Being Black…

Two hot topics in the media at the moment are so-called black-on-black crime, and black underachievement in schools.

I ask why the reference to ‘black-on-black’? Isn’t crime just crime? Why is the race of the victims or the perpetrators significant? Similarly if kids are underachieving in school, why the focus on their skin colour in the discussion?

I ask this question for the reason that on one hand, for example, we know that people of African and Caribbean descent have been and are disprotionately discriminated against – on the basis of their race – within Western society. It is now recognized that this type of discrimination is wrong because we know that race is nothing more than a social construct with no inherent meaning or value. Therefore to judge anyone on this basis is foolish.

But then why do we focus debates, conversations, or reports on these grounds too? If we know that any concepts of race are, in essence, meaningless why couch educational underachievement, crime or anything else in references to being black?

What is being ‘black’ anyway? How is it defined? Who defines it? ‘Black’ does not really exist apart from in our minds, yet the term is used – including by the government in their recent report – as if it’s an actual tangible aspect of a person (or a group of people) rather than a construction which is undoubtedly useless – which is, ironically, precisely the reason why prejudice and racism exists in the first place.

Crimes committed by African-Caribbean people are not different from crimes committed by any other racial group, and thus in my view do not deserve or merit any special attention on racial grounds. The crime and the problems which give rise to it should be the issue – the race of the perpetrators or victims does not add value to solving the real problem. Similarly, if kids are underachieving at school that is a cause of concern regardless of their race.

Yes, we can say that a greater number of African and Caribbean kids are doing less well in schools. However, any discussion into that issue should focus not on the fact that they are ‘black’, but on tangible, deeper issues such as economics, housing, or the education system itself. Underachievement is not a ‘black’ problem – it’s a societal problem.

The majority of crime in this country is not committed by people of colour, yet we do not talk about ‘white’ crime and point at the issues within the ‘white’ community. The focus is on the individuals and the circumstances which give rise to their criminal behaviour (as it should be). There is a big body of evidence which shows that English working class kids are also underachieving in school – but those conversations are never focussed on race.

The more we have debates about ‘black’ people and ‘black’ problems, the more stereotyping we will have because in reality there are so many variations of individuals and unique circumstances and situations that fall under the banner of ‘black’ that you can only ever be stereotyping and generalizing when using the term.

Discussions which use race as an indicator of a problem necessarily avoid looking at the actual issues, because they suggest that there is something in a particular racial group that gives rise to that problem. A talk about gun crime cannot ever get to the heart of the matter for as long as ‘black’ is attached to it – how it is possible to have a sensible debate or come up with solutions on the basis of something (race) which does not actually exist?

So what’s the solution? The solution is that everyone drops references to race or ethnicity and simply tackles the issues. Educational underachievement is a problem. Gun crime is a problem. Adding ‘black’ to that does not give us any insight into, or understanding of, the problem or how to tackle it. It does nothing more than enable people to continue to talk in generalizations and stereotypes about individuals of colour – something which we know is very dangerous.


Education, Education, Education!!

education1.jpgThis week I have rather occupied by the topic of education, as you may have noticed!

I’ve just seen an article on the BBC website which says that the National Curriculum is to be made more flexible “so that teachers can focus more on individual students’ needs”.

This is along the lines of what I’ve been talking about, and debating, this week: more emphasis on individual student needs, more holistic and rounded education, focussing on ‘softer’ skills. Interesting…

Education…do we really need it?

school.jpgComing from a Nigerian family, it has been well pressed on me that an education is your passport to life. If any of you know any Nigerians, you’ll know that Nigerians LOVE to collect qualifications. The more the better!

My parents drummed it into my ears that I had to do well at school. And do well I did…I am very lucky to have benefitted from a fantastic education.

When I left university and stepped into the real world however, I was surprised to notice that it wasn’t always the most educated people who were the most well off. Being highly educated also didn’t mean that you’d be the most ‘intelligent’ or socially adept.

There are many different forms of intelligence, and in the big bad world, some of these – emotional intelligence for example – are actually more important and can get you further than just which university you went to. The formal education system, however, tends to focus on one type of intelligence, which is that of being able to successfully complete tests and exams. This can be very limiting for someone who has deeper skills in other areas.

I have met people who have just come out of prison who are highly intelligent and those with little formal education who are very good business people and make lots of money using their wits. Is a formal education overrated?

Admittedly I speak from the priviledged position of someone who has been well educated, and I’m not saying that people shouldn’t know how to read, write and have basic skills. However, above and beyond the necessary literacy skills is a formal education really that important? Is it the best way for people to learn and grow? Maybe young people could gain the necessary skills they need for real life in another way, or through a different type of ‘system’?

I ask these questions also because I have become increasingly sceptical about what the education system in its current form is designed to do. In many ways I feel that rather than encouraging people to be open minded, to be creative and to step into their greatness, many schools in fact do the total opposite.

They encourage conformity, adopting a one-size-fits-all approach that does not allow space for individual talents. Differences and uniqueness are suppressed whilst ticking boxes and fitting into a mould are welcomed. I feel that this is the reason why many talented young people, young Black men in particular, are falling by the wayside when it comes to schooling.

I sometimes wonder if the education system is designed to breed robots who will fill the society’s status quo and become part of the ‘rat race’, rather than becoming great leaders, visionaries and achievers – or just becoming more of who they are.

It is no surprise to me to hear that many very successful businessmen and entrepreneurs were not the top of their class, or did not finish school. Possibly finishing school may have suppressed those entrepreneurial urges, and they would have ended up working in an office…

I’m not saying that an education isn’t important. What I’m asking is what type of education is important, and what the real point of an education is beyond just passing tests. I’m also considering if there are alternatives to the current formal state education system that could generate better results…

I really love the Montessori school model and would be really interested in seeing how it might work in a secondary school setting. The Montessori method is one that promotes the individual child’s learning over and above that of the class as whole, so as to respect the individual’s own talents and needs. I love that as I believe that is what education should be about: learning rather than just teaching.

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on this too…. so please feel free to comment!

We Don’t Need No Education?

education.jpgIt was announced last week that the government will encourage schools to teach “economic wellbeing and financial capability”, although it is not to be made compulsory.

I’m very glad to hear this. It’s a shame that it won’t be made compulsory. Although the system is already overloaded with compulsory subjects, such as teaching about the slave trade and global warming, I wonder how many schools will want to add another subject to their list if they don’t have to.

I hope many do add this to their subject list. Handling money is a necessary aspect of day-to-day life and is probably, therefore, more relevant than many other subjects on the curriculum.

We regularly hear in the press that Britons are consuming more, debt levels are on the rise and bankruptcies are increasing. Yet at the same time, the rich are getting richer and paying less tax. People wonder why this is. Well I can tell you – the masses are generally financially illiterate while the rich understand how to handle money well. It’s pretty simple.

Personally I’d like to see a complete overhaul of the national curriculum. If I were an education minister, I’d make the curriculum much more practical, in order to prepare students for real life. Emotional intelligence – particularly how one relates to self and others – and financial literacy, for example, would be top of the list.

In fact, I might get rid of the curriculum all together – allowing schools to be free to select which subjects they believe are best taught in their schools, and adapting them to their students’ needs – as independent or ‘private’ schools do.

What’s Going On?

news.jpg30 years ago, Marvin Gaye wrote ‘What’s Going On?’….30 years later his words couldn’t be more relevant than they are today. He sang:

“Mother, mother
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today”

Last week a 17 year old girl was killed in Croydon, South London. Stabbed to death with a kitchen knife in a surburban street. I often park on that road when I’m going to the cinema.

Over the weekend, 5 murders of young people took place in London. Young people whose lives were cut short while they were in their prime.

This year, there has been huge media coverage of other murders of young people – by young people – in and around London. Goodness knows what’s happening in other inner cities.

WHAT IS GOING ON?! I know I’m not the only one asking this question and I’m certainly not full of answers. I know that there are some young people who are so far down the line, so steeped in a life of crime and violence, that they are already lost. Sounds harsh, but it’s true. Maybe these people need not to be the focus for making changes, although I do believe redemption is possible for all at any stage.

While time is spent trying to get people out of gangs, how many more are on their way in? Maybe the politicians, educators, social workers and other people who work closely with young people need to focus on those who are growing up now. Those who are the ripe ages for getting into gangs… Or maybe those even younger. Instead of focussing on what is going on within gangs, maybe the focus needs to be on what it is that creates the conditions that encourage people to want to get into gangs. Maybe we need to really get to grips with understanding what a gang or that kind of lifestyle is providing for the young person that is not being provided elsewhere – and then bleeding well get around to providing it ASAP.

The problem is complex. No criminologist has yet been able to give one reason for why or how people get into crime and violence. It involves family, education, work, money, peer groups and a number of other factors. However, there is one thing that I think is majorly missing from the discussion. It’s emotional intelligence. It’s about how people deal with themselves and their feelings.

Schools don’t teach it. Many families don’t teach it well enough. Who is teaching it? Who is teaching kids that when someone pisses you off, the answer is not to reach for a gun or a knife?

I would really like to see the education system changed to reflect what we now know: that what’s going on inside a person, our attitudes and beliefs are crucial in our experiences of life. We know that emotional intelligence is a key part of a succesful life. Right now, education is not providing people with the necessary skills that will help them to build characteristics and values and become better people. I couldn’t care less about Physics when kids of 13, 14 and 15 are going around killing each other because someone offended them and they are trying to show how tough they are.

It’s not just about education though. It is time for our society to become more responsible. I’ve already blogged about the banning of Manhunt 2. We need more of this. There needs to be a global shift of consciousness towards promotion of what’s good, what’s wholesome, what is uplifting and beneficial for people – especially young, vulnerable, impressionable people. With so much emphasis on violence, crime, war, hatred and fear in every aspect of our lives – in papers, TV, films, music, computer games, politics (!) etc – is it any wonder that this kind of thing is going on.

Usually I will say ‘it’s all about the family – it’s down to the family’ and yes it is, but not everyone has a good family. Not everyone comes from a family that knows how to steer their child on the right path. Therefore it is up to society to be a family. The education system has to be a family. Society at large has to be a family. Isn’t there a famous African proverb that says “it takes a village to raise a child”? All should be working for the betterment of everyone else. 

Maybe if that ever happens we’ll no longer need to ask what’s going on.

A is for Affirmative Action

affirmativeaction.jpgBarack Obama has been talking about affirmative action lately. Being a highly (college) educated black man, the question has been put to him as to whether or not his kids should benefit from it on the basis of their race when they clearly have no need for it. He says no. I agree with him. 

Going further, Obama suggests that the emphasis should shift so that class, not race, determines whether or not one benefits from affirmative action. As his case shows not all black people are underprivileged, yet there are many non-blacks who are. Affirmative action then becomes a tool for addressing inequalities for all, not just for black people.

It raises many questions, though…Does this mean that black people now have a level playing field in American society and that race is much less of an issue when it comes to societal inequality? Doesn’t de-emphasising race appear to diminish the acknowledgement of the impact and legacy of slavery – and everything else that came after it – on black people? What about the modern-day racism that one could argue is inherent in such a society by virtue of its history – is this becoming less significant now? Can you infact separate class and race when there appears to be a large correlation between ones race and ones social class (granted there are those who transcend that, but many who don’t)? What is ‘race’ anyway? As a social construct, does its use really help to define anything? It’s a complex matter.

In my mind, affirmative action should continue… maybe it should include ‘race’ and ‘class’. Mr Obama may be one of the lucky priviledged ones, but to do away with using race as a yardstick underestimates the subtle forces that are at play in what still is an unequal society. It is not a level playing field for black people, and even the priviledged ones still have their struggles, as he himself admits.

One thing that really bothers me when people talk about affirmative action is the idea that it helps black kids who are not academically able to get into colleges that they wouldn’t otherwise have a hope in hell of getting into, on the basis of their skin colour alone. Some believe that affirmative action requires a lowering of standards. That is not the point of affirmative action, and it’s not in the best interests of the colleges to do that anyway. Having attended Cambridge University where there is a similar ‘access’ scheme, I  have seen for myself that other black kids who got in via the access scheme were equally as able as I who was privately educated from 3 years old.

The most important thing for me is that any system that attempts to redress the balance of inequality, in both race and in class (or any other measure for that matter), can only be a good thing provided that it’s meritocractic and allows those who  have the talent, but not the support or means, to get where they ought to be. No such system will ever be perfect, however, but can only do the best it can. I’d rather something imperfect was done than nothing at all…