

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