Growing up Black in a Majority-White School

Happy New Month, Peeps! Spring has finally sprung and it’s definitely heating up here in the UAE. I’m trying to narrow my posts down to a specific topic each month and this March, I’m focusing on growth (hence the green)! I know, how original of me…

I’ve also been reading Michelle Obama’s book, ‘Becoming,’ recently and like her, I’ve realised how certain events and circumstances have formed the woman I’ve become today and am still becoming. And I want to acknowledge them. Join me in reflecting over specific moments in my life where I have grown the most, learned some raw truths and gained some hard knocks from life’s lessons. Obviously, as the teacher I am, there will be plenty of take-home for you too.

I attended school with mostly White girls in a majority-White area. At The Grammar School for Girls, Wilmington, I was one of three Black girls in my year of 120 young women. Hailing from South East London, it was here that I knew what the term ‘minority’ truly meant. In a small school in Kent, surrounded by wealthy White chics, I was well out of my comfort zone. And like Michelle Obama, I turned up to school completely unaware of my disadvantages.

I’m intrigued, what was your secondary school experience like? Mine and Michelle’s or completely different?

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. My experience of secondary school was largely positive, despite my insecurities. Yes, I stuck out like a sore thumb in class pictures (like the one above) but I learned many things -which have shaped my outlook on life – that are contrary to the world’s conventional narratives.

Important Lessons on Race:

  • You don’t need to feel singled out. At the beginning of school, I felt as though my race something so apparent. Something that separated me and that I had to protect. Of course, people asked some questions about my culture but we were all 11 and we knew nothing. We were all asking questions. However, over time, people started to get to know each other and we all began to find our places. I no longer felt like ‘the black girl.’ I just felt like Helen.
  • Some White people are willing to learn about our culture if we are willing to teach them.  Sure, there are things that are foreign to them but if they are curious about something, we shouldn’t make them feel bad for asking. Through me, my friends were educated on Black hair, Black music, West African food and all sorts. They were happy to come to church with me when I got baptised and enjoyed the jollof rice served after, even if it was too spicy for them. I’m sure it gave them a reference point for understanding Black people a little better in the future. Conversations about race are important and should be welcomed, not ignored.
  • White girls can be as sassy and fierce as anyone. I think it’s crazy how people stereotype White girls as being ‘damsels in distress’ or ‘meek and mild.’ They are so much more than that. They are as diverse in their dispositions as the rest of us and those labels don’t do them any favours, just like the ‘Angry Black girl’ one tarnishes us all with the same brush. We’re all individuals, irrespective of race.
Image by Jose Martinez
  • Stereotyping works both ways, people! As I grew older, my two worlds began to collide; some of my White friends started inquiring about the myths surrounding Black boys and their phalluses. Equally, some of my Black male friends asked me to introduce them to White girls based on assumptions about their promiscuity. Some people think that ‘only the oppressive race can be racist.’ I know first hand how rubbish that theory is.

Important Lessons on Education (excuse the pun):

  • Teachers can speak life. I went to a grammar school and I remember our first assembly like it was yesterday. We were told we were in the top 5% of smartest pupils across the country. We were constantly reminded of this throughout the years and we lived up to those expectations. I can’t express how important it is to have teachers who believe in your ability and expect the best from you (and remind you of that when you slip up).
  • Understand your advantage/disadvantage. I had to take an entrance exam for my school and I ended up getting in because I was smart enough. Having that as a foundation massively helped build my character. I felt like I wasn’t allowed to use any of my disadvantages as excuses because my teachers expected more from me. I had managed to get there after all; I was already an overcomer.
Image by Thought Catalog
  • Ethos is everything. In my school, it was cool to be smart or rather, we were allowed to be both smart and coolWe had a culture where we did our homework thoroughly, we worked hard in class and when our GCSEs rolled round, we actually studied during study periods. This set us up for the increasing workloads we would face in sixth form/college and eventually university.
  • It’s not everyday stereotypes. I wasn’t discriminated against by my teachers, not to my knowledge anyway. I largely felt that everyone accepted me for me. In fact, I remember there being a new Science teacher from Australia who tried to pick on me one year. My teachers quietly inquired about this and backed me furiously to the bitter end. He was gone by Christmas.
  • Teachers, have some balls. I remember being in my final year and thinking I was grown. We had a new headteacher called Mrs Bolton who knew nothing about me other than that I had blue hair (which obviously violated the school rules). She called me out on it and I tried to make it into something it was not – her lack of understanding about Black culture and our need to protective-style our hair. Her rebuttal was as intense as it was admirable. She made it very clear that her problem was not with my braids at all but that the colour was an unnatural one. She wasn’t afraid to tackle the issue, even though I could have easily accused her of being racist, and I respected her a lot for that.
  • Stop playing the race card. If Jussie Smollett has taught us anything in 2019, it’s not to cry wolf. As people who have been oppressed, Black people can quite quickly feel undervalued and misunderstood. But sometimes we just need to take responsibility for the nonsense we do. If we always use our race as an excuse, when racially-motivated events do happen, people won’t take us seriously. And who could blame them?

Important Lessons on Adolescence:

Photo by 周 康 on Pexels.com
  • Being a teenage girl is hard. Girls are mad. Girls are wild. Girls are bitchy. It’s a difficult season to navigate for us all and it’s better when we group together collectively rather than find reasons to distance ourselves.
  • Competition is not your portion. Learn to love yourself and be comfortable in your own skin. You don’t have to compare yourself to others. Your difference is what makes you beautiful.
  • Peer pressure is real. Don’t give in. Do you unapologetically. Don’t do something major to fit in when it will be old news by the following day.
  • Find people who you can be yourself around. Although I enjoyed secondary school and being exposed to different cultures, I was most comfortable with people who were just like me. People who I didn’t need to explain myself to. It was a breath of fresh air to be around people didn’t question why my hair cream smelled like a Chemistry lab or why my clothes smelt like stew. This doesn’t have to be people from your race, just people who are like-minded.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. Stay tuned for my next one about lessons I learned from my college, where the demographic was the complete opposite: a college in inner-city London with a majority population of Black-British students. It’s gonna be an interesting one.

What have been the most important lessons you’ve learned from your school years?

Love you guys! Helen x

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8 thoughts on “Growing up Black in a Majority-White School

    1. Hi Lena. Thanks so much for all your compliments! I’m glad you enjoyed reading. I know, as minorities we tend to make a lot of noise about the negative experiences but the positive ones don’t get as much airtime. But they are out there! I’ll be checking out your posts too, I’ll make sure to leave a comment! xx

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  1. Loved this post Helen! As you know, I also went to an all white school for smart girl lol! It was fun! 😃 but there were also difficult moments not so much the teachers but the girls! Girls are definitely bitchy. But I made it! And loved it! 😊 can’t wait for your next post x

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    1. Sorella! Yeah, I’m sure yours was DIFFERENT being in Italy. Glad you loved it though. Would love to hear more about your experience there though, we never really spoke much about it. I hear about a lot of race-related horror stories in Italy though… Interesting how these things really shape our outlook though, positive or negative.
      Next post soon come, really trying to be consistent out here so thanks for all the love. I can always count on you to comment! Grazie bella x

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  2. Hi Helen, thank you! Thank you for being so candid in this post. Stereotypes have the potential to hurt and to hinder and ultimately helps no one. Thank you also for not using a ‘struggle or victim narrative’ and for highlighting the fact that you had good experiences even though there weren’t many other people with your ethnicity at your school. I really wish more experiences like yours were highlighted and talked about, it would be so refreshing..

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    1. Hey! Thanks so much, I’m glad you enjoyed reading this. I suppose it’s because the bad news that sells the most; as a society, we love to hear the horror stories. And unfortunately, there are many people who do struggle in these situations and who have totally opposite experiences to mine. And that’s a shame, however, there are so many examples of young people with differences who seem to get on just fine. I think its us adults who have more of a problem with it tbh.
      I’m not sure where you’re from but it’s also a very British thing to do to ignore/avoid talking about uncomfortable issues such as race and so I suppose people have just become accustomed to avoiding sharing their experiences, whether they’re positive ones or not.

      Take care x

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