Reflections on my school experience, Black Lives Matter and the future
By Tabatha Crook
In the space of a few weeks, many of us had to adjust to a new way of living, working and interacting. Lockdown meant that my final A Level exams were cancelled (and that did admittedly feel like a silver lining), but what really surprised me was how capable we all are of making changes to our lifestyles.
As we move forward I am optimistic that these changes will reflect the spirit of the Black Lives Matter movement and the treatment of black people in our society. We’ve all seen the videos, the posts and the protests, but on a day-to-day level what does this mean? And how can we ensure the momentum of the BLM movement creates a lasting change to the way black students are seen in places of education?
Throughout secondary school, I experienced a dismissive attitude towards race. I went to a fairly diverse girls' school, so in a way it was difficult to pinpoint why we black girls felt at a disadvantage; we rarely ever had to deal with overt racism and on a personal level, teachers didn’t seem to treat us any worse because we were black. However, looking back I am able to see why many of us felt that way and why it’s important that other black students are equipped with this insight.
Secondary school is naturally a lot more competitive than primary school; you’re ranked based on academic ability almost as soon as you step through the doors and systems such as class sets (usually started in the upper school) and programmes for ‘Gifted and Talented’ students are introduced. I was well behaved and by Year 9 I was placed in most ‘top set’ classes, but I noticed the absence of black girls in those spaces, chosen for special opportunities and in positions of responsibility.
The ‘Gifted and Talented’ programmes excluded many black students because they were dependent on teacher opinions towards students and subsequently their biases. When the few black students were chosen to be on those programmes, it was because they were literally the best at their subject, whereas other students were also judged on their perceived potential. In some cases, grades weren’t even a factor for white girls getting opportunities, it was clear that likeability was good enough.
The problem with academic programmes like that was the way they allowed teachers to categorise and profile high achieving black students as if they were somehow different to the rest of the black community, like we were just an exception to the rule. Once these categories had been established, there was no flexibility in the system to allow other black students to move up and there were countless times when the efforts of the academic black students were ignored while other students were publicly praised and rewarded.
By Year 11 I had decided to organise the annual Black History Month assembly, but it was made clear to me that it was a tradition teachers wished to stop. They let us know we were also being judged on the perceived ‘disorganisation’ of the previous Year 11s. I was keen to base the assembly on positive black British history, educating people on inspirational figures they may not have heard of with a film I had made myself, and I was excited to involve other people in my year group, retaining the ‘fun’ celebratory aspect of the annual event with African drumming and singing.
I distinctly remember the Deputy Headteacher trying to convince me that it wasn’t a good idea, but to ensure I didn’t think she was racist, she told me she ‘didn't see colour’, and that in her family they didn’t mention race when referring to people. Though she’d meant to reassure me with that statement, in my opinion mindsets like that contributed to the disadvantages we faced throughout our time there. In that particular instance, the teacher was not able to comprehend why the assembly was important and she could not see that for the black students, it gave a sense of community and recognition. In the long term, through pretending they had no biases and no awareness of race, teachers could overlook the recurring lack of opportunity for black students.
It was the one hour in the year that we could tell people that we were different, that we don’t all have an equal starting point in life but that we did have a history beyond slavery. I realise that it had become ‘disorganised’ and centred on entertainment in the past because of the pressure of trying to fit thousands of years of information into one event without proper support and to an audience that was reluctant to learn about black history. Had the curriculum been more diverse, we wouldn’t have felt the need to educate teachers and students ourselves - it shouldn’t have felt like our responsibility.
I believe the BLM movement will help students because acknowledgement of race is the first step for schools. Furthermore, reminding people that the movement does not take away from the experience of other ethnicities and shutting down counterproductive statements like ‘all lives matter’ has been a great turning point. This is because schools often boast a one-rule-for-all system with punishment and opportunities but it is a similar extension of practising ill-informed equality over equity which often ends up with a disproportionate number of black students being punished and a disproportionate number of white students being rewarded.
Many people have understood that it is not enough for individuals and institutions to pretend we are all on an even playing field and schools are no exception. It isn’t enough for white teachers to ignore their privilege and the privilege of white students when they label us ‘intimidating’, deny us opportunities and underestimate our grades and trajectories. This also means acknowledging that even if they don't understand our experiences - there is a wider problem, and that there is a myriad of ways they can help to correct it.
We need teachers to recognise our blackness, to understand that our experiences are different and question why so many of us continuously end up at a disadvantage. We also need to see a more diverse range of role models in the curriculum and in the classroom. I was lucky enough to have had two excellent black female maths teachers who inspired me to study Maths A-Level, but I know more role models like that would have encouraged others and may have prevented staff undervaluing black students as well.
With schools now reopened for all students, I hope the conversations and ideas we’ve had in lockdown have been brought back into the classroom and given that many young people are on social media, I think open discussions about the impact of what we’ve witnessed over the last few months would be invaluable.
I dedicate this piece to readers who have lost loved ones to Covid-19.
Tabatha Crook is an 18 year old first year student currently studying Architecture at University College London. Outside of her academic study Tabatha has been working with her local mental health service to improve care for children and teenagers, and does her best to raise awareness about the issues which affect our lives such as racial inequality.
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