As early as I can remember, my parents pushed me to invest in my education. They told me, ‘you have to work twice as hard to get half as far as the white man’. It made me uncomfortable when I heard this kind of thing. As far as I was concerned, they were stuck in the past – having been born in the sixties, their stubborn minds were oblivious to all the progress that has happened since then. Growing up on a racially diverse estate in East London where the police constantly circled round on their bicycles to check for ‘neighbourhood crime’ (or rather, to catch ‘suspicious’ groups of people of colour standing around) didn’t really induce any thought as to how racial divides had led to the environment that I spent my formative years in and are were to shape the rest of my experiences.
What’s more, is that until recently, I never really understood the tendencies for them to say ‘the white man’. They did not say ‘white men’, or ‘a white man’. Whiteness is not just about the actual paleness of one’s skin, but the power structures and societal implications it holds, creating a society in which anti-blackness was rife amongst all groups of people of colour as well as white people. Compounded by the patriarchy, I realised the message was very clear: the system is not in any way, and will never be, in your favour.
I thought they were bitter and twisted. I thought that had all been left in the past.
I was wrong.
The first real slap in the face for me was secondary school. After passing the 11+, I hopped on the bus to the girls’ grammar school in the borough, thinking to myself what a privilege the next five years would be. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. As the only black person in my class of thirty, I immediately found myself subject to continuous microaggressions. Students would pull on my hair as I walked down the stairs. They would laugh and compare it to foods – pineapples, mushrooms, broccoli. I was weird; other. Girls would complain about how their dark skin made them ugly in the summer as opposed to the paleness that winter brought. Whilst I recognised colourism was rampant in the south Asian community too, the fact that they associated a skin colour that was akin to mine as ‘ugly’ was painful. Then came the traditional conflict around the infamous book, ‘Of Mice and Men’ – people thought it apt to debate whether it was acceptable to say the n-word ‘in context’, when it so clearly made black students deeply uncomfortable. Passing remarks and microaggressions were the norm.
I wouldn’t be able to bring you to my house to hang because my parents don’t want black people in it.
Why are you wearing a bandana, you look like a gang member.
God, Sarah, you’re so aggressive, you’re so scary, why so rude?
And on, and on. Black students felt ridiculously isolated, and when they attempted to confront the school on the rampant anti-black sentiment they were told to stop ‘ganging up’ on other students; again perpetuating the old stereotype between black people and organised violent crime, when they were merely trying to push back against the discrimination they experienced. Pretty much every black girl had the reputation of being ‘rude’ or ‘scary’, with harmful stereotypes so deeply entrenched into people’s minds and actions.
Safe to say, I ran from that school as soon as I could, onto a sixth form located many miles away in central London, home to a vibrant, diverse community of people from all over the city and beyond. I was now in an environment where everyone was in fact not from the same small area of East London. There was no sole and universal experience of a second-generation immigrant upbringing centred around close-knit and exclusive communities.
I thought my secondary school was an anomaly, but sixth form proved that racism snaked its way into everything. Our very own principal attempted to ban black history month in favour of an ‘everybody history month’. Well, he said, standing from his pulpit in the great Westminster Abbey, ‘Why divide ourselves? We’re all one community of scholars!’. Such wilful ignorance in the face of a student body with a significant black population was shocking. The unique experiences, voices and history of black people were dismissed, as it was postulated as discriminatory and non-inclusive to shed light on a much-forgotten side of British history. No need to acknowledge the role Britain played in fostering the oppression and enslavement of black people, nor the racism that has grown since and continues to be embedded into structures of our systems and lives of people today. Certainly not against the backdrop of the great British curriculum, diverse and inclusive as it is (!). The school was not even allowed to have an ACS (Afro-Caribbean society), for fear it was ‘exclusive’ and alienating other students. Trying to ignore the difference entrenched between people of colour was merely ignorance wrapped in sheep’s clothing, upholding the status quo of an intrinsically racist system that isolates minorities, by not allowing them to come together as a community and find solace in those who understood.
I was later invited by my headmaster as a representative of the school to speak about social mobility in a newspaper article. They wanted someone who has had a difficult time, someone from a disadvantaged background, I was told. Of course, they went to pluck my queer, black, single-parent, assigned-female-at-birth self, complete with a picture of me in front of my house, in a post code with a noticeably lower socioeconomic profile than most. To them, I was the poster child of diversity. I had to suppress a derisive snort as I recalled my experiences there, where little acknowledgement or recognition for the additional plight that minorities face existed. Don’t advertise the fact that you’re doing less work than your peers, said my geography teacher, as I struggled through various mental health crises, the divorce of my parents, and moving homes. My principal placed me in a class for misbehaving, less engaged students in our so called ‘cultural perspectives’, with the room filled with people with significantly more complex home and personal lives than mine.
Race impacts class, home life, mental health, and so many other factors. This was not appreciated in the slightest. We were seen as delinquent or, as he put it, ‘bored with life’. More likely, we were trodden down by a world that was not built for our survival. The very school that aimed to champion students of minority backgrounds expected us to be able to cope with our problems and still produce as much work as our neighbouring private school counterparts at the Westminster school, all while ignoring the stark differences between our lives and theirs. Turning a blind eye to differences, however, is far more alienating than acknowledging and appreciating them.
And then came Oxford. I was no stranger to microaggressions, insensitivity, discrimination. This time, however, my experience was all the more painful. Oxford’s status, prestige, world-recognised prowess exceeded that of anywhere I had been. The things that had happened to me were not just things that happened to me. They were part of a wider scheme of injustice that I felt powerless to tackle.
I pushed back regardless. I was determined to no longer be quiet, to no longer lower my head and stay below the parapet. I was angry, and rightly so. But I discovered quickly, these people were not used to being called out, not used to having to question or justify themselves. Such was a difficult concept to grasp, as someone who always felt like they had to go the extra mile to prove themselves worthy of being somewhere. In my conversations, I was told not to be so ‘emotional’, to engage in ‘academic debate’ properly, as is the Oxford way. What is such academic debate? Denouncing Black Lives Matter, justifying colonialism, dismissing intersectionality, defending those who facilitated mass murders and unspeakable brutalities in the name of bringing economic prosperity to Britain – the famous Cecil Rhodes, for example.
Exhausted, disappointed and frustrated, I turned to my fellow black peers. It was no use – they were busy being seen as intruders and stopped from entering into college, being labelled as an ‘angry black woman’ for defending themselves, and subjected to racial slurs – for which there were no real repercussions. Discrimination and ignorance never sleep in Oxford. And what is being done about it? Campaigns from amongst the student body, rather than those in charge, those whose responsibility it is to ensure an inclusive environment. There are frequent rebellions amongst students that centre on toxic cancel culture, antagonism, and distrust, as minority students struggle to hold their peers to account within the framework of an institution that never really cared. Oxford claims that they aim to foster an inclusive environment in which understanding and respect is built between people who have come from vastly different upbringings. Oxford, like everywhere else I know, has failed.
I am 19 years old, a fresher, yet to venture into the world of work, yet to experience the workplace discrimination that I’ve been warned lurks around the corner. Even without this, my life has been saturated with racism – personal, structural and institutional – since birth. To add insult to injury, I am surrounded by individuals who refuse to believe that black people really are oppressed; individuals on the path to become the future of our country. My life experiences are one of many, but they speak a truth that cannot be ignored.
I now understand why my parents pushed me so aggressively, or so it seemed, towards education. Through conversation, understanding, and healthy relations can we truly work to readdress the gross imbalances that exist in our society and manifest through our education systems. Our stories and experiences serve to invoke meaningful and constructive dialogue within the places that nurture young minds. We must ensure that such minds do not become bitter and corrupted by the dangerous ignorance that runs rife; weaving knowledge, compassion, and understanding through our education system – from the beginning, to the end.