Growing Up Black and Smart in Inner-city London

So in my last post, I outlined many life lessons I learned from going to a majority-white girls school in the country side. You can read about that here if you haven’t already. After completing my GCSEs in 2006, I managed to get into Christ the King Sixth Form College in Lewisham, South-East London. I was over the moon. Here, people hailed from a similar ethnic background as me but this time, I would turn up at this educational institution completely unaware of my advantage. Because of my grammar-school education, for the first time in my life, I was privileged.

I not only had a great education from GSGW but I had also picked up 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. This 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 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.
  • Some Black people are pros at code switching. Growing up on the greasy 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 reading and writing standard English. The most well-rounded Black people know how to switch it up depending on their context. On the flip side, some people are so well-versed in slang that they struggle in the school context because they cannot communicate appropriately with their teachers or in their exams. Language deprivation.
  • Some Black people don’t know what to say to White people. This was a really strange thing for me but I guess at the time I hadn’t considered that there were schools that existed that were the complete opposite of the school I attended. For some people living deeper into London than I did, their whole communities were filled who looked the same as them. They grew up with Black people, schooled with Black people, made friends with Black people. Black people were all they knew. So when faced with White people, some people were completely out of their depths.
  • 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 and uncles until you graduated from university. But that’s not how White people operate. And if we want to be successful in their education system, we need to learn how to adapt.

Valuable Lessons on Education:

  • Some Black people do well 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 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. In my experience as a teacher, African students who transferred from Africa were the perfect type of students for this reason.
  • Inner-city teachers, we need you! In a typical African home, we are given choice of three career aspirations; becoming a doctor, lawyer or engineer. Those are the only professions that our parents can officially call home and brag about. But for the first time in my life, I was hearing about all these other possible career paths from my teachers and they sounded like professions that lined up with my passions. And I wasn’t the only one. I had many friends who were creative and 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 all the difference. They even gave us the boldness to confess to our parents that we wanted to follow our dreams…
  • Teachers need to be genuine, not relatable. Some people think that to teach in an inner-city school, 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. Don’t try and be down with he kids if you’re not, just be yourself.

Valuable Lessons on Class:

  • 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 trying to make a better lives for themselves overseas. They didn’t always have the best paying jobs to fund our expenses. Many of us help 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 British culture are two different things and for some, college was a major culture shock.
  • Representation matters. Although Black people made up the majority of the college’s population, I can only remember about 5 teachers who were from an ethnic minority. I don’t know if this was because Black people typically tend not to aim for this type of profession (remember the Dr, Lawyer, Engineer rule) or because we were previously not educated enough 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 positions of leadership. Especially when young people are watching.

I’m pleased to say that there a so many of my college friends who are absolutely killing it in their careers at the moment. It’s great for us minorities who want to succeed in the educational route, there are colleges such as CTK which exist to nurture our young minds. There’s an alternative to the gang culture and violence that ravishes minority communities, which means there is hope.

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 at my Russell Group university outside of London.

Love you guys, Helen x

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