Yesterday, I read the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities Report with some dismay. I was particularly struck by the way it sought to portray children of Caribbean immigrants as underachievers, whilst downplaying the barriers of racism which they and their parents have faced. Perhaps quantitative data present these disturbing findings, but qualitative data should provide a far more accurate impression of the complex challenges and barriers this cohort and their parents have faced historically, which has established a better foundation for newer immigrants. I thought the Windrush debacle would have been a more permanent reminder of the suffering of this particular group.
I am proud to say that I am of Barbadian decent, where education is highly valued. I realise I was miseducated rather than educated by the British school system, which also misrepresented me and indeed my ancestors, just as this report misrepresents the younger generation. Arriving in the UK at the age of 9, I found myself academically ahead of most of my peers. This is not unique to me, as I have heard many in my cohort echo the same childhood experience.
I went to a state comprehensive school and one of my most memorable moments was a conversation with the school Careers Adviser who told me that job options to consider were: nursery nurse, hairdresser or dental hygienist. Again, this is not unique to me, I have also heard this list repeated by others in my peer group. Whilst there is absolutely nothing wrong with these professions, it was the immediate “boxing” that plagues me to this day.
I wonder how many young black girls and boys (and those from other races for that matter) are boxed in at an early age, by professionals who should be opening young minds to any career path that takes their interest, rather than stereotyping them into certain roles. Going to university was never discussed as an option with me and with blue collar parents of the Windrush Generation would probably not have been affordable. But again, it may have been achievable if I had been encouraged to be more aspirational by the school system and society at large. The point I am making here is that institutional racism impacts most severely in the educational system because of the extent to which it shapes young impressionable minds. Institutional racism is also projected, perhaps even more strongly, by the images we see in our society. Therefore, whilst the main narrative of the report is dubious in parts, its recommendations are mostly heading in the right direction, but could have gone much further in certain areas.
Fast forwarding to my life now, I am a Senior Adviser; formerly completing seven diplomatic tours abroad and a PhD candidate at Kings College London. What triggered my transformation was an extended trip back to Barbados at the age of 19 where I escaped the oppressive environment of British society and more importantly saw black people in a multitude of professional roles. I benefitted significantly from being in an environment conducive to growth and advancement.
My children went to good schools overseas and then privately educated in the UK and are both doing well, but both experienced racism from a very early age. Their brief experience in the state school system was traumatic due to overcrowding and a questionable level of resources available. This is what many children, regardless of race, endure. The challenge of uneven quality and access to education should not be blamed on users, or even the teachers, but on the Government. My children were able to tackle racial discrimination and achieve against the odds. However, no one should have to endure such negative attitudes and behaviours at any point in life, if we claim to live in a progressive society which aspires to be a global model.
Furthermore, it is disturbing to see children of Caribbean and African decent being compared, whilst ignoring the diversity of our histories, divided by colonialism. But overall we are one people. I am just as connected to my African identity as I am to my Caribbean identity having lived on the continent for a decade.
I could remain silent on this matter because my children are doing very well and both proud of their blended Caribbean, African and British identities. But I am speaking out on this matter because all children deserve an equal start in life regardless of race and it is important not to play divisive tactics with the younger generation. Poverty and social deprivation cuts across all racial lines and should not be politicised, but addressed constructively. Swinging the mirror around, I think this Report signals the existence of a narrowing elite who are becoming more entrenched in their misguided beliefs; increasingly disconnected from the rest of society and propped up by a band of apologists also severed from their own communities. Some readers will understand when I say being brown does not mean you are down! The increasing level of disenfranchisement is palpable in our society as people are struggling to recover from the ravaging effects of Covid-19. It is a time for healing and constructing a stronger national identity. This report is not only damaging because it is misrepresentative, it is also damaging because it is untimely and completely out of touch.