It was the second day in my new school, Kay and I and we were getting along beautifully. It was lunch time and we were all in the department’s office when Kay said to me “You don’t even sound black”. I was puzzled so I asked, “Black how?” She laughed, a little shyly then said “You know…, go on.... Talk black.“ I'd never heard this before and was totally clueless. The office had gone quiet and I felt like I was missing out on some joke. Clearly, the others had an idea what Kay was inferring and one of them said “Kay, this is not TV”. We were all saved from embarrassment by the bell. The rest of the day, I couldn’t shake that thought. Did Kay think that just because I am black, my speech would be punctuated by “init”, “fam” and “blood” or was she expecting me to sound like a rap artist?
I had just moved from a very diverse school with a huge mixture of cultures and faiths to a school that was 98% white British and Christian. Apart from me, there was only two other Black members of staff in a school with more than 100 staff members. It occurred to me that majority of the staff and students had not spent time with black people and therefore Kay was actually just naïve and honestly thought that all black people, regardless of their education, upbringing or the setting spoke like they are portrayed in the media.
After my first week, it was clear that quite a lot of the students were unfamiliar with black people as well. They were very puzzled by why I would leave Oxfordshire to come and teach in their school. They also thought that my accent, my Oxford twang, was posh but the most common questions were about my hair. A vast majority of students wanted to touch it out of curiosity. The older students were more vocal. They would ask me where I was from, I would reply with “Oxford” but the question would come back, “Where are you from from…?” And when I replied London, the question would change to “Where are your parents from?” They found it unacceptable that I should be black and be from Oxford or that my parents should be black and British, they felt the need to trace my lineage to the African roots in order to satisfy their assumption.
As months went by, Kay began to understand that my behaviour was not for show. I did not “talk black” when I was away from school or with my friends and having realised her naïve thinking, Kay took it upon herself to help others to question their own assumptions. She had noted how people were reluctant to use the term black when describing me. A number of times, Kay would send students to fetch something from the work room and upon their return, she would ask them who gave it to them. They would use all manner of adjectives to describe me – the tall woman, with long dark hair – dreadlocks I think, she sits on the middle desk on the right - they rarely knew my name but they never used the term black to describe me.
The attitude about using the word black as a descriptor require challenging, some individuals think it politically incorrect to use it. I try to challenge this attitude by asking my students to think of how the police give out descriptions of perpetrators. In fact, in one of my PSHE lessons, we looked at how to describe a person, height, build, hair, eyes and complexion are all part of an individual’s characteristics and so black, brown or white are not words to be intimidated by. However, there is a large number of students and teachers who are shy about using the term just in case it causes offence.
For me, teaching is a calling. It is not an easy job. I quite enjoy facing and overcoming challenges which is why I am not fazed by working with teenagers but when you work with teenagers who struggle to form a connection with you because you are a different colour, now that is a difficult challenge to overcome. However, where there is a will, there is always a way. I came into this job hoping to teach and inspire the next generation. Wanting to make a difference. I overlooked my skin colour being a barrier and what I did not count on, was that I would be an ambassador. White students do ask questions about what they think is black culture and black students ask me about my journey to where I am and my experiences of racism in university and in the workplace. I never once thought that I would be in such an influential position but now more than ever, education, in both young and mature, remains the key to a more integrated environment in the school and workplace.
Shakila Said, Equality and Diversity Committee