I have gathered together subtle, sometimes barely perceptible moments that briefly express disadvantage and discrimination perpetuated by our education system. These moments express the experience of young people racialised as “different” in a majority-white society.
In what follows, the first person, “I”, is written as an expression of my presence throughout the text and how it is written. But this “I” is several stories, several influences, several lives. It reflects many of my own personal experiences, and also those lives with which I have come into contact during my work at Rare, and at Cambridge and Oxford Universities. It is, if you like, the voice of a series of young, black, British lives.
Hello. This is how I have arrived here, in front of you – here’s a story:
Age 1: I am born. But I am born into something which will later define me.
Looking back, the poet bell hooks1 comes to mind: “being oppressed means a lack of choices”.
Indeed, who has agency over what you become?
Age 2: Stephen Lawrence is murdered. My second year of life, racialised as black. I didn’t know then, but a politics of becoming, a fresh politics of race, had just exploded and would begin to define how I’m seen, and who I consequently become in the decade that followed.
My mum switches Barney back on.
Age 3: I’m learning the way of the world. Postman Pat and the Teletubbies; smells, sights, and voices; my parents, friends, and teachers; my Little Pony, Peter Pan, Fireman Sam and Scooby Doo.
“Draw a monster.”
“Why is it a monster?” (Janice Lee)
We learn the processes of feminism and masculinism: we learn without realising that the power and agency of some are derailed by virtue of the words that they are born into (the definition of their very existence). These thoughts produce expectation. Femininity forced onto females, a weight of what we should be forced onto all those born powerless, however relative. Me.
We’re reassured that “you can be anything you want to be” … but, age three, I didn’t realise I couldn’t.
Age 4: Choosing toys; starting to draw. I sit in Art class, attentively listening to ‘miss’. We’re told to colour in our stencil outlines of human faces… the pencils are labeled to help our choice (direct our choice). I follow the others, my friends Faye, Ryan and Sarah in reaching for the “skin-coloured” pencil. It’s this faint mix between pink and white… you have to press quite hard for it to come out on the white background. It didn’t blend-in with me – in fact, it didn’t really blend-in with anyone, but the difference is that Faye, Ryan, and Sarah at least believed it did.
I guess, bluntly: the first time I realised I was black.
A child’s naivety broken.
Age 5: That bloody playground: the sort of Chameleon-like graveled space in schools everywhere that could in a heartbeat switch between tennis court, netball ground and football pitch. We all fell over a lot. We all went to the on duty teacher and received plasters for our cuts; skin colored plasters. My cuts would stand out more, always, covered sticky pink against my skin.
Age 6: I’ve just moved back to England, my first proper school. It’s 1997 in the leafy backwaters of Hertfordshire. Miss Johnson told my class to introduce ourselves – surnames, middle names and all. I did. “My name is Joshua Agyepong Oware – ”
The redness, the heat, the bubbling of embarrassment, the attention when I just wanted to blend in, be a silence in a room of strangers.
My next school, a similar exercise: the proclamations reach me, its my turn: “my name is -my name is – my name is… Joshua John O’ware…”
The spotlight moves on without falter.
Age 7: I win the 60m sprint again. Parents and peers shout my name, “The Black Bullet”. Meanwhile, my friend Andrew who came second is known as “great all-rounder”; “talented Andrew”. Expectations of what it means to be black were not limited to the sports field. As the only “black” child at three of my primary schools, even I could not outrun one thing…
Age 8: Professor Gus John asks a class of 80 students (all black, with 20 girls and 60 boys) to write down ten positive things about themselves.
At the end of ten minutes, less than 50 percent had written down four positive things about themselves.
At the end of half an hour, only 75 percent of them had managed to write down any positive things about themselves.
Age 9: My hair’s uncontrollable, it doesn’t sit. Why can’t my hair look like Busted’s, everyone else’s does. I’m late for school, too busy trying to straighten it. I burn my scalp and fingers in the attempt. I can’t remember learning anything that day.
Age 10: A new year, our first English lesson of Year 5. We started to write stories. What I experienced was not uncommon.
“1. Almost without exception, whenever children are asked to write a story in school, children of colour will write a story featuring white characters with ‘traditional’ English names who speak English as a first language.
2. Teachers do not discuss this phenomenon.
Why are young children of colour and young white children writing exclusively about white characters?
What would happen if for just one lesson I insisted they write about a character from a similar ethnic, religious, linguistic background as themselves – just as I sometimes insist that they try to include fronted adverbials, or a moral dilemma for their protagonist?”2
Age 11: They start secondary school. By now, look at all the lives they’re both carrying. The limitations placed upon them.
Age 12: He reads Malcolm for the first time. But he likes football and rap too much. He wears grey Diadora tracksuits. His hair is nappy. He’s put in classes with ‘people who can’t even speak English.
When people are enslaved, the first thing they do is stop them reading.
Intelligent people will take their freedom.’3
Age 13: Rap music. ‘You haven’t heard that rap song? Oh, Liam will know it.’ ‘Liam, Liam, do that dancing thing you know?’
Age 14: The class study Othello. Suddenly her voice is authoritative. Suddenly she becomes the expert. Othello can sit alongside the other expectations.
She realises, how silenced race is. School life continues, uninterrogated. “Race”: shut down. We can’t talk about that, “daaad! you can’t call my friend black… that’s racist!”. Racial spaces are elided, but without them how can we begin to place ourselves, understand our inherited histories, understand lived inequalities, and unequal futures?
How many know what happened on March 2nd 1981 in London (the Black People’s Day of Action) or at 439 New Cross Road, Deptford on January 18 of the same year (firebomb kills 14 young black people)?4
Age 15: Disillusioned at school, he starts smoking reefa behind the bike sheds. Not working. It’s just what’s there. Constantly undervalued, made angry by what’s in existence. He stops attending, the system rolls on: ten members of his class achieve straight A*s, it’s a record year. Celebration. Differential mobility. The kinetic elite grow faster.
Age 16: He’s popular, outgoing, and “loud”. He’s a presence at school and in lessons; a personality. Energy emerges from his being, he influences those around him and brings them into motion. Teaching doesn’t match his energy and intensity. He’s “aggressive” and “disengaged” – a “disruptive influence”. The co-produced, self-reinforcing cycle continues, he’s a “typical” black Caribbean boy. He’s not invited to special UCAS evenings despite keeping in line with the top performers, he’s separated from the “academic elite” that is encouraged to emerge at school. For all his energy, passion and human engagement, he is a silence in academic – school life – conversations among the teachers. At the end of his GCSEs, in a year of 320 people, he came top, with 10 straight A*s and the highest percentage performance of all his peers. It’s now that he’s encouraged to “please stay for sixth form… what are your plans…? look at all the support we can offer?” He says “no”, he leaves, and upon leaving he explains why.
Age 17: School is just an element of routine that sometimes brings us into the same space. How do targets apply to my life? Uff that. They’re getting older, the parties are getting bigger, the drinks are getting stronger. Fizzy drinks become mixers, people start experimenting. But the stereotypes placed on black children are not the same. If white children experiment, they’re adventurous, liberal, safe. If black children do the same, they’re good-for-nothings, they’re gangsters, they’re failures. (KH)
Age 18: What’s the point of the journey, if you’re not welcomed on arrival?
Age 19: Enter university, if you’re lucky. Me? I guess I was. The reality is though that most of the world’s poor look just like me. By now, how many voices have been silenced?
I am the only person of African Caribbean descent on my course, in my year. The one module on my course that explored the lives and histories of my people, I couldn’t get on to. It was oversubscribed by my peers, my white peers, many of whom had spent their 10 days in an “African” village wearing rags and dripping sweat between the pictures that document their laying of unbalanced bricks upon a ground that is to become the ground of a school: “[a]s admirably altruistic as it sounds, the problem with voluntourism is its singular focus on the volunteer’s quest for experience, as opposed to the recipient community’s actual needs.”5 I guess I have my father, my cousins, my life before and within me: I guess my course won’t be the space where I express me, and my inner me. I open Ngugi wa Thiong’o and forget about those three years.
Age 20: The census. Box-ticking. From “Race” to racialisation:
In this frame – race is not innate, but is projected onto you, it is an action that emanates from others, outside forces, society. There is no essential characteristic of ‘blackness’, but there is an understanding of what race ‘is’ embedded in our world and ways of relating to each other such that:
‘If started telling people that am racially white, people might begin to doubt my sanity. I simply do not have the power racially to self-identify in this way. This choice is closed off from me, by the dispositive choices of other people in my society. What do you think?’6
Age 21: Speaking out, in any form: an expression. Enough. But people still demand more of it. People demand an explanation of your world and your feeling. They usurp your words, translate them into their own: “yah, thanks for your point on race, but wouldn’t you agree that this “issue” is about class?”. Another intellectual exercise, another opportunity to test your critical reasoning. Maybe, but for me this is my life. Do you wear the weight of your skin and it’s place in the world once your brain grows tired of debate? Do you live the oppression you can speak so eloquently about when you leave the room or the conversation?
“how is ‘not seeing color’ the solution to racism, when the absence of color is white. reducing someone to a lack of color is essentially making them white. so then, color blindness is not a solution, it is in fact the very definition of racism. there is no such thing as natural ‘color blindness,’ there is only the desire to embrace or ignore. you are making a choice.”— nayyirah waheed
Age 22: launched into adulthood. University has left its impression. What next? I am still my history.
2 “YOU CAN’T DO THAT! STORIES HAVE TO BE ABOUT WHITE PEOPLE” by Darren Chetty. http://mediadiversified.org/2013/12/07/you-cant-do-that-stories-have-to-be-about-white-people/comment-page-1/ [date last accessed, May 22, 2014]
3 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sEOKgjoxoto – Akala Fire in the Booth Part One [date last accessed, May 22, 2014]
4 ‘May the force be with you’ – Gus John, The Guardian (2007). http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2007/aug/22/maytheforcebewithyou [date last accessed, May 22, 2014]
5 The White Tourist’s Burden http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2014/4/volunter-tourismwhitevoluntouristsafricaaidsorphans.html – Rafia Zakaria (2014).
6 Dr. Nathaniel Coleman – ‘Racialised as Black’: http://ucl.academia.edu/NathanielAdamTobiasColeman/Critical-Race-Studies [date last accessed, May 22, 2014].