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Why we need to dispel the myth that ethnic minorities are aspirational by default

07 Jan 2018

In recent years and particularly in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, there has been an overwhelming focus on the white working class. Following the vote the term “left-behind”, seemed to be synonymous with the white working class. This argument goes that the white working class are a deprived community and voted to leave the European Union because they have not reaped the benefits of capitalism, whilst migrant communities have supposedly thrived. Within the education sector the argument goes that whilst ethnic minority students have high aspirations to go to university, the same level of aspiration does not exist amongst the white working class students.

Shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner is amongst a line of MPs making the case that the white working class have been “left behind”. In a recent interview with the Spectator, Rayner stated “I think it’s because as we’ve tried to deal with some of the issues around race and women’s agendas, around tackling some of the discrimination that’s there, it has actually had a negative impact on the food chain [for] white working boys”. This, in effect, reduces my success as a first generation immigrant who went to university, as simply taking something that wasn’t mine to be had in the first place. 

 “Rayner stated that a focus on girls and ethnic minorities within our educational system has had a ‘negative impact’ on white working class boys”

Since the interview, Rayner has faced some backlash on social media resulting in the following clarification: “No. I was saying that white working-class boys are being held back by this rotten Tory Government, not women or ethnic minorities, who are also held back by this broken system.” But I’m still not convinced. In the interview, Rayner mentions a recent UCAS report, which does indeed highlight that “those from the white ethnic group remain the least likely to enter HE”. However, the report also states that “those who do not claim free school meals are twice as likely to enter HE compared to those who claim them.” Yet Rayner chooses not to question the role that the white middle class play in this case.

The term “white working class” is in itself unhelpful and makes many harmful assumptions. Race and class are inextricably linked and as explained in Reni Eddo-Lodge’s brilliant book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race: “The phrase white working class plays into the rhetoric of the far right. Affixing the word ‘white’ to the phrase ‘working class’ suggests that these people face structural disadvantage because they are white, rather than because they are working class.”

Eddo-Lodge goes on to argue: “the class privilege of middle-and upper-class people in Britain is not challenged when we focus on the plight of the white working class. Instead it shifts the focus of the problem on to the black and brown people. The immigrants.” The term “white working class” suggests that ethnic minorities are succeeding at the expense of the white working class who are in turn losing out on what is supposedly “rightfully” theirs. This argument is especially true when discussing education, with constant comparisons being made between the aspirations of ethnic minorities and that of the white working class.  

“The term ‘white working class’ is in itself unhelpful and makes many harmful assumptions”

This narrative of ethnic minorities as aspirational by default overlooks major disadvantages facing ethnic minorities today, especially those in the black community. Where is the outcry at the fact that black Caribbean pupils face permanent exclusion from school at three times the rate of their white British peers? It is time that we recognised that affixing the term “white” in front of “working class” produces very different responses to when the term “black” is affixed.

What’s more, although some of us may be more aspirational, that seems to count for little when we enter the workplace, with the Race Disparity Audit last year revealing that employment rates across the country are higher for white people than for ethnic minorities. For example, there are major barriers facing young Muslims entering the workplace. A recent report by the Social Mobility Commission found that they were the least likely of any faith group to succeed in the labour market. These are just a few of the issues facing ethnic minorities today and also desperately require the attention of our politicians.

The view that ethnic minorities are aspirational by default also overlooks critical issues and cultural complexities, which in my case is gender discrimination. For as long as I can remember, my mother’s greatest ambition in life has been to get me and my sisters married off. Forget the top grades, degree and career ladder – unless I got married, my accomplishments meant nothing. As soon as I was old enough I was instructed to learn to cook and clean, not for myself but for my future husband and children.

Whenever I was asked to do household chores, it always came with the accompanying “How else are you going to manage your own household?” “Who else is going to cook for your husband?” In my community, as soon as a girl is “mature” enough, parents of daughters are hounded by such calls and when parents – like mine – say that their daughters are too young, the response is almost always “it’s okay, we’ll wait”.

 “Forget the top grades, degree and career ladder – unless I got married, my accomplishments meant nothing”

As a child, hearing my parents have these discussions over the phone terrified me. My mum became accustomed to saying “she’s in school now so we’ll think about it when she’s older”. I knew I had to have a contingency plan for when school finished. Although I knew my parents would never force me into marriage, I didn’t want to be around for when the serious discussions of marriage would inevitably rise again.

So I put my head down and did what I do best – educate myself. My parents didn’t go to school so when my siblings and I excelled in school, they didn’t understand it. When we would refuse to go to family events and stay behind at home to revise, we would often get into trouble for disregarding so-called familial customs and duties. When we spent our free time reading books rather than washing the dishes, my parents would moan that we were wasting our time. How would books help us in our destined lives as housewives? Thinking back now I don’t know where I found the courage to believe in myself and actively seek the opportunities that I did.

At age 16 when everybody was deciding which sixth form to go to, I remember making a list of all the schools in the local borough and somehow decided to include a few independent schools too. Eventually I found a school I liked, applied and got in – but it was one of the independent schools meaning I had to apply for a bursary.

“My parents didn’t go to school so when my siblings and I excelled in school, they didn’t understand it.”

That came with its own stress of filling out forms that neither my parents nor I understood. As anybody with immigrant parents who can’t speak English will probably understand, the children do all life admin. You name it: housing benefit letters, parking tickets, job seekers allowance, doctor’s appointments – my sisters and I dealt with each and every one of these from a young age. So when it came to applying for a bursary, it was no different. I hadn’t even sat my GCSE exams yet and here I was dealing with my Dad’s P45 and benefit letters to try and work out our household income.

It’s bittersweet thinking back now that I did all of that by myself. Yet instead of being ecstatic about my achievement, my mum’s first response was there is no point going to sixth form because I had learnt enough and it was time to learn to cook and settle down. But this time, I was no longer afraid of her thoughts and ideas for my future. I had my own back and was going to succeed on my own terms.

“Yet according to the ‘ethnic minorities are aspirational’ argument my story doesn’t exist”

Yet according to the “ethnic minorities are aspirational” argument my story doesn’t exist. People assume that because I am brown I was destined to go to university and indeed actively encouraged. It disregards the fact that as a woman, I had to fight much harder than my male counterparts to get to where I am. Hell, I’ve had to fight harder than the white middle class students who filled almost every lecture hall I was ever in.

But when we talk about the plight of the white working class, we are eager to draw comparisons with ethnic minorities, and not the white middle class. This continues to perpetuate the argument that ethnic minorities come from backgrounds where they are automatically encouraged to aspire. Those like me, who have had to fight hard against societal and cultural pressures to be where we are today, are simply overlooked because we do not fit the narrative. We weaken the “us” and “them” argument, which they will keep spinning until the end of time.