Racism in the education system conditioned me into believing that racism was the norm.

BLACK LIVES MATTER PROTEST. LONDON. 2020.

School is rough for everyone. Whether you were the popular girl, the captain of the football team or the person who sat by themselves at lunch. 11–16-year-olds can be mean and emotional and experience so many changes that nobody has prepared you for. So it is very normal to hate your secondary school/high school experiences. However, you should not hate those years because of the racism you continually experienced. Before I continue, for context, I went to an all girls catholic convent school in South London.

I was never a bad child in school. Though, my old headteacher would have you believe the complete opposite. From the minute I arrived at my secondary school, it felt as if she had a vendetta against me. We had an internal exclusion unit in my school that was a tiny box room that could not have held more than 25 students at any given time. I spent a lot of days in that room. Whenever I look back, I recall it being filled with black students. Every single time. Maybe 2 white kids at most. I would say that out of 25 of us, less than a quarter of us had actually done something that deserved that punishment. At first, I did not think anything of it. Then things stopped making sense. My parents would come to parent’s evenings and my teachers would tell them I was very shy and did not really speak in class. That was a common comment for 5 years at that school. However, my headteacher had already labelled me “loud” and “aggressive”. To this day, I have never been in a physical fight. In fact, I am VERY scared of violence and confrontation. As my teachers stated, I am very shy. Yet every time I was called into my head teacher’s office, it was the same narrative. “Loud, aggressive, rude”, one time she even stated that I skip school on purpose. I was in and out of hospital regularly during secondary school and other than that my attendance was near perfect. I must have been 14 when it clicked. All these labels she threw at me were the stereotypes that the education system holds for black students. I once had a teacher ask which parent I lived with because of course, no black student could come from a home with both parents, right? My parents live together and that is public knowledge to my school as they address letters to Mr and Mrs Steven. The cherry on top of everything I had experienced was the day I had a hospital appointment and did not attend school. Something occurred in a French class and to this day I still have no idea what exactly happened. However, I walked through my school gates the next day and received an immediate threat of exclusion for being involved in the events that occurred in that French class. Again, I was not in school. I was on the complete opposite side of London at the time.

It was not until I went to a different school at age 16 that I was taught about the self-fulfilling prophecy and the self-denying prophecy. When I moved schools, that was also the first time in my education that I did not have a teacher that had these pre-conceived ideas about who I was. I got very lucky with the teachers I had at sixth form and I could write pages on how every teacher should be like them. I took three social sciences during my a-levels and thus, I very quickly became very aware of the sociology behind why teachers stereotype and that it happens more frequently than it should.

“Black kids with no fathers”, “Thugs”, “A-C economy”. These are all phrases that circulate the education system. These are all phrases and concepts that create barriers to black success in education. Teachers have one main job. To educate. So why do some teachers feel the need to do the exact opposite? To kick black students out of classrooms for trivial things that their white counterparts have done and not received a punishment? The very fact that in my 15 years of education, prior to university, I only ever had 2 black teachers and one was not even my full-time teacher, says a lot about the education system. So on top of black students not seeing teachers that look like them, we are then at a further disadvantage because these teachers hold typifications of what a “good” or “bad” student is. And more often than not, black students are the epitome of their perception of a bad student.

Furthermore, the curriculum makes us feel unseen. Until my final year of studying history, I had never even seen a picture of a black person in my history textbooks. This had two effects. The first being that I thought, for many years, that black people did not have a history. The second effect being that every other white person in that class had also never studied black people and so when we finally touched on the topic of slavery and the civil rights movement, they came to me with their questions. As if I was the child of Martin Luther King. As if I knew any more than they did. I do not blame my peers who asked me if I was a slave or if my parents were slaves. I do, however, blame the education system for making children believe that the only part of black history that exists is the part where black people “pick cotton”. That is how black history was explained to me. It was not the history of Jazz and Rock ’n’ Roll. It was not the history of black female authors who paved the way for literature and poetry. It was not the work of Angela Davis, Kimberle Crenshaw and Audre Lourde. It was that me, my family and people who looked like us were slaves and that is the beginning and the end of our history. The British education system is so eurocentric that it was not until I was at University that I read a book about colonialism and immediately became very ashamed of the country I called home. Even as a black person of colour, I spent the majority of my life believing the UK was not racist. It was not until Brexit occurred and the stories of Windrush came to light again and the very obvious racist dog-whistle politics that the campaign brought into the UK, that I realised that it was very easy for the education system to make us all believe that the United States is racist, but the United Kingdom? oh no, we are so over that. So over it that we, as a government and country, continued to pay slave owners compensation for financial loss after the abolition of slavery until 2015… That was something I never read in a history textbook.

It is very often discussed that certain races do not go into certain fields, or even to university. If you have ever said this you need to sit down, get a cup of coffee and wonder why you think that way. The people of colour that I know and love are some of the most motivated people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. I think, for a lot of us, we wish to change the world that has failed us so many times. BIPOCs in fields of law, medicine, journalism and politics etc. Suprise, WE EXIST. For those who did not make it to that level, however, raises the question of why? and in my view, it is because the very system that was meant to help us get there failed us one too many times.

22 | she/her. ig: @marystevenn.