What it's like being the only Black person in the village
Illustration by Tracy Worrall
Political debate has frequently focused on the lives of Black people in the inner city. But elsewhere, the UK is home to tens of thousands of Black people who grow up as the extreme minority in the place they live. Georgia Chambers investigates what Westminster can do for them
I grew up in a small village in Kent, where you’d be hard-pressed to find another Black person for miles around. My Dad, who was born in Northampton and later lived in South London, was determined to not raise us in the same ruthless city environment that he had to endure, and decided the countryside was the best bet for a mixed-race family.
It was glaringly obvious I was different as soon as my Mum took me, under duress, to the school gates. All the other kids were white, but at that age, even though you might notice, you definitely do not care for the difference. One of my earliest memories from those first few weeks of primary school was being told by another group of girls that I couldn’t join in with whatever game they were playing on the grounds that their hair was straight, and my hair was curly, and people with curly hair weren’t allowed to play.
I was about five years old. It was an earth-shattering rejection and worse, one I couldn’t do anything about.
From a young age I found solace in books. To this day, friends will reminisce to me about TV shows from the late 90s that I haven’t the faintest clue about, because I was one of those “weird” kids who rejected the TV screen for endless library books from the children’s section stacked on my bookshelf.
I loved words and would always be writing short stories in the back of my school notebook. Inspired by the books I had read, the characters I made up in my head were always white girls, with names like Layla and Isabelle, the kinds that would win talent show competitions and fall in love. I would take my sweet time writing out detailed descriptions of their long, pin straight brunette hair and blue eyes, convinced I had just penned the next bestseller.
My first experience hearing about my own history in an educational setting was learning about slavery. I remember being shown the grainy, black and white textbook images of slaves, depicted so dark in colour that they were almost faceless, being packed on to boats, and told of the torture mechanisms they used to keep them under control. Whenever the teacher said the word “Black” or “African,” the entire class would turn to look at me, half expecting me to react, half expecting me to contextualise for them a history I knew as much about as they did.
Often, when I tell other Black people about my experience, particularly those who were born and bred in London, they can’t help but flinch. “Oof,” is the usual preceding sound effect, “I don’t know how you did it.” But it was far from traumatising. I spent my days breathing fresh air and running through parks with my friends. I was happy – race wasn’t something I really thought about until much later.
But when I did start to try and unpack my racial identity, I had to work through and am still working through a lot of the confusion and sense of feeling detached from my Caribbean heritage. I couldn’t help where I grew up, but I am convinced that these feelings would not have been as intense and lingering had the books I read and the lessons I was taught at school reflected the experiences of people who looked like me.
Because the media is very London-centric and as a result, any coverage around racial issues tends to be too, it’s easy to forget the differing experiences of Black people who live in rural areas across the UK.
Naturally, cities like London also have more ethnically diverse populations, with 98.2% of those with Black African heritage living in urban areas (as of the 2011 census). Growing up in North West London, my boyfriend, who is also mixed-race, said that he, for the most part, had always been sure he was Black, because he was accustomed to seeing Black faces. Our education wasn’t any different, but feelings of confusion around his racial identity had been less intense than my own, which have stayed with me for most of my adult life.
Black people’s lives in every environment have been a blind point for politicians all around the world
Helen Grant MP
It comes down to the simple fact that to be themselves, it’s essential that Black kids are able to see themselves, whether that is through peers, on TV, in books – but especially in the classroom, where children are first socialised and conditioned to supposedly prepare them for the outside world. I left school for university without ever having read a book by a Black author that was on the curriculum. This September, a Teach First analysis found a lack of Black authors in the set texts offered for GCSE English by AQA, the UK’s largest exam board.
This is the exam board I took my English Literature GCSEs under, and almost ten years later, I feel it’s inexcusable to see that nothing has changed. In response to the findings, one head teacher in North London said: “My catchphrase is you ‘cannot be what you cannot see,’ and that whole heartedly applies throughout all education – from what you’re learning to who is teaching you.” And, for kids like me who grow up in rural areas where their classrooms are just as white as the curriculum they are learning from, that issue of visibility becomes all the more critical.
Even if steps are made to make the curriculum more diverse, many teachers, who as a workforce are 85.9% white, lack the resources, training and support to be able to implement these changes. After my younger brother was racially bullied at primary school, and becoming increasingly frustrated with the school’s lacklustre response, my Dad and I went into the classroom and gave a workshop on the meanings of diversity, prejudice and racism.
All of the kids in that room bar my brother were white, but they still walked away with a better understanding of what all those words meant and how it applied to their lives.
Black people are born political, you can’t opt out of politics anyway. You walk around with a political stamp on your head, which is your colour
Clive Lewis MP
Beyond the curriculum, however, what more can Westminster do? Clive Lewis, MP for Norwich South, is a mixed-race politician representing a predominantly white constituency. He is somewhat pessimistic on Westminster’s capacity to force change on racial issues. “You’ve got more chance of turning white than you have of that happening,” he says.
“It has to come from the bottom up and the sad reality about Westminster is in many ways, it’s a valve on a pressure cooker and it does what is necessary to keep the peace, to keep the balance of power where it is and do just enough to keep people happy.”
Lewis feels Parliament needs to deliver more than “race audits and pay audits”, adding: “I feel it doesn’t make a difference if you have more black judges, more black police officers, while it will make a small change, I think you only have to look at the US. They had a black president for two terms who arguably ushered in, through no fault of his own, Donald Trump.”
Deep seated prejudice, Lewis feels, needs more than political institutions to confront it. “Having a few more black police officers, I’m sorry to say, is not going to change the power structures within… society, and that’s uncomfortable for all politicians who inhabit mainstream political parties, because that requires radical thinking.”
He says Black people are “taken for granted” by Labour, and in the face of a binary choice between them and the Tories, thinks they should “seek alliance with those who are willing to change the electoral system to achieve a more proportionate way of voting which is going to open up a space whereby Black people would be able to say: ‘if you want our vote, you’re going to have to work for it.’”
Other members place more emphasis on Westminster initiatives. Helen Grant, MP for Maidstone and The Weald, grew up in Carlisle, “perhaps the only person with a darker skin in that far northern city,” she says. She speaks with pride of chairing the Government’s Apprenticeship Diversity Champions Network for two and a half years: it worked with blue chip companies to increase apprenticeship opportunities for BAME young people.
Grant says: “Apprenticeships are life changing; they provide an opportunity for young people to earn whilst they learn and can provide a direct path into a career. They are therefore real drivers of social mobility.”
But when asked if Westminster has neglected black people outside the inner city, she, like Lewis, describes racism as a structural problem: “Black people’s lives in every environment have been a blind point for politicians all around the world, as exemplified by the Black Lives Matter campaign. This isn’t a British issue, or an urban issue, it’s a global issue.”
As Lewis puts it: “Black people are born political, you can’t opt out of politics anyway. You walk around with a political stamp on your head, which is your colour. And once you embrace that, once you realise that then you need to make the next steps… it isn’t just going to be handed down from Westminster.”
For me, if Westminster has a role, it must above all be at the centre of an educational drive. My experience of racism started in the classroom, with mean comments from kids about my hair and the colour of my skin, incidents which although I will never forget, I now mostly pass off as childish ignorance. But when the British education system continuously fails to acknowledge an entire history and culture, much of which has a fundamental role to play in this country’s own, that is racism in one of its most irreparable forms.
Working towards diversifying all aspects of the curriculum to better reflect the make up of modern day society is beneficial for kids of all ethnicities, and should be taught even in those classrooms which are not diverse.
In calling for a more diverse curriculum, a report by the Runnymede Trust stated: “through re-envisioning the curriculum, white students could be engaged with considerations of white privilege power and complicity, in order to better understand and question their position in contemporary society. Simultaneously, BME students might also engage with content that prepares them for life in a racist society.”
The curriculum needs to be able to represent real life, and despite countless campaigns and hundreds of stories like my own, it still ultimately fails to do that.
Georgia Chambers is Audience Engagement Editor at the i paper and inews.co.uk
Update: Across AQA English GCSE set texts, Black authors are represented by a prose section in an anthology of seven prose pieces and one poem out of the 30 offered in two anthologies. An earlier version of this post stated that analysis from Teach First had found the exam board had no Black authors in its set texts.