It’s Black or White

me as a teenager

Theme: Get if off your chest.


Written by Melissa

When I was a teenager, I was elected onto the first ever Greenwich Young People’s Council. Part of the work we did was act as a younger version of the adult-run council, and so we sat on committees like Equal Opportunities, Housing, and Children and Young People’s Services. We also ran conferences, rallies, and raised awareness on issues such as the plight of refugees and asylum seekers. My world was basically a utopia where, what with all the hard work we were all doing, by the time I became a proper middle-aged adult, we would have successfully stamped out racism, sexism, homophobia and all those horrible judgements we unnecessarily make about others. My children would be able to grow up in a world where the content of their character is more important than which hole they would decide to put their sexual organ into, or the colour of the skin attached to that hole.

What the fuck happened?

Last week, I drove the university student volunteering with me to her home in Battersea, London. We passed three primary schools, one in Peckham, one in Camberwell and one in Kennington and aside from one or two pupils, all the children were black. As we continued through Vauxhall to Battersea, I asked Rochelle where the heck are white people sending their children? She replied, ‘to private school’. I drove home via Clapham Common and there they were, white children in cute flat caps and miniature blazers with purple and gold stripes.

I have a friend who managed to avoid private school fees, over in Dulwich, by buying a super expensive house in the catchment area of a very nice state-funded school. Guess what colour most of the children are? So perhaps it has little to do with deep-seated unspoken racist tendencies of not wanting one’s children to mix with darkies and more to do with the economic privileges of WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) able to cherry pick properties that have the best schools. Those properties then shoot up in value, locking out average earners and pushing out the poor. Hey, that’s the free market, right? But the historical discrimination and cruelty towards black people continues to have economic disadvantages today; as much as I hate to even type that, because those words are like handing a sentence on to the current generation of BME young people, supposed to be freed from all this bullshit. But the Institute of Race Relations state some worrying figures:

In 2010, nearly three-quarters of 7-year-old Pakistani and Bangladeshi children and just over half of those black children of the same age were living in poverty. About one in four white 7-year-olds were classed as living in poverty.

In 2009, the Wealth and Assets Survey revealed that the ‘average white household’ had roughly £221,000 in assets, black Caribbean households had about £76,000, Bangladeshi households £21,000 and black African households £15,000.

But how come these statistics never make front page news? The rise of islamophobia is just one example of how our tabloid mainstream media does things to ensure certain groups remain repressed, suppressed, and even regressed:

Unemployment among Muslims  in Britain is 17%, against a national average of 8%, higher than for people of any other religion.

Over 40% of British Muslims of Pakistani or Bangladeshi ethnic origin live in poverty, compared to 14% of white people. Around 45% of ethnically-South Asian Muslim children in Britain are impoverished.

80 per cent of British Muslims have experienced discrimination, up from 45 per cent in the late 1990s.

I grew up on Sesame Street and CBBC – where children from around the world played together. During my teens, somehow, black bodies disappeared from mainstream drama and appeared on rap videos, and as an adult, I still don’t see young black adults do much else than be typecast for stories such as Top Boy – as if all black teenagers are drug dealing low-level gangsters. According to the 2011 census, there were 1,088,640 black people living in London. If they were all the media stereotypes them to be, the world would know it. And don’t get me started on why there are no visible black students in shows like The Inbetweeners. Black Africans made it to Hadrian’s Wall in 122 and 128 AD – I think a few black actors can get to Ruislip. Things need to change. I don’t want to pass newagents and see headlines like:

media muslims

I’m pregnant and while I don’t really want to send my child to a school full of black children, I really, really do not want my child to go to a school in London full of white kids. I want my child to learn in a multi-cultural classroom that reflects how they are growing up in a multi-cultural city. I want them to have an upbringing that reflects the diversity of the Capital. It scares me that there is such segregation going on and nobody is concerned about this?

To say that primary school places are decided upon by how close families live to the said school is not rubbing the veneer to see the more deep-seated inequalities that are being culturally reproduced on a daily basis. Pierre Bourdieu must be turning in his grave like a spit-roast hog!

From the everyday lived experience of the young child, they know nothing about all the codes and power dynamics weaving silently around them, deciding many of their future life chances. They’re pure and happy. But that is a tall pedestal to fall from. My own idealistic thud hurt, but let’s face it, I’m white, educated from the London School of Economics, employed and paid well. My partner is a wickedy-wickedy-WEC, White European Catholic, who enjoys views from level 24 at a bank in Canary Wharf. What should I care?

Well I care because I grew up with a diverse range of school friends. We shared food, music, dance moves and jokes together and I felt richer for it.

In Year 7, aged 12, I got asked out by a Year 8 boy, called Marlon – finally, my first proper teenage boyfriend! One day, Marlon took me to the basketball court after school for what I thought was a kiss. Instead he dumped me, saying his mum had told him that white girls don’t marry black boys. Not true for my 36-year-old sister and they’ve been together since my sister was 18 and have an amazing mixed-heritage son and another on the way.

At 19, I went on my gap year to Australia to visit my eldest brother and baby niece and, as many of us do, we lost touch with secondary school friends and moved on. I returned to London to complete my undergraduate degree at Goldsmiths College. There were only a few black people on my course. At LSE, even less. My friendship groups became whiter and whiter. What’s happened?

Was Marlon’s mother right? Do we end up segregated? How much of this is individual choice? I met my current partner who is now my fiancé, via his sister who was on my MSc course at LSE. We were both penniless students living off our overdrafts. Had he been black, I’d still be with him, because he is lovely and kind and emotionally intelligent with great taste in music and major dance moves. But it comes back to statistics – if there are no black males on my course, what’s the chances of meeting and falling in love with a black man at university? This is the point.

There are obvious things that can be done. Admit more BME students to universities such as Cambridge, Oxford and LSE. They have the grades, so what’s the issue? But let’s start when they’re young. Having all-white and all-black primary schools in a city like London is absolutely ridiculous, and worrying. I can’t believe that in 2015 these schools exist. If I took snapshots on my iPhone and made them black and white and posted something on my facebook about the segregation of schools in the American South in the 1960s, people would be outraged it ever could have happened. They would praise how far America had come. Then if I revealed the shiny colourful prints were in fact made just last week, of British schools in South East London 1.7 miles from each other, what might folk say? I can’t take photographs of course, due to anti-paedophile regulations, but that’s a whole other debate.

I would really like to hear from people on this one. Have I got it wrong? Was it just a coincidence that three schools out in public had all black pupils? Or are children in London becoming more economically, and therefore, ethnically segregated from each other? Please, let me know your thoughts:


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