We have been talking about the importance of racial representation in a range of industries for a number of years. Particularly for children, too young to wrap their hands around concepts like institutional disadvantage — which give an explanation as to why they can’t see themselves in the characters they watch and the books they read. Pressuring Disney to re-continue Doc McStuffins was one of many attempts to pressure large corporations to push the issue of representation. A young, dark-skinned black girl acts as a doctor — not a nurse — to her come-to-life toys. She has two parents, a black educated doctor who never falls into the sassy, aggressive black mother trope. Consistently characterised as clever and compassionate, she presents an ideal role-model for a young black girl in spite of the previous generation who had a whiny sidekick in Charlie and Lola.
Broadening what it means to be black outside two-dimensional stereotypes is crucial. Less spoken about but nevertheless equally as critical, is the black boys and men who should see themselves excelling within and outside of fields that are already stereotypically overrun by black men, like basketball, football, rap music. Education and individual experiences of education distorts the way that children move through the world. Numerous black children’s aspirations are restricted by white under-estimation. Malcolm X, as a child, left school after being told that “a lawyer” is “no realistic goal for a n*gger.” This is not an uncommon attitude or experience.
I cannot speak first-hand because I was secondary educated in an elite, all-girls private school where upon my entrance, it was presumed that I not only had the capability to excel but I was expected to do so. However, my brother experienced differently. His playfulness was portrayed as aggression, his excitement was responded to defensively. As a hyper-active black boy, he ran around, jumped up and down in a way that, to me, was playful and enchantingly adorable; to the micro-aggressive women that looked after him, he was a terror. You could see it in their eyes. In spite of this, he was blissfully unaware to their treatment of him. My parents eventually decided to move him to an all-boys school in Cameroon, where such behaviour was completely impossible.
Living within African and Caribbean culture, the emphasis on education within the community is very clear. Not attending school or putting anything above my education was never an option for me or the majority of my black peers. It is questionable whether, from the outside looking in, our culture is perceived the same. Black working class students are more likely to go to university than their white counterparts, which is not a failure on behalf of the mostly White British parliament and Cabinet, but instead, a success of the Black British mothers, fathers, guardians and their sons and daughters who excel against the odds. Hashtags or semi-movements like #BlackExcellence are so significant because they are against the odds. We must keep this is in sight. Many black children accredit their success to one teacher who made them feel capable. These teachers are not only an example of Black Excellence themselves but perpetuate the same ideals to the future generations which they inspire to take forth their ideals.
There are currently only 104 secondary school head teachers from Black Minority Ethnic (BME) backgrounds in the UK that is three per cent of all head teachers whilst 14 percent of the UK population is BME. That’s a clear disparity. 28.5 per cent of primary pupils and 24.2 per cent of secondary students are from BME groups, as are 70 per cent of all students in London. There are too many students who have never met a black teacher and there are even more students who have never even heard of a black head-teacher. This lack of representation is critical as empirical evidence has hammered home again and again that this affects how these black children view the world. A white teacher will never understand what it means to be a little black girl. Young black girls perceived as being rude or at best, sassy, for answering back or raising questions, when they are simply expressing their opinions. Black girls consistently outperform their black male peers but, as
Victoria Showunmi argues, at what expense? Dr Showunmi, a lecturer at the Institute of Education, University of London who is particularly interested in black girls and wellbeing, spoke at the London school and the black child event. Having spoken to many 14–15 year old BME girls, she found that there were two main types of girls: the ones who were popular, always getting into trouble and more experienced in regards to –implied- sexual and romantic advancements. Then there was the second, higher achiever, who left their selves at home, deliberately striking friendships with white girls in order to distance themselves from the black girls that were mistreated by teachers, so they could navigate through education systems more easily. She said that many black girls felt their voices were only heard “to describe us as loud girls and loud girls meaning in a negative response and they’re trying to change our personality of being loud and what that means in relation to how we express ourselves”. They expressed sentiments about the way that they felt they were perceived: more negatively than their white peers, received less positive attention, felt that black girls were singled out at schools and blamed for behaviour that white girls got away with. They felt that the teachers held stereotypical ideals about black girls that implied black girls weren’t listening if they said they couldn’t understand something. High attainers backed away from the louder girls to come across as the “right sort of black girl” who lacked the loud and proud assertiveness.
This attitude continues into the workplace, where 40–50 year-olds announced that “they felt that they needed to bleach their identity to go up in the organisation”. This is essentially the natural continuation of little black girls who are told from primary school days that they are inherently aggressive and sassy and they can deal with their problems without talking about them; they are “strong, independent black women” before they are even women. The representation is not the sole resolution; Victoria asserted that she worried for her own daughters as “there is no mentoring for black girls. There’s no support for black girls. It’s all about ‘You’re strong, you’re resilient and you can keep going’ and actually I feel that our black girls are actually starting to crumble and there’s no support mechanism for them.”
Look, I admit that these are complicated issues, but the first step to addressing them is, undeniably, representation. A black teacher is so much less likely to uphold such detrimental stereotypes. This tackles the issue from its root. Then the repercussions of these issues, which will surely exist for years into the future, can be resolved by introducing mentoring systems explicitly for black British girls.