I will always remember the important words my mother bestowed on me at the tender age of five. ‘Rahmon, you’re always going to have to work twice as hard as the rest.’ Why? ‘Because you’re black.’
It sounds harsh now but my mother’s words of wisdom were critical in my development and often proved true throughout my academic life. It infused me with a tireless spirit to work hard and grab each and every opportunity given to me knowing that these chances would be so few and far between simply because of the colour of my skin. At times I questioned whether it was a self – fulfilling prophecy, but I quickly learned after growing up and meeting other black students, who spoke about similar experiences and how their parents told them exactly the same thing too; that there were always more barriers for us to face in order to be successful – from breaking harmful stereotypes to occupying spaces where we are traditionally underrepresented; it would be a long fight. There is something very wrong with the British system and the institutional racism we have allowed and it’s time for it to be addressed.
A Level Playing Field?
Following the BBC’s fantastic documentary titled ‘Will Britain Ever Have A Black Prime Minister?’ an uncomfortable debate arose on social media. Of course, most young people regardless of their race are generally quite progressive and would have no problem with a well – qualified Black Prime Minister. They would argue that if an individual is capable then they can do the top job; they may even embrace the change. However, the racism addressed in this documentary wasn’t one of ugly attitudes displayed on secretly filmed videos on Iphones which have plagued 2016, it was the subtle, unspoken institutional racism which maintains the status quo and has limited talented BME students from reaching their full potential for decades.
A touching example of this at the most preliminary level of education was shown in the programme. They focused on a four-year-old black student who had been excluded from his nursery; he was labelled as too troublesome for the teachers to handle. His parents decided to make him attend a specialist nursery for energetic black children. The problem I have with this is the mislabelling. An energetic and charismatic child can easily be mislabelled as troublesome and will be ostracised and excluded from certain opportunities so early on in their life – this can impact the way they view education and the opportunities they’re exposed to.
This happens regularly with young black boys. It’s touching because I remember my early experiences in the primary school system, I have to be honest – I was no saint - but I was just a hyperactive child who loved learning and interaction. Once I found the right learning style I was easily able to settle in and have a successful academic career; however, many black students aren’t given that same chance. In a school environment which often requires children to stay still for such a long time; where they are almost exclusively taught by white females, the academic environment that young black boys are exposed to may not be conducive to the style in which they need to learn most effectively. This can lead to disillusion with school, misunderstanding and unfortunately mislabelling.
The Miseducation of The Negro
A child’s education is one of the most important things influencing their life chances but what’s more important is their economic background. Black children are severely disadvantaged by their living conditions. Shockingly, the programme which derived their statistics from the 2011 census, claimed that 45% of black children are growing up in poverty – that’s nearly half of the black children living in Britain! In such a classist society, it’s clear why it may be hard for many black students to break social boundaries when they’re disadvantaged right from the start. Social mobility is a huge problem in Britain and breaking social structures is a tough job but one way our liberal society claims to help is through educational opportunities.
Unfortunately, black children are severely disadvantaged in the education system too. Research from the University of Bristol showed that black students start at a lower point and perform worse than their white counterparts at all education levels up to GCSE level. However, once Black African students reach GCSE level, on average their grades improve and actually surpass their white counterparts.
The explanation for this is that before GCSE level students have their exams marked internally by their schools which means black students are systematically underscored by the schools they attend. GCSEs being independent, anonymised exams allow black students to perform better since they are marked externally with no bias or expectation of what a particular student can achieve. This suggests there is some stereotyping from school teachers when it comes to the likely capability of black students leading to the underassessment of black students’ exams.
This in-built bias can lead to black children hating school and not realising their potential because their teachers limit them from knowing how truly intelligent they are before they even get the chance to take these critical independent exams. Schools are suppsoed to motivate all students, regardless of their background, to build a better future for themselves; they’re not supposed to limit or stereotype you, especially just based on your race; there are plenty of people outside of school who are waiting to do just that.
Against The Odds
The bias continues through to university, the chances of a black pupil getting 3 As at A Level – the entry requirement for many top universities – is just 4%. The chances for a white pupil who attends a private school is 28%. In fact, the programme revealed that if you’re a state educated black student you are more likely to be excluded than get into a top university. There are also plenty of cultural preferences against black students. Many lecturers are middle class white males who often recruit in their own likeness. The programme highlighted how admissions tutors may be completely oblivious to the hurdles and struggles that a black student may face to get into university compared to their white counterparts. There are a lot of outreach programmes fighting for increased representation but there is still a very long way to go in Britain.
Every Prime Minister who’s won an election (who has gone to university) has attended Oxford University since 1937. Currently, Oxford University is below their 4% target for BME students and are known for recruiting from an exclusive pool of elitist schools such as the likes of Eton, Westminster and St Pauls - schools which also have an extremely low population of black students. How are you supposed to aim for the highest heights when the system makes it so clear that these heights are so unattainable? It’s obvious why not many are hopeful for a Black Prime Minister of this country any time soon.
There is an implicit bias against intelligent black students. This phenomenon means that there is an unconscious judgement about what we expect from different social groups and these stereotypes affect our decision making. The shame about this is that so many talented students are missing out on the opportunity to better their lives and break boundaries despite being qualified and beating hurdles that their white counterparts will never have to face. The President of Oxford University’s African – Caribbean society bluntly put it that Oxford is institutionally racist and that Britain is institutionally racist. He interestingly pointed out that many of the materials that students have to engage with to give them the best chance of getting into Oxford are expensive – many black students may not be able to afford them so are again disadvantaged.
Will there ever be a Black British Prime Minister?
As a black Politics student it can be frustrating knowing how underrepresented black people are in British Politics. When rumours sprung in 2014 of Chuka Umunna running for the Labour leadership there was renewed hope for me but once that died down I went back to finding inspiration from the same old names of David Lammy and Dianne Abbott. Sadiq Khan’s mayoral election was a big step forward but it’s clear that BME groups are also underrepresented in politics – if we can’t name ten black MPs, how can we believe there will be black PM anytime soon? But it’s not just in Politics! In Law, Banking, the Media industry – you mainly just see white faces. The message this sends out to young black people is that they are not allowed to occupy these spaces. Embarrassingly, this BBC documentary counted the number of black faces in the BBC News room and there were only 3 black people in a room of over 100 people. It’s curious that black people can achieve in sport or music in this country but when it comes to professional jobs we’re completely underrepresented.
At the end of the programme, they revealed that currently there is a 1 in 17 million chance of there being a Black Prime Minister. The stats are staggering, but behind the number crunching there is hope. Do not be fooled by the title of this article, I do believe that one day there will be a black Prime Minister, as shown above black people have always had to defy the odds and will continue to do so. Optimists will take inspiration from Obama’s successful eight years in the States. However, we here in Great Britain have a long way to go in breaking down the unfair barriers that so many young black people continue to face daily on all levels in our country.