We in the POC working group have seen an increase on social media of reports of racism and discrimination in schools. It reminded us of our experiences in primarily-white schools as mixed-race children. We also realised our childhood experiences have had a serious effect on our identity as adults and wanted to raise awareness of these issues and the potential effects POC children could face.
To understand our experiences further, we are mixed Welsh Yoruba, brought up in a majority-white area and went to schools where POC were definitely the minority. All of our teachers were white and our schools had no POC staff at any level. Most of the racism we experienced was specific to our hair, and of course, the occasional N-slur or being referred to as coloured would appear from peers. Although they are mostly hair-related, it does not make it ‘less racist’ to talk about, especially the detrimental impact it has had. Most of these experiences are institution-specific, i.e. to our schools, but are a systemic issue.
Our childhood experiences of racism and discrimination in education:
I was told by one of my friends that a parent came to them telling them to avoid coming/hanging out with me because I’m dangerous. My friend had to defend me. They dragged me to the parent to ‘show’ the parent that I was not what they perceived me as. This was in primary school.
In high school, I had already completed rocket week, and it was my first week of high school. I had cornrows in. The Head of Year pulled me out in front of everyone and said “you did not come to rocket week with that hair” I said no. She said, “you need to get them out by next week”. I never wore my hair braided again.
My name was constantly mispronounced, so they shortened it, and I had to allow it. In year 2 they asked if they can call me by a shortened name, I said no, but they still called me by that name and it stuck. When teachers would go through the register, especially new teachers, I would always be mentally prepared to correct the teacher before they get to my name. When they did go to my name, it would either be a complete butcher of my name (add letters/sounds which are literally not there) or would do that face (we all know that face). When some teachers read out my name, they would assume I’m a girl. Now, when someone calls me by my full name, I feel weird.
When I wore cornrows, I was frequently mistaken for a girl. In rocket week, my first friend I had made told me they approached me because they thought I was a girl. They didn’t just mistake me for a girl though, I was mocked for it. I never wanted to wear my hair in cornrows again.
My white peers ‘loved’ my hair and always wanted to touch it. I took this as a compliment and didn’t mind. Until they would always rub it harshly or try and stick it up and make it look messy. They thought this was funny and did it each time, even though I told them to stop as it stays like that. I began brushing out and straightening my hair constantly, and kept it as straight as I could so I could rid of my hair texture to avoid it sticking up when people touched it. I never wore my hair curly after this experience until I finished high school.
I would dread oncoming exam seasons, where I would have to put my full name on every exam paper: all of which, could not fit my full name, clearly showing a bias.
Early in high school, the year 11s would grab my hair and yank it at times. At one time they grabbed my hair as I was walking and I was pulled along. When teachers saw/heard of this, they would tell the pupil to stop, but would also blame me for it.
My form tutor, in front of the entire class, called my hair “messy and unkempt” and that it “looked unprofessional”.
A teacher threatened to stop me from doing my GCSE exams unless I cut my hair. When my mum came in, she told my mum that that wasn’t true, but I still need to cut my hair as it “goes against school policy” despite school policy saying nothing of this sort.
I was also told that the staff members would have meetings specifically discussing my hair in the staff room. My free time in high school was spent hiding in the music room to avoid teachers picking me out and talking about my hair.
These experiences wouldn’t stop, they’d happen every year, always loudest from the teachers who were at the top e.g. the Head of Year, form tutors, care officer, head of subjects, deputy headteacher, and so on.
There was someone in my class who every one of my (white) friends liked, but she did not like me. I always got very weird vibes from her, I could not figure out why she treated me so differently and clearly didn’t like me. When I told my friends they brushed it off because “she is so nice”. I found out later on in life she has racist views and looking back I can know for sure she didn’t like me because I looked different. We were children.
I always had to contend with first impressions. I made myself look approachable due to people biasing me based upon stereotypes e.g. ‘rough’, does drugs, aggressive, etc. I even changed the way I spoke to distance myself from my background.
Any time Africa in general or the Caribbean was brought up during lessons, everyone would look at me, suggest what they were talking about to do with those places, or be offended by the mentions of those places that had something to do with me.
How our childhood experiences in education have affected our adult selves.
Growing up, I was told by my mum that I will face a lot of racism, and I just have to learn to deal with it in my own way. Now I am hyper-aware of my race in public, in workplaces, and when out with friends; even when I was planning to meet my boyfriend’s family, I asked him if they were racist. It was constantly on my mind that in anything that I do I may be judged negatively because of my race.
Growing up, my dad would always end up siding with those who saw negatively about my hair. This is why I don’t have a relationship with my dad, nor do I want to have one as he never spoke out but instead actively supported racism toward me.
During high school, I would comb out my hair constantly to shape it (in an attempt to make it look more appealing) which made me a larger target as it was much bigger, but also damaged my hair. Also, after high school, I started putting my hair in a bun to make it look more acceptable and avoid potential racist commentary from teachers/peers etc. However, it damaged my hair significantly too.
After all the years of combing out and straightening my hair to fit in, my hair had so much damage. Luckily during an unrelated breakdown, I chopped off all my dead hair, leaving me with only inches of hair. I started to really look after my hair; adding oils daily, embracing my texture using curling creams and hair gels to hold my curls, learning from POC online how to care for my hair and now my curly hair is long and healthy. But this took many many years.
Due to my experience with my teachers, parent and older family members, this has led to me being uncomfortable around adults much older than me (my dad’s and teacher’s age), distrust them and struggle to have conversations with them.
As an adult, I am a massive people pleaser which I know stems from strong, foreboding feelings that people may not like me because of how I look so I need to make them like me in another way. I also over read people’s body language. I can notice when glances are racially motivated or that someone has an issue with me because of my race and how I look. It’s blatantly obvious to me but not to my (white) boyfriend if I experience this out in public with him. I tell him I’m getting ‘racist vibes’ and thankfully he trusts my opinion.
I am extremely aware of my appearance. However, I violently embrace my hair now. I know that no matter what I do, I will always receive looks which stems from racist beliefs; whether it’s their own or through other people.
I am still stuck with being comfortable with my ethnic background, that it’s mixed but I can’t help but not be as comfortable with my Black heritage as I do with my white heritage. Whilst believing this, I always notice myself trying to prove to white people around me that I am white-enough. I over embrace my Welsh heritage which I think stems from trying to blend with others. I understate my African heritage too. However, I always want to show my African heritage by wearing long braids, trying to volumize my hair to make it look more afro. All of this effort because I wasn’t able to feel comfortable with myself all through my childhood.
My school experience has constantly tried to erase my African heritage whilst also forbidding me from embracing my Welsh heritage. For example, during St. David’s Day, I didn’t come in clothes coloured red white and green or felt I could fully join in with the jamboree because school made me feel like that is not for me, that I am not Welsh. Now I am catching up with my Welshness which I have to personally try and gain and be comfortable with, trying to undo what that experience did. Also, when I tell my peers of my experiences and they try and sympathise with my struggle, I feel so strongly apathetic, I feel like they are just saying it, just like my peers did then, they are all talk and no action. As they’re not going to do anything about it, I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to hear their ‘sympathy’.