‘I felt totally alone’ – students are speaking up about anti-blackness at school
Across the UK, teenagers are articulating their experiences, often for the first time. But is anyone listening?
04 Jul 2020
Trigger warning: mentions racism, anti-blackness, xenophobia and bullying
The untimely murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery acted as the catalysts for Black Lives Matter’s most potent butterfly effect yet, one which influenced many black British students to courageously come forward and share their experiences of racial discrimination in UK schools.
Protestors on the streets of Parliament Square challenging the UK’s part in police brutality was only the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the ocean of “say their name” signs and emblematic vandalisation of a Winston Churchill statue, also lies our long struggle to eradicate racism from the confines of the all-too-familiar iron gates and concrete playgrounds of our salad days.
Undoubtedly, black children are subjected to the UK education system, growing up consuming outdated stereotypes and narrow-minded bigotry from their non-black classmates and teachers; behaviours often amplified within the less diverse areas of the UK. Many black children become willing to suppress some of their cultural and racial identity to prevent what should be the golden era of their lives from becoming a hellish travesty. For decades, the UK’s educational system has had all its variables tipped out of our favour.
The historically anti-black education system
Anti-blackness and racism in the classrooms isn’t anything new to the UK, but we weren’t always in a time when progressive Gen Z teenagers, like myself, could take the frontline in the battle against it. Although many disillusioned chauvinists defend or even deny the severity of their children’s offences, we all know the UK isn’t innocent.
Literal experiments were done attempting to prove our inferiority by cracking into our heads with the hypothesis that our brains are the size of a tennis ball. Now, this black intelligence-deficiency manifests in the form of humiliating black students in front of their white peers. Seventeen-year-old Amira from Kent had to be homeschooled due to being constantly mocked and racially targeted by her English teacher. “She would ask me to speak and then tell me to shut up as soon as I did,” Amira says. “She would constantly pick on me for arguments and debates in front of my all-white and very impressionable class.”
In his 1971 book, How the West Indian Child is made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System, Grenada-born revolutionist Bernard Coard describes his black East London students as being disadvantaged by design – to the white population their Caribbean roots put their IQ level on par with prehistoric hunter-gatherers, a test that holds a long history of racial bias. To make matters worse, being foreigners only intensified the children’s blatant inferiority complexes, which can be linked to white Britain’s discrimination of black immigrants.
“She would ask me to speak and then tell me to shut up as soon as I did”
Unfortunately, 50 years later, Bernard Coard’s observations are still relevant. Set systems (which separate and grade children in subjects like maths) are notorious for being riddled with racism – in fact, the power of stereotypes makes black children more likely to be under-setted when entering year seven. As a result, black Caribbean pupils have been 2.2 months behind white British students in their schooling, a number which is only increasing.
Most recently, the announcement that the 2020 GCSE and A-Level results would be awarded through predicted grades due to COVID-19 was met with lots of anxiety and dread from students, especially black students, due the possibility of their talents being undermined by teachers’ unconscious bias. This partiality has always made it harder for black students to enter universities and higher education.
Racism in the playgrounds
There is typically a clear dichotomy within UK secondary schools: white-majority and minority-majority – I was one of those black children who attended the former. Quickly, I realised anti-blackness was potent within the student body; I either witnessed or first-hand experienced everything from the infamous white boy n-word campaigns, where they would argue that they had the “right” to use the word, to the targeted monkey noises coming from behind me as I’d walk from first period to second.
Sadly, I’m not alone. Seventeen-year-old Aneilia recalls an experience she had with one student after an altercation. “She proceeded to say that my skin looked like it had been smeared with shit.” Aneilia recalled many who witnessed the incident “either stayed silent or even laughed” while it took place. “It was awful knowing how poorly I was viewed by all these people I spent so much time with and it was truly a reminder of how totally alone I was with my blackness in this school.”
The pain and frustration wasn’t just about our difference in colour however, but also a difference in culture. Being black in a majority white school meant everything from the slang I spoke to the Nike socks I’d wear were somehow othered. A prime example was kissing teeth – although I and many other black children adopted it from our parents, as The Independent reports, some students were treated as if they swore and unfairly punished.
It also meant I was expected to have thick skin, as 19-year-old Shaniya agrees. “Often there were a lot of racially insensitive jokes made about black unemployment. We usually had to laugh it off as to not be ‘over-dramatic,’” she explains. “As I was already quite outspoken, I could tell I was deemed the ‘loud black girl’ and didn’t want to feed any more into the stereotype, so I often just stayed quiet.”
The misogynoir I experienced in school meant many non-black boys would base their treatment of me on archaic stereotypes, on several occasions shouting “pounded yam” or assuming my country consisted only of corruption and dirty water, while the girls would gag at a fallen box braid and my natural hair was treated like a tourist attraction for their hands. Although I giggled, smiled and endured many of these occasions, I always wondered if my skin put a target for humiliation on my back.
“To have white students blatantly not following the rules but getting away with it was a slap in the face”
But it’s not just our peers who behave in the manner – black students experience racism from teachers too. At her school in London, Shaniya was often reprimanded because of her hair. “There was nothing about afros in the rules, but some boys with high tops and afros and I were repeatedly told our hair was ‘unkempt’ and ‘distracting’ simply for letting it grow out of our heads,” she says. “Being told your hair in its natural state is ‘messy’ or ‘not professional’ only perpetuates already negative attitudes towards black hair. Hair shouldn’t be political, but it is.” The issue of black hairstyles being punishable in schools is ongoing.
When teachers weren’t policing the arrangement of our hair like it was the 1960s, they were projecting their ignorance on young black boys. Mike*, 18, moved from an ethnically diverse secondary school to a white-majority sixth form. “I remember in the start of year 12, my new form tutor acted surprised when he saw my predicted grades, making it a big thing that they were so high. I knew it was racially motivated as I hadn’t even been at the school for more than like two weeks.” Mike also recalls having seen several of his male friends’ afro-combs being confiscated in his secondary school, and although he never linked them to race, the reasoning that they could be “used as weapons” is much more than just in bad taste.
A complicit curriculum and seeds of change
The question of what can be done to eradicate anti-blackness in schools is becoming increasingly prioritised, however we are nowhere near our ideal position. After describing another occurrence which she and many others witnessed in school, Aneilia outlines the lacklustre exclusion given to a racist student at her school. “Her family raised hell to the school, so she was allowed back after three days, which we were absolutely not satisfied with. The second time, the same girl was racist towards me and despite there being more witnesses this time, my report was dismissed because all the witnesses were too scared to back me up due to her reputation.”
Danah* has a similar story. “Over the last few weeks my school actually got called out a lot on Twitter and they faced a lot of accusations of racism. Initially they didn’t care, but I think they received emails from parents and one girl’s tweet gained a lot of attention; they even called her mum to take down the tweet, even though the girl has left the school.” Evidently, some schools care more about their external reputation than their internal incompetence and that’s why the problem still festers.
Call-out-culture is not limited only to people however – Graveney School in south west London has been widely criticised after a video of one of their students mocking the death of George Floyd went viral on Twitter. The school responded with a statement which said they were “appalled” at the content of the video and restated their “commitment to anti-racism work”. The statement went on to “advise all members of our community not to post or share this video, or the second film which has been linked to the school on some platforms”. Students later created an Instagram page dedicated to exposing their experiences of racism at the school. It should be of the utmost priority of headteachers and higher authorities to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their students, but often seems that marginalised students are forced into taking matters into their own hands.
“I just hate the fact it took a man being brutally murdered on camera for white people to start showing up for us”
One such person is Esmie, who despite now being in university, created the highly successful petition on developing the white secondary school curriculum. She tells me that she initially carried out a survey, in which she found out “72.2% [of Brits who attended school in the UK] learned about the battle of Hastings while 9.9% learned about the role of slavery in the British industrial revolution. From there, starting a petition seemed the next logical thing to do, and we made sure to host it on the parliament petition website to increase the chances of a government response.” She admits the rapid growth of the petition was amazing but hard to digest. “I think it was shocking because black people, especially black women, go ignored and unheard most of the time. A jaded part of me thought ‘only black people will care about this’ but the result shows that isn’t true. I just hate the fact it took a man being brutally murdered on camera for white people to start showing up for us like this.”
Esmie thinks it’s irresponsible not to have all history teachers trained and educated in black history; “To put a black child in a classroom where the teacher has no clue about the contribution of black people to the history of this country, is exactly what fosters the environment of continued gaslighting.”
We’ve survived the school system for decades by affirming to ourselves that there will be brighter days, but our teenage years should be enjoyed, not destroyed.
*Some names have been changed to protect identities