How Will We Save Our Black Boys?
Secondary School Black Boys in London, and the Stereotypes That Follow Them
So, it’s important to start this by saying that I’m writing this blog as part of my pledge to write one post a month in 2017. For the last week I’ve mulled over what I wanted to write about, and this has been the reoccurring theme in my mind, but without any real structure. Alas, I’m going to go ahead and write what’s on my mind and hope it takes shape.
Also, my spotlight on ‘London’ secondary school black boys isn’t because I believe this isn’t an issue elsewhere, but because I am drawing solely from my own experiences and the experiences of those around me, most of which are limited to London.
For the last six months my bill-payer has been working in various secondary schools, as a cover teacher/teaching assistant. Since summer 2010, I have spent every summer (bar summer 2016), working with secondary school-aged students in the form of summer schools.
Before I continue, I think it’s important to shed some light on my own secondary school education experience for those who do not know me. I consider myself to have been privileged. You do not need to be a white, male, middle-class background, private school-educated to be privileged. In the eyes of many, that would put you at the highest point of the totem pole of privilege, yes, but there are many other, lesser, forms of privilege.
Whilst I did not attend private school, my privilege was both a primary school (which wasn’t particularly spectacular by any means) and mother who observed my intelligence, a mother who had both the initiative and sensibilities to ensure I took the 11+ (for those not familiar, a test in the UK where your score determines whether you will be considered for a place in a selective school) and, of course, me exercising the intelligence that had been observed in me.
All of this resulted in the cumulative privilege of me securing a place at an excellent grammar school that without a doubt has shaped much of the man I am today (and the same can be said of many of those that I attended that school with who are all doing wonderful, inspiring things with their lives).
Not all are as fortunate.
As a black man who is incredibly grateful to the point of feeling indebted to my school for the education (both in terms of the traditional form, as well as character) I received, the values and traits it instilled in me and — ultimately — my ability to thus navigate my way through this thing called life… My heart regularly weeps when observing young black boys. Whilst I work in various schools, more often than not I return to schools I have worked in before. This results in familiarity; I get to know the students. Like all teachers, I remember the naughty kids more than any others. As a black man, I especially remember the black boys.
The reason I remember them isn’t because I subscribe to the poisonous stereotype that exists of how black boys behave. Stereotypes which, sometimes, consequent in them being treated harsher by teachers (read as, in later life: society, the police, any kind of authority) as a result of presumptions, rather than actual displayed actions that warrant the treatment they’re given.
No, the reason I remember them is because I see me in them. In life, we tend to observe those who we relate to. Race and gender, of course, is not the only way we relate to people. I might relate to someone who grew up in the same area as me, someone who supports the same football team as me, someone who likes the same TV show I do… The list is endless.
I wasn’t the best behaved child in school (being intelligent definitely saved me from some of the more severe consequences my actions would have deserved). However, there were certainly teachers who I felt treated me slightly harsher because I was a black boy. To clarify, I’m not suggesting these teachers were racist. But, through stereotypes, presumptions and perhaps experiences with other black boys, a select few teachers may have taken an approach with me based on these.
Thankfully, in my own experience these select few teachers were completely outweighed by those who were not like this at all. I had many, many great teachers and I turned out pretty fine.
These stereotypes of secondary school black boys in London can be damaging. I’ve seen the students who play up to it. I’ve seen the students who stop trying, because they believe trying won’t save them from it. And, I’ve seen the students who both accept and concede defeat to it.
It doesn’t help that they likely come from environments that are littered with elder black boys — posing as a prominent presence of what they are destined to become — rather than the more positive examples of what they could become.
A couple of months ago, I had an incident with a black boy who was very aggressive with me. This incident included:
- Refusal to follow my instruction to wait behind at the end of the lesson
- Pushing me out of his way in the process
- Swearing at me
Minutes later, whilst I told off his accomplice — another black boy — said young black boy returned to the classroom with his tail between his legs. Had he not returned, the consequences would have been significantly more severe for him. I was both happy and relieved that it didn’t have to come to that.
I had a heart-to-heart with this boy. I’d taught him many times by this point, observed his behaviour (or, lack of), his crappy attitude to learning, his general disruptiveness and everything else. I’d also observed that he was ALWAYS on report when I visited this school. This is throughout a six month span of me frequently covering at this school. During this heart-to-heart, I talked to him about being a black boy growing up in this world. How I was him, not too long ago. And I shared with him the harsh realities, how the world would perceieve him and swallow him alive if he persisted in this way. I told him that I only want the best for him. And told him that — under no circumstances — should he mistake the reason why I want the best for him: because, like myself, he is a black boy.
At this point, might I share an excerpt from British rapper Stormzy’s recent feature in The Guardian that I feel is highly relevant:
I now want to draw your attention to a particular incident that struck me last week. An incident that did not actually involve a black boy but, instead, a white boy:
White Boy Student sits in front of the computer, doing absolutely no work nor does he show any desire to do. His body language sucks, as does his attitude, all of which can be smelt from a mile of. A passing teacher observes this through the window and enters the classroom.
Teacher: Why aren’t you doing any work?
White Boy Student: I don’t want to.
T: If you keep up this attitude and don’t do any work, you’re gonna fail your exams. You won’t have any qualifications so you won’t be able to get a job and you won’t have any money. How you gonna be able to buy all those hats you like so much if you don’t have any money?
Clearly a rhetorical question, the teacher walks away from the student, sighing and shaking their head at the student’s attitude. There is an air of acceptance, that this student is a lost cause.
WBS (muttering under breath): Daddy’s money.
As I observed this interaction, I sat there speechless. Because that’s the difference. The reality is that the percent of black boys in London that will have this privilege is practically non-existent. A privilege where one is able to believe that — should they fail in education — one can rely on their parent’s wealth as a safety net. For what it’s worth, I suspect this child doesn’t actually come from a particularly wealthy background, but it must be comfortable enough — whether that be financially, or in terms of expectations of one to become independent — for him to believe that.
For many black boys in London, once success is not found in education, football, music and any other stereotypes you want to throw into the mix… I don’t need to say the things they so often turn to in pursuit of what they deem as ‘success’ (translation: money). We know it.
So when I go into schools, and observe difficult (troubled, perhaps?) black boys, I try to take any given opportunities to be a difference. But, in any case, I am merely an occasional presence in their schools, unlike the teachers they see on a daily basis. It is just as sad that, whilst I would love to be a part of this change, I have no desire to become a teacher (least, not in the traditional sense)…
I’ve observed the approach that many black (and, actually, ethnic) teachers take towards black students. Their intentions come from a good place in treating them differently, but I don’t always think the approach of being harsher on them is any better. I would like to believe that communication would be a far more effective tool. With being harsher on them, how is this any different an approach to how they’re being treated by the white teachers imposing negative stereotypes on them?
I don’t have an answer or a solution to offer to this problem.
I hope one day we can.
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