Last week the former Arsenal, Tottenham and England footballer Sol Campbell, hosted a programme for the BBC. The Panorama show investigated why the unemployment rate for young black British men is roughly double that of their white counterparts. I use the term investigates loosely as I found it a tad cringeworthy when Sol was interviewing the young men. Needless to say it created a bit of dialogue with colleagues around achievement and eventual employment opportunities for black males as a whole.
One part of that dialogue was that black boys need more role models, especially black role models, in order to achieve success. I balked as soon as I heard that because having heard it for many years I wondered where the evidence was to support this.
I started out working as a mentor and youth worker mentoring gifted students of Caribbean heritage. Both male and female. My work then extended to dealing with students who were struggling in school and society and whose heritage was African as well as Caribbean. Whilst working with students especially around attainment and self leadership there was no conversation about role models per se but there was clearly a desire by parents for them to see someone who looked like them, who was aspirational guiding their children to success.
Not only were people like myself doing this but we were part of a generation of torch bearers emulating our parents, for me especially it was my Dad, who provided extra tuition in school holidays, after school and later on in the formation of supplementary weekend schools. At these schools not only were you schooled in Maths, English and science but also there was a keen sense of history being shared that tied your success to your heritage and the need for students to excel.
Such classes also placed a heavy emphasis on clear enunciated English, good grammar and etiquette. I personally found the etiquette problematic as I considered it
a tad colonial. For example one teacher told us never to get into arguments with white people at work but just keep your head down and let your work do the talking!!! I digress.
This supplementary education was key in the overall success of my peers and I who shared not only similar heritage but grew up in the estates of North London where crime, poverty and educational underachievement were uncomfortable bed fellows.
Did we have role models?
When I consider my inner circle of friends I think I am the only one who does not have a degree. We are all ambitious either owning or own businesses or having taken a rather strident attitude to career progression and professional success.
Part of that was down to the fact we were surrounded by men who constantly reinforced the message that we were sons of excellence and carried the responsibility of our forefathers and mothers who sacrificed much to be in England. First generation immigrants who had umpteen rejections in work when they came to Britain, even though they were more qualified than the ‘natives’, and who suffered disadvantage because of the nature of their accent. Which probably explains why some students still think I speak posh??!!!!
In addition to this all of our parents ensured they attended parents evening. Would politely but assertively challenge teachers who weren’t pushing us far enough and make it very clear they wanted the best for their children. They would concur with the concepts, and methods, of discipline to ensure we stayed on track.
I remember one parents evening where a coterie of Dads and Mums refused to let their children engage in sporting activities unless their kids were in the higher Maths and English groups. The wave of students who climbed up into the top tier was amazing. Even now as I write this it makes me realise how powerful that collective was and how the school had to adapt so they could keep their athletic and team games reputations.
Our role models were present. They were in church, in the community, in schools and they were not dependent on colour. The focus was on success. We were told to look at people who worked hard, were determined to reach their goals and had what we wanted to have. I suppose in modern parlance that would be referred to as modelling.
The concept of black role models.
Now I for one think it is important for any socio-economic and cultural group to have models that they look up to. These are individuals who you can connect with on an emotional and cultural level. Those who you can see yourself being like because of their attitude. I learnt a number of lessons whilst observing how role model programmes are designed and why I found many of them, especially when targeted to a racial grouping, problematic. This is not universal but my anecdotal experience.
First lesson. Having worked in both private and state schools you come across students who have a sense of entitlement. In the latter many students will ask the questions how can I become successful and the former it is why I am not. Yes I am generalising here but what whilst those approaches seem very different I think a lot of role model programmes, focus on the how as opposed to the why. I say that from having been invited to a few and observed many.
Second lesson. I was in a school where after giving a speech a group of students came up to me. One young white boy said to me thank you. He said that he learned a lot and he aspired to go for his dreams based on the stories I had shared. In the same group a young black boy came to me and said although he liked what I said nothing changes, he will still go back to his estate where nothing changes and to be honest I spoke a bit posh, even though I could use slang, and he could never see me as role model. That cut deep and sent my head spinning in so many directions
Third Lesson. I observed some of the key programmes which were targeted at black males getting success. From the Reach programme to the current London wide attempt for role models. Many of the models were those at the top of their game within the black community who, and again this anecdotal, spoke and desired their mentees to speak similarly. Yes while it grates me that starting every sentence with “Basically, Like, Ya get me” is not the way forward, for me the first point was to connect. The ability to show them how to code switch both verbally and with body language and demeanour would come after. But hey that’s my own approach.
Band aid or Bandages?
When I think of the success of may of my peers of African heritage they put it down to a number of success factors. Great teachers. Strong cultural input. Driven friends or family. An unbending desire to escape poverty.
The roles are not restricted to just black role models. This is not to say they don’t play a role but in restricting the pool of individuals who could help nurture such a demographic to success we need to look wider and deeper at solving these problems.
The biggest failing demographic in education and attainment in the UK are white working class boys. The Joseph Rowntree foundation highlighted this up to two years ago but for many of us in education we were aware of this data up to 20 years ago. Yet when we look at ways of addressing this no one mentions they need to have white male role models to tip the scales. Why do you think is?
I bring this up because so often in the past teachers would call me in to speak to and coach a cohort of students and then ask for special attention for black boys. Why did they think that I would have success. What do I particularly know about kids of Somalian, Jamaican, Kenyan, Trinidadian or Ghanian boys? Is the assumption that I could be affective just because they were black. I went to schools were in the twinkling of an eye I could see that it would take weeks of work for me to gain the same respect those same ‘troublesome’ boys had for a white head of year or sports teacher. And not just males.
I found it problematic that people would see the problem as a black male problem as opposed to dealing with a teenager as whole. I questioned some schools and asked did they do the same to bring in outside speakers and mentors for Chinese, Bengali, Eastern European or white working class British boys who went off the rails. You can guess what the answer was. If you can’t it was no.
I even took one teaching group to task who wanted me to speak about engagement with the black community. Just be friendly and ask questions was my simple advice. Invoice in the post.
Yes black males are stopped and searched disproportionately in urban areas. In fact even moreso in more affluent areas the data has shown. Yes black males are more likely to receive harsher punishments or custodial sentences first time for possession of drugs than their counterparts. Yes black males are more likely to be suspended or expelled from schools than their white counterparts. Something the DofE is currently looking into, under the radar, in a number of academies where this disproportion is clearly evident. Yes black males do have a disproportionate affiliation to gangs in urban areas and tend to be the largest victims of criminal activity linked to gangs.
These are big underlying problems but I am afraid that this cannot be addressed by singling out black males as the only role models. For it is not a remedy for when they enter the world of work. Young black males need to be both learn from and teach mentors and role models from all walks of life. A white woman should not have the default belief that an outspoken black male is problematic. That what he considers to be assertive is interpreted as aggressive. Dialogue should encouraged that transcends race. It is important to learn what black girls are doing right that can be emulated by black males in terms of attainment and employment.
Look Wider. Look Deeper
When we look across the board some ethnic groups are comfortable with just mentoring and coaching those who look like them but this doesn’t help when you are looking to move forward in a world where you are clearly a minority. It is about co education and learning.
To be honest I have a fundamental issue in that role models are posited as these high achieving heroes with no flaws when in fact so much can be learned from the vulnerability and willingness to learn from mistakes and failures does more to help progress than aspiring to some perfect and totally unreachable goal to be like someone else. They should never be. Yes model their successes but be cognisant they had to make a hell of a lot of mistakes to get where they are.
Do black role models or real models have a place in raising aspiration amongst our boys and young males? Of course they do. I have a bag of testimonials and emails that would attest to this, but I don’t think it is enough. Like any other ethnic group I would advise that if you are looking for success look to those who would listen and learn, whatever their gender, race, beliefs or orientation. Look wider. Look deeper. Don’t restrict your thinking or place in the world to just those who look like you.
By all means if you wish to do so, go ahead knock yourself out, but I have found that those who have looked wider and deeper, who have allowed their team of supporters and cheerleaders to be varied in terms of talent and background, tend to be so much more grounded. Let us not rob young black boys of such richness. Or any cohort of young people to be honest.