A black head teacher told me a story of his early days at a failing inner-city school. The job was a thankless one and everybody was waiting anxiously for the arrival of the new ‘super-head’ (the school had gone through three leaders in two years). In the playground it was leaked that the new head was an old-school type from Jamaica.
During his first encounter with the students, they asked him how many children he had. He told them he had one and that she lived with him and his wife.
‘No sir, how many do you have in Jamaica?’ they asked. He replied: ‘None.’ They jeered, ‘Oh sir you’re not a yard man, not a real Jamaican — you’re acting white.’
This, I’m afraid, is typical. For black families in Britain and United States there has long been a dilemma: the more you adopt middle-class behaviours, the more you are perceived as ‘acting white’ and having betrayed your roots. You are a ‘coconut’ or an ‘Oreo cookie’.
Among poor black school-age children, particularly boys, anxiety about being seen to be acting white is a huge barrier to getting on. In the US, much work has been done on why pupils fear being seen to be acting white. As long ago as 2004, Barack Obama, then a senator, warned that ‘Children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is “acting white”.’
The ‘W’ word is directed at boys and girls who dare to speak in standard English, answer in class or involve themselves in after-school activities. This attitude can do real damage to the lives of black children — and increasingly of white children, too. It is a drag on their progress. Those who make it to university find that their professors expect them to be experts on the sociology of black life, rather than, say, Bach or ballet.
At least in America the problem is talked about and efforts are being made to counter it. In the UK we are nervous about being seen to be racist if we single out particular minority groups as struggling to get on.
The latest work by the Oxford researcher Steve Strand shows that, among groups with low socio-economic status, black Caribbean boys are performing least well. What is significant is that black boys from immigrant West African backgrounds do much better.
The Oxford study found that children with English as a second language were educationally behind all groups at the age of 11 — but at 16, having learnt English, they would rush past their peers. Kids who have English as a second language have a hunger to do well.
I put this down to the immigrant mentality. Recent immigrants from West Africa are more likely to have someone who went to university or who had a middle-class profession in their family than black Caribbean families who have lived in the UK for two or three generations. Nigerians, for example, insist that children devote themselves to their studies. If the children don’t listen, they are told: we’ll send you back to Lagos.
It is also significant that families from West Africa are more likely to have two parents than British Caribbean families. According to the Runnymede Trust, 59 per cent of black Caribbean children grow up in single-parent families, as opposed to 44 per cent of black African children. Family stability is a major factor in school success.
Recent migrant families also understand that to do well you have to be able to ‘code-switch’ — to adapt your behaviour depending on whether you are at home and among family or in the office and at school among others. One of the things that I see holding black Caribbean pupils back is a reluctance to modify their behaviour and language. What is fine with friends after school isn’t fine in a university or job interview. Migrant groups understand this because they are already outsiders. The children of migrants have a knack for adapting — they avoid the language of the streets when talking to teachers, and learn to tell lies to their peers about reading certain books or participating in uncool extracurricular activities. No one wants to be a goody-two-shoes.
At my charity Generating Genius, we try to get boys to take on a ‘migrant’ mentality. Too many initiatives aimed at under-performing boys pander to lowest-common-denominator interests: football, boxing or rap. We focus on Shakespeare, science and classical music. We get fantastic results with our dirt-poor students. We don’t tell the kids that they can be rappers or sportsmen, but that they should aspire to go to university — how very middle-class.
One boy told me that he liked being in Generating Genius because it was like being in a gang — but a gang that wanted him to get into Oxbridge. I have to fight their perception that ‘Oxford is full of posh people who don’t speak like me.’ The boys are petrified of being out of place in predominantly white circles. But it is the ‘acting white’ charge that prevents our poorest pupils from reading, doing their homework and thinking beyond the dole. We should instead tell pupils: ‘Act migrant.’
Dr Tony Sewell is chief executive of the charity Generating Genius.