Growing up Black: Being a young, Black woman in Britain – Part two

In this series of blogs, published over three weeks, Jasmine reflects on a number of prominent social, economic and identity barriers young, Black women face every day. Drawing on the knowledge shared by the panellists at our #YoungAndBlack: Black Female Identity within the UK event, alongside her own experiences, Jasmine provides discusses just what it means to be a young, Black woman in the UK, how that experience shapes and defines you, and what needs to change.

Jasmine During is a National Programme Coordinator at UK Youth.

Part two.

How the Education system also perpetuates discrimination and bias

The UK education system is often the first cause of trauma for many Black girls. Rachel acknowledged that the racism experienced at a young age can really scar people if they do not have the right support systems. This is true for Dunola whose first experience of racism was a few years into her first UK school experience when a white boy pushed her down the stairs. Though she did not think much about it after the event, the Black Lives Matter campaign brought the emotions back when reflecting on all her traumas.

According to Busayo, schools just don’t know what to do with Black girls who are bold or confident, and that they “write you off – they want to stigmatise you because they don’t understand you”.  This leads to schools unfairly punishing Black students for their hairstyles or kissing teeth, and Black Caribbean girls being more than twice as likely to be excluded compared to white British girls. Dunolo found out how easy it is for negative labels to overtake your academic successes after just one incident. After a fight in year 9, she subsequently received the ‘bad Black girl’ label immediately, relating it back to Black girls not being afforded the same leeway as other girls. This combined with a lack of academic expectations of Black girls can be catastrophic.

As a secondary school student, I  recall my parents debating with my science teacher to allow me to take the higher tier paper when she argued against it. Doing a lower tier paper would have automatically placed me in a lower set for GCSE Science, so thank goodness for my parents being diligent in education matters because that year I took the higher tier paper and smashed through all expectations! Black students are already two-and-a-half times more likely than white pupils to be wrongly placed in a lower ability set, and like my example, this can help hold Black girls back from achieving their full potential. Unfortunately, being a student was not the only time I saw this happen.

During my time working in primary schools with Special Education Needs children, I saw limitations being placed on Black students early on. A teacher once alluded to me not needing to put much effort in with a child in my phonics group (lowest set) because he would not achieve much. I was so angered that someone had determined what that child could or could not achieve that I gladly took the challenge on. Surprise, surprise, the children in my group outperformed their targets.

When the education system has lower expectations of Black girls, they will receive lower prediction grades. For my GCSEs, I was predicted Cs and Ds, only to get 2Cs and the rest being As and Bs (and the school was quite diverse in both ethnicity and class). The recent furore over the unfair downgrading of GCSE and A-Level predicted grades given to young people from certain areas, is just another example of why more needs to be done within the education sector to remove harmful stereotypes and bias.

Discrimination and bias also runs through the university process where Black students’ university applications were 22 times more likely to be investigated by UCAS than their white counterparts (they only make up 9% of all applicants). Even before students deal with a lack of role models; unrelatable curriculums; academic and student biases; and microaggressions, they’re discriminated against by the very system that was put in place to combat unfair advantages – UCAS. Unfortunately, when researchers examine marginalised groups within education, there is usually little attention devoted to Black girls’ experiences; instead the gaze is limited to Black men and White women.

And what if you have other parts of your identity that add to your discrimination? We cannot look at the experiences of Black women without discussing intersectionality too. Saadia was one of the only Black students going to her school in Wales, and she noticed that wearing a headscarf at a young age made her experiences of being a Black woman in the UK a ‘Double-edged sword’. Not only was she fighting racism as a Black woman, she also had to deal with the discrimination against her religion. This led her to struggle with her self-esteem and question her own identity. Importantly, she highlights the disconnect that many young Black women feel when the strong supporting environments they have at home or within their own communities, is not reciprocated in UK institutions. Saadia’s concerns do not go unwarranted when you think about examples of racist abuse towards Muslim schoolgirls in the UK. For her, there is no question about whether or not racism exits in education, and it is not the only institution.

Discrimination and bias at work

Black girls also experience societal expectations at work. Dunolo observed the expectations for Black women to be ‘bubbly’ or the ‘life of the party’. Being a positive person myself, I often felt the pressure to perform in a way that shows Black women in a good light even when dealing with my own traumas that comes from watching Black people constantly murdered in the media alongside struggling with institutional racism; it is hard to have that same energy every day. Often people do not understand the weights on your shoulder, taking your silence or withdrawal as being against the company culture.

Tatianna truly realised her Blackness when she started working in the corporate world where there were very few Black people. If you are the only Black person in your office, who can support you with the issues specific to the Black diaspora? It is no surprise that only 57 per cent of Black women feel empowered at work. Even when you are able to create safe spaces, it can lead to negative commentary and labels such as ‘intimidating’ if the people you lean on for support also happen to be Black.

I would probably be very rich for the amount of times a friend of mine has told me that she is underpaid in her role compared to her counterparts. A fellow graduate and friend was once paid 5K less than a staff member similar to her level even though she not only received regular positive feedback, but had been there for over a year. She was then offered a higher salary once she handed in her notice. Prior to that, her salary was only adjusted after an audit found her to be paid well below the benchmark. I too myself have questioned my salary on many occasions when I have found that my salary differs greatly compared to others in the same role, even when I have extensive experience or training those new staff. This is the reality of being a young Black woman in the workplace, and a common experience friends share with me regularly. According to data by the Bank of England, the gender wage gap for white women remains around 15% less, with female ethnic minorities earning 18% less, suggesting an additional ‘pay bias’.

Again, there is little data that looks at why Black women are earning less – especially as we often get thrown into the label of BAME, thus rendering the specific issues that Black women face as unseen. This had led some to create their own social media handles and hashtags to show pay disparity in different sectors (see @influencerspaygap). So how can we help Black girls be seen in education as well as at work?

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