Kenyan-Briton Causes Stir With Race Petition in the UK

Have you ever felt so strongly about an issue that you considered petitioning Parliament about it?

Kenya's 12th Parliament received 114 petitions from different people between October 2017 and March 2021.

In the UK, petitions are digitised unlike in Kenya where you have to present hard-copy documents. A person can file a petition via the UK Parliament's website and welcome citizens to sign.

If the petition gets 10,000 signatures, the UK government will respond to the issue it is addressing. If the signatures reach 100,000, it will be considered for debate in Parliament.

And to encourage such initiatives, the legislative arm has "Your UK Parliament Awards" which announces winners annually. If you go through the 2021 winners list, you will find Cynthia Muthoni among three others.

A 23-year-old woman born to a Kenyan who emigrated to the UK, Ms Muthoni had started a petition titled "Add education on diversity and racism to all school curriculums". It was live for six months and gathered 89,497 signatures.

She was joint winner with three others for the "Petition Campaign of the Year Award", and hers was no mean feat because one of her rivals in the shortlist was Manchester United and England striker Marcus Rashford whose campaign on child food poverty had gained more than a million signatures.

On the UK Parliament website, the award organisers say: "Nell Bevan, Esmie Jikiemi-Pearson, Yacoub Yasin and Cynthia Muthoni are joint winners in the first ever Petition Campaign of the Year Award category at the Your UK Parliament Awards."

Racial awareness

The four had presented petitions about dealing with racism, following the uproar that followed the death of American George Floyd while being arrested by police in Minneapolis in May 2020.

The winners will receive a commemorative trophy, and all nominees will receive a certificate to celebrate their achievements.

Because Ms Muthoni's petition reached the 10,000-signature threshold for the UK government to respond, she had the Department of Education issue a statement saying there was no need to add education on diversity and racism on all school curriculums.

"There is already flexibility in subject curriculums for teachers to choose topics which highlight diversity," it stated. "Schools can also teach about racism in personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education and citizenship education where pupils can develop their understanding of the diverse national, regional, religious and ethnic identities in the United Kingdom," it added.

But Ms Muthoni, in her interview with Nation in the UK, said there is no guidance, especially on race training and racial awareness.

"In the UK, teaching is a predominantly white profession, with a tiny number from minorities. What you find with most white people is that they are uncomfortable discussing the issue of race. If you're uncomfortable discussing something, you will tend to opt out of teaching it, especially when it's not mandatory," she said.

Added Ms Muthoni: "I think that, with children, probably a lot of teachers feel they don't want to offend them, so they think the best method is to avoid the topic. So, it's important to include racial sensitivity and racial awareness in teacher training."

Studied politics

Ms Muthoni's mother, Cathy Wanja, is a healthcare professional in Oxford who moved from Kenya to the UK in the 1990s.

Ms Muthoni studied politics for her undergraduate degree at Swansea University and is currently undertaking a Master's degree in climate change and international development at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.

Ms Wanja told Nation that she was honoured and inspired by her daughter's courage to stand up for such a fundamental change in the society. She added that racism is deeply embedded in British institutions.

"My experience is that some people have to work twice as hard for their efforts to be recognised. We must keep fighting to minimise the impact for generations to come," she said.

Ms Muthoni says she aims to see the content of her proposal eventually become an Act of Parliament. She is consulting with the Petitions Committee and her local Oxford East MP Anneliese Dodds for the possibilities of a formal introduction of the bill in Parliament.

The Kenyan-Briton is focusing on three elements that she believes should be implemented in the British education system to turn the award into a gainful win.

These are better teacher training on race matters, mandatory lessons on racism and anti-racism, and diverse representation throughout the curriculum.

"There is very little inclusion throughout the curriculum. You don't learn about black mathematicians or scientists, and teachers will not teach about Asian history. So, if you include minorities into these segments, then people know about all those different areas," she told Nation.

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