Growing Up Black and Privileged in Inner-city London

Hey everyone! Welcome back. In my last post, I outlined many life lessons I learned from going to a majority-white girls school in the country side. This post, however, is the next step in my academic career. I’m writing about attending college in inner-city London where Black people were the majority but educational privilege was not.

At Christ the King Sixth Form College, students hailed from a similar ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds as me. Naively, too, I thought that every secondary school was like mine; I was totally unaware that because of my grammar-school education – for the first time in my life – I was on the right side of privilege.

I not only had a great education from GSGW but I had also picked up a fantastic work ethic and a genuine love for learning. I was in my element when studying four subjects that I chose personally, as well as being around people who I had a lot in common with. I obviously grew the most physically at secondary school but I think I had the best learning experience in college. My teachers were brilliant and I really enjoyed my courses. Some of the greatest years of my life were spent there.

Age 16-18. Best or worst years of you life? Let me know why in the comments!

Valuable Life Lessons on Race:

  • There are different types of Black. At secondary school, I thought Black people were all the same, all like me. College was the first place where I was exposed to different kinds of Black people. We had the Africans from Africa, the Caribbeans from the Caribbean, the Black-British Africans, the Black-British Caribbeans, the Black ‘Other,’ the religious, the rebellious, the geeks and nerds, the populars, the ‘ting squad,‘ the comedians, the people who were there for jokes, the people who mixed with other races, the road men and the criminals. Like the White girls in my secondary school and contrary to popular belief, I learned that Black people came in all shapes and sizes.
Image by Gabriel Lopez
  • Code switching is mandatory. Growing up on the greazy streets of London, you needed to be fluent in slang if you wanted to survive. But school was a completely different arena. If you wanted to succeed educationally, you at least needed to be proficient in Standard English. We were forced to be bilingual; learning how to present ourselves in a ‘non-threatening way’ to our peers and teachers whilst remaining true to who we are.
  • Some people could only speak slang. On the flip side, some people are so well-versed in colloquialisms that they struggle in the school context; they cannot communicate appropriately with their teachers or in their exams and therefore can’t succeed. Such language deprivation exists but many people are unaware that it’s even a thing.
  • People stick to their own. Even in a multicultural school in cosmopolitan London, it seemed as though people felt the most comfortable in their own racial groups. Blacks chilled with Blacks, Chinese with the Chinese, Latinxs with Latinxs. Obviously there were exceptions to the rule but for the most part, this was the case. Even though I had grown up surrounded by White people and had good relationships with people from other racial groups, most of my squad were Black and African. And I’m not sure why.
  • Black people and their inherent respect for elders can be detrimental. Even to this day, I struggle with this. Growing up in an African home, we were taught that our elders came second only to God Himself. Older people should be honoured, revered and respected at all times. You couldn’t have proper conversations with your aunties until you graduated from university. Western culture is different in that these conversations are able to start a lot earlier. People who do well in higher or further education (and in their careers) tend to become pally with their higher-ups, bombard them with questions and do whatever it takes to make themselves known. In many Black cultural contexts, this would be regarded as rude. Therefore, if we want to be successful in the British education system, we need to learn how to adapt.

Valuable Lessons on Education:

Image by Doug Linstedt
  • Many Black people succeed in education because of the respect they have for people in authority. Contrary to my previous point, this cultural attribute could be a blessing as well as a curse. We are typically taught to listen to people older than us because they are generally more wise and know better. This is great advice for students who want to succeed in education and even better for those teaching them.
  • Inner-city teachers, we need you! In a typical African home, we are given choice of three career aspirations; doctor, lawyer or engineer. Those are the only professions that our parents can officially call home to brag about. But through our teachers, we were introduced to other possible career paths which lined up with our passions. Some of my more creative friends wanted to become actors, or singers or dancers but were studying the most academic of subjects just to please their parents. Having teachers who encouraged us to pursue what we were talented at made a massive difference, especially when parents evening came around.
  • Teachers need to be genuine, not relatable. Some people think that in order to teach in inner-city schools, you have to rock up everyday with cornrows in your hair and jerk chicken in your packed lunch. That’s by no means the case. Students aren’t looking for teachers who they can relate to because they’re just like them, they’re looking for teachers who are real and who treat them like human beings regardless of their situations. If you love us for who we are, we will love you right back.

Valuable Lessons on Class:

Image by Simone Mascellari
  • Deprivation comes in different forms. You’d expect material deprivation in inner-city London schools. Like myself, many of my peers were the children of immigrants who were trying to make a better lives for themselves overseas. They didn’t always have the best paying jobs to fund our expenses and many of us held down jobs simultaneously whilst at college. But what people fail to understand is the cultural capital that we often lack too. Being raised in Britain and being exposed to typical British culture are two different things; for some, college was a major culture shock. Like when foreign students arrive in class for the first time, some of us need help to bridge the gap between our home lives and school even if our passports are purple.
  • Representation matters. Although people from ethnic minorities made up the majority of the college’s population, I can only remember about 5 teachers who were not White and British. I can’t speak for other races but for Blacks, I don’t know if this underrepresentation is because we typically tend not to aim for this type of profession (remember the Dr, Lawyer, Engineer rule) or because we haven’t been able to acquire the qualifications necessary to become teachers. Whatever the reason, this is alarming.

As our society changes, it is essential that all types of people can see themselves being represented in respectable professions. Especially when young people are watching.

Do you identify with any of these points I’ve mentioned? Let me know in the comments.

Make sure you’re back for my next post where I analyse life lessons learned from my Russell Group university far away from London. I can assure you it won’t be what you expect!

Love you guys, Helen x

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