Life as a black person in the UK isn’t the same for everyone. We all have a unique story that’s shaped the people we are today.
In The Black Experience Roundtable we explored our experiences and opinions on education, politics and what the future holds.
Here are some highlights from the discussion.
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Kevin: Growing up, education was considered really important. After school and university, the next step was to find a career. Taking a gap year wasn’t really considered a thing. So I pretty much went from sixth form to university and then finding a job as soon as possible after graduating.
Jermaine: My story’s quite similar. So, I’m from a first-generation Nigerian household and my parents encouraged me to work hard and get a degree. They’d always use the line “I didn’t come to this country just for you to be messing about!” If I had kids, I don’t think I'd be adamant that they went to university. It’s not for everyone. As a parent I think the best thing you can do is just help their own path, whatever that may be. Personally, I’ve learned so much from general life experience and the people I’ve met.
Brean: Same for me. My parents wanted the best for us and that started with getting a good education. They encouraged us to do well at school and try our best. Similar to Kevin, there wasn’t really room for taking a gap year. After sixth form, I went to university and then started working on my career soon after graduating.
Abby: My experience was quite different. I’m originally from Jamaica and although getting a good education was important there wasn’t any pressure to go to university. The main focus was finding a job. My dad would often say “what’s the point in going to school when you should be going to work instead?” I did really well at school and had to build my own ambitions instead of having someone push me to do it.
Dan: My experience was quite similar to yours Abby. Both of my parents left school at 16 and started working immediately after leaving. So I never felt pressured to do anything different. I did end up going to college and university but there was no expectation that I had to go. As long as my path allowed me to get things like a house and start a family it was totally fine.
Ellise: My mum always wanted me to be successful at whatever I decided to do in life but there was no pressure to get straight As or anything like that. I can see a difference in attitudes to education in households depending on what generation you are. I'm a third generation Jamaican. My grandma came to the UK and then both my mum and I were born here. There’s a big difference between my mum and my grandma’s attitude. My grandma for example, always points out one of the doctors in Holby City and keeps saying that I can be just like her. And I always say that my PhD will be enough and I’m not going to be a doctor in that way.
Sam: My parents came to the UK from Jamaica too. Education was really important for my mum growing up and she got straight As at school, my dad was really smart too. My mum’s focus changed when they got to England though. She wanted to make sure that we were safe and looked after. Getting a good education was still really important for my dad. During university, I actually thought about leaving my course. My mum said that as long as I had an idea of what to do next in terms of getting a job and making money it would be fine. My dad on the other hand, wanted me to see it through, He always said that an education will get you somewhere regardless of where you end up in life.
Abi: I’m Nigerian and education was so important for my dad. He encouraged us to work hard at school and try our best growing up. He passed away when I was young and my mum looked after myself and my 3 sisters. We moved to the UK and she eventually remarried but education wasn’t a massive focus. I had to rely on my own instincts to make it and still do today.
Kevin: I think your voice might be heard on a local level. It feels like you can see the direct effect of your vote. I’m from Newham, in East London and it’s changing so much. It’s becoming increasingly expensive. There are lots of new high-rise flats that people can’t afford and they’re being pushed out. It’s definitely affecting the black community. There are a lot of people who have moved here from outside of London and are changing the scope of the East End.
Ofome: It doesn’t feel like black people have a voice in politics. We’re only really acknowledged if a vote needs to swing one way or another. There isn’t anyone in power looking out for our best interests or trying to improve serious problems affecting our communities.
Dan: I don’t think this current political environment serves black people in any way, shape or form. People who have lived here since childhood are being deported because of the Windrush Scandal and it’s ripping families apart. As a black person it also feels like there’s an extra layer or an extra thing to talk about. You would feel guilty knowing that you voted in, say, your own economic interests knowing that they didn’t match those of your people. It’s a tough one but I think your political memory is likely to influence what you believe.
Jermaine: It’s an interesting one. On a national scale I don’t think we’re being heard. I do wonder if people’s political views change when money starts coming in. So for example, if you were brought up in a predominantly working class labour area, would you end up voting conservative if you came into wealth.
Abi: Not at all, at least not in my lifetime. I just feel like I'm never going to be accepted here. We’re the only black family on my street and my neighbours constantly remind me about it. I've never been so conscious about my colour. They make me feel so unwelcome just because of my race. Even simple things like going to the Post Office. Everytime I walk in they just stare at me, as if I don’t belong. This year has been especially overwhelming and it’s started to affect my mental health. I just don’t feel like myself anymore and I’m actually planning on moving back to Nigeria at some point.
Abby: I don’t think it will change in any lifetime either. There’d have to be a massive change in mentality for that to be possible. I spoke to my sister and she was so fed with how she’s being treated at work. She’s the only black person in her company and feels really out of place. They didn’t even address the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM). To some extent I feel it too. On one hand life’s been good, I get to travel, do my thing and live my life but you can’t help but wonder - does the world really hate you that much just because of the way you look? Are people really that cruel? It really gets to you emotionally. I’m also thinking about moving elsewhere.
Dan: "I'm mixed race - so I've seen that people tend to be more open minded and less stereotypical when they have black and mixed family members.
So you'd think that as more generations of black people are born in the UK and integrate, things would get better. But even that's not absolute - I still see ignorance from relatives who have had black/mixed siblings, partners or even children for 50+ years now.
Attitudes aren't changing fast enough - so we might not see equality in our lifetime.
For black people who live and work here, it’s up to us to decide whether we continue to fight for equality in the UK, knowing that it'll be a slow and painful process - or just move somewhere else."
Sam: I agree that equality isn’t coming anytime soon in the UK. Especially because there's a mentality that has been passed down through generations, and it’s hard to break that. Our voices might be loud but we still have to tackle things like the British media painting black people in a certain way. Even when a black person achieves something great, they always try to dig up something negative to tear them down. We have to remember that our ancestors were brought here to build a country for them, not for us. So in their eyes it’s a country for them, not us. I don’t think equality can ever come from that mentality. And it’s not something that we can change. Even my brother - his girlfriend’s white and her family told him that he’s not allowed to go to Ireland or meet her grandma because he’s black. I just don’t see equality coming in my generation or my kid’s generation.
Jermaine: There’s definitely a glimmer of hope, but change is going to be very slow. The BLM movement gained a lot of momentum in 2020. Which was really encouraging on one hand. But I couldn’t help but wonder if people would have cared so much if it wasn’t for being stuck in lockdown because of coronavirus. I guess we’ll never know for sure. But at least it got some people to think a bit differently. I don’t see things changing much in my lifetime. In London and a few other cities around the UK are really multicultural but only represent a small percentage of the UK population. There’s a lot of tension and hate outside of those diverse areas. And that’s often passed on to their kids.
Brean: The impact of the BLM movement also gave me hope that things might change. But as things stand I can’t imagine there being equality in my lifetime. So much needs to change before that can truly happen. Although some companies have now started taking an anti-racism stance, there’s still a generational mentality in society to contend with. For example, one of the big supermarkets had a three-part Christmas ad campaign. One of the ads featured a black family talking about gravy and it got so much backlash. A lot of people were angry and complained about representation despite the fact that the other two ads in the campaign were about white families. Don’t get me wrong, the gravy ad wasn’t great but those comments weren’t giving constructive feedback about the narrative. And that’s just one example, it’s disheartening and exhausting to face those attitudes everyday.
Ellise: So, one of the other supermarkets actually pulled their Christmas ad which primarily featured a black family because of the backlash the gravy one got. It’s so upsetting because representation is such an important thing. In terms of equality, I’m not sure things will change anytime soon. There was a study done by Jane Elliot called the blue eyes/brown eyes study. The whole point was to demonstrate racism on a very small scale. She did the study in countries all over the world and the one place it didn’t work was England. People were so adamant that racism didn’t exist. If people aren’t willing to acknowledge that racism exists, it’s unlikely to change. My younger brother experienced racism when he was only 8. He wanted to go to his friend’s house and his friend told him that he couldn’t come over because of the colour of his skin. His friend knew it was wrong and apologised to my brother on behalf of his mum because she didn’t understand it was racist, but that’s just terrible.
Sam: I enjoyed my time in Canada, everyone was really friendly. America was a completely different story, I think everyone’s in their own world there. I haven’t had many bad experiences in Europe apart from in Budapest. When I was walking past everyone was just whistling for no reason. I later found out it was because they thought I was a prostitute. Whenever I’ve gone on big family holidays to places like Spain things have been ok as well. We usually stick to the main touristy areas rather than going to more rural areas or villages though.
Ellise: I had an awful experience in Turkey and probably won’t go back. I went with my family and all they did was stare at us and take pictures. One day a group of guys actually grabbed my younger brother, who was nine years old at the time, so they could take a picture with him and started rubbing his head. It was horrible and felt so surreal. A similar thing happened in Spain. I think it has something to do with them thinking that black children or people are “lucky” so they rub them for luck.
Abi: In China people wanted to take a lot of pictures with me. It felt good the first couple of times but got weird very quickly. Everywhere I went people would literally start grabbing me out of nowhere and start taking pictures of me.
Kevin: I think some people generalise what it means to be black rather than seeing us as individuals with very nuanced experiences. They build stereotypes based on what they see on TV or through the media. When it comes to things like dating especially, some people will only look at you from a physical aspect rather than what your mind has to offer.
Ofome: I think the idea of the “strong black women” can be problematic. It puts a lot of pressure on us to give 110% all the time. Black women are very hardworking and driven and at the same time very nurturing and supportive. We often find ourselves spinning a lot of plates. My boyfriend often calls me Superwoman and I have to remind him that I’m actually just a normal person and need support too. I’m not this superhuman being that does millions of things each day out of choice. I have to get them done because I don’t have the option to let things fall off. I’d much rather be seen as a regular human being and work together to get things done.
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This discussion revealed so much about everyone’s individual experiences and opinions.
It’s the first of a series of discussions where we’ll dig into different themes.
Watch this space!
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