Can I just start off by saying I was so, so inspired by another writer, whose blog goes by the name of TayTalks: she wrote about her experience as a black student transitioning from a regular school to a high-achieving, upper-middle class school in a predominantly white area. Not only did she have a very similar experience to me, but she highlighted microaggressions that I had never noticed even though we attended the same school.
For those who are unaware, I left my secondary school despite the fact that it had its own 6th form because I wanted to go to a “good school” where I would be pushed to attain higher grades and where the teachers would have better methods of teaching. Most importantly, I had dreams of going to Oxford and I knew that they had facilities for students aiming for Oxbridge.
I remember being so grateful to get in and even more appreciative that I was able to study my chosen subjects even though two of them required a B grade in maths. Ironically, the teacher who interviewed me made sure to remind me of this privilege despite my C grade in maths. True to what Tay said in her blog, I was just one of many students who didn’t attain the correct grade. This was especially true in my Psychology class where only three of us were external students and the internal students had no problems signing up for A Level psychology (even with their C or below maths grade). I didn’t think it was that deep; I didn’t even realise this was a prime example of the school prioritising their internal students or perhaps I did, but I thought it made sense to give advantages to the internals over prospecting externals.
Then I was introduced to the Oxbridge-Russell Group society and given an “Oxbridge mentor” someone who was to guide us into the process of getting in and studying for the entrance exams. We were all expected to go home and take the past papers (something I’d been doing since year 9) so it was no surprise to me when I scored a 33% which my mentor advised me was significantly higher than expected of us at the stage we were in. This did not stop him from asking to talk to me one morning after our group meeting in one of the study hubs. This study hub was full to the brim with students from my year group but he paid no mind to them as he told me with bass in his voice that my A-B GCSE grades (excluding the C grade in maths) were not good enough. I was, of course, already aware that the typical Oxford student usually had 10 A star GCSEs and 4 A star A levels under their belt. But I believed I could compensate for where I didn’t do so well in my GCSEs by doing well in every other aspect. I told him that those grades weren’t going to stop me from working hard in A levels and applying to Oxford to which he then fired back at the top of his lungs:
“I’ll be very frank: the chances of you getting into Oxford are slim to non-existent.“
By this point I knew that everyone in the room was listening and, wanting the intervention to be over, I bit my tongue while I let him publicly humiliate me. As he left the room, I received sympathetic stares, and a handful of people came over to check that I was okay. I never understood why he couldn’t take me into his office for a formal discussion like you would do with most people instead of laying into me in the study hub without an inch of privacy, but I held the corn. I continued studying to get into Oxford. He continued to bring me into his office every other day to tell me I wasn’t good enough. The more despondent I became and the less I responded, the angrier and harsher he became with his words. Eventually, I had to ask my parents to intervene and so they sat with him in his office where my dad laid into him. When they emerged from the meeting, my mentor was apologetic, insisting it had all been a misunderstanding. He asserted that he had been so harsh because my lack of response led him to believe I didn’t understand what he was saying. He thought that I was being forced to apply for Oxford because “black parents are usually academically strict with their children and pressure them to sign up for things the children wouldn’t otherwise sign up for”. I remember this day like the back of my hand. I cannot imagine a white student ever being doubted when she says “I want to go to Oxford” but when I said it, for some reason, it was my parents who really wanted it for me. He couldn’t fathom the idea that I wanted to go there myself.
He looked at me with incredulous eyes as he said with realisation, “so you want to go to Oxford, then.”
Believe it or not, at this point I still didn’t see the divide between “us” and “them”. I didn’t sit with the other black students where they carried the label “the black tables”; I sat in the study hub with the white kids and learned to talk like them, behave like them and listen to Lana del Rey. Because of this, combined with the fact that I grew up in a middle class environment myself, I was deemed acceptable black. And as a result of this, doors were opened for me that were closed for the other black students. I became a part of the head boy head girl team in second year, and it was from this point onward that I saw the disgusting divide. Speaking on behalf of black students to a committee of wealthy, white kids who had other concerns was the hardest thing I’d ever done. It seemed that they were happy to have me on their team as their token black girl, their ‘diversity card’, until I started actually opening my mouth about black issues. I was so lucky I had the head of sixth form, who was also a person of colour, and often referred to me as the “BAME representative” of the head boy head girl team. I would like to reiterate Tay’s point that music was a huge dividing factor in the school. The head of sixth form tried to come to our aid in regard to choosing music for the annual Christmas party by allowing myself and some of the black kids to select some songs for the playlist. We spent hours deciding on the songs and in the meantime, I went around convincing the black external students that it would be different this time. I asked them to put their faith in me, the head boy head girl team, and the head of sixth form that the Christmas party would cater to ALL people and not just their prized internals. Of course, this did not happen. The school DJ, who I believe was a history or media teacher, received complaints from some of the internal students who somehow heard about what I and the head of sixth form had done to diversify the playlist. “They’ve turned it into a black playlist” they cried. Needless to say, that playlist was trashed and the DJ reused the same playlist from the year before when there were less black students speaking up.
This happened again on the festival-themed last day of school in which myself and someone else from the head boy head girl team were put in charge of music. “Three songs each“ I made him promise to which he agreed. I chose two dancehall songs and one rap song – these songs were not explicit. Somehow, I became cut out of the process and someone else, someone outside of the head boy head girl team, was brought in. On the day, after eons of house music, I approached them to ask about my songs in which they brushed me off with “don’t worry, we got you”. They did not have me.
I remember talking to the teacher who monitored the study hubs and she told me something very interesting. She told me that she was over this school; that they were treating the black kids differently even behind closed doors. She told me that they referred to the kids in the common room as “hooligans, rugrats, thugs” while the kids in the study hubs were “well behaved, presentable, professional”. I don’t think at this point it’s necessary to note the race of the majority of the kids in each of these rooms. The teacher told me that the kids in the study hub were oftentimes a nightmare but the other teachers weren’t trying to hear that. By the end of the year, I no longer felt I identified with (the majority of) my Caucasian or internal friends. I had nothing but love for them but I suddenly felt a newly awakened urge to connect with the other black and external students. I realised, if it was truly “us” against “them”, we had to stick together.
We should never have been seen as “intimidating”. There were less of us. We segregated ourselves because we were never welcomed. So don’t tell us that we intimidate you when all the big decisions are made in rooms we weren’t invited to.