Is it wishful thinking to have wanted some ethnic diversity in those that taught me at school? I never had a Black or brown teacher. And the data around diversity in management in primary-secondary ed is damning. Whilst I despise BAME, it’s really a sad indictment on the system that diversity in teaching staff is a massive issue.
At the Students’ Union, almost every Friday during term time, I’ve shown a number of films that push audiences to think, but also sometimes to show role models that students can look up to. One Friday in October, we watched To Sir, with Love starring the great Sidney Poitier, met with a positive reception from staff, students and members of the public, including children. Perhaps in watching that film, these children and university students may think about being teachers. I want to show films with people that look like them, and for a Black man to be in a role like that. Epic.
Mark Thackeray is an anomaly to me. This character’s not something that’s familiar. Sidney Poitier is famous for playing the straight jacket and Mark Thackeray is symbolic of what Black men can represent, something other than what numerous screen representations show us to be. No matter if that’s the funny man, or some drug dealer on the streets of London in Top Boy. Sidney Poitier, the man that was loved by everyone in his day. White people. Black people. Good-looking … well-dressed … and got the best lines.
Whilst the narratives shown in Top Boy, for example, are very real, it’s not anything we haven’t seen before. Those types of stories sell and make headlines. Whether we’re talking about Top Boy or taking a trip back to the 1980s and 1990s with those Hollywood thug films and Blaxploitation – from Boyz n the Hood to Do the Right Thing and Richard Roundtree in Shaft. Or if you want something more in the now, what about Blue Story? We continue to push these kind of stories and these images travel all round the world.
Mark Thackeray teaching poor East London children showed an image of a Black man I’d ever only seen in my own family unit. The self-sacrificing father figure, but more importantly, a highly elevated image of a Black male who did not fit the stereotypes of the British establishment. He showed them, that despite their backgrounds, they could have dignity and values. And what’s more, there is nothing wrong with being working class.
To see someone that looked like me that wasn’t violent, a rapist, or a thief, and so on, brings me joy. Whilst characters in shows like The Wire contradict stereotypes, they still look (stereotypically) like thugs. Growing up, and now today, to tell people I did not grow up by Grenfell Tower or in Handsworth, in socio-economically deprived areas still shocks them.
Diversity in teaching is a must; the closest I’ve had to a Black teacher is @drkukustr8talk. Though, he was a lecturer at the University of Northampton where I studied, he wasn’t my lecturer. Not even the same course. Let alone same faculty. He’s a family friend. Yet, he’s been a mentor to me for many years, and have developed more of a comfort for literature because of him. I didn’t feel like I was scaling the walls into somewhere I didn’t belong. He helped me, to, navigate inside my own head, and decolonise my degree. By mentally dismantling race and class inside the academy, I was then able to confidently push boundaries on my course.
Sidney Poitier is a conduit for millions of little Black boys to more positive images of themselves. A contemporary comparison would be the Hollywood actor David Oyelowo, specifically in Queen of Katwe, where he mentors a number Black children in learning how to play chess and in the process, helps them along into finding their identity, self-worth and pride.
In his last post, Dr. Diepiriye quotes bell hooks: “The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy” and this is entwined with how Black and brown teachers can aid Black and brown students into finding themselves at school and at universities. When students see themselves in the classroom, that’s an element of safety, the second rung on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in a person’s quest for self-actualisation.
To Sir, with Love is one of the most important films ever made, as it still has relevance today, whilst our education system is still underrepresented, and yet to break the colour bar. What of the emotional labour Black and brown teachers take on within these structures? What about institutional racism in the education sector? What about the schools’ prison pipeline of exclusion that disproportionately impacts children from an ethnic minority background? Exclusion from class only to be excluded from society later on.
Whilst To Sir, with Love reached its 50th anniversary in 2017, education continues to face cuts, and diversity continues to be a tertiary issue, as universities are run like corporations: ID cards, data crunching, and how much? James Clavell’s classic brings us back to focus on the student. What about the individual needs? What makes each student tick? What’s going on in their lives apart from study? What about community and inclusion?
Race matters, but why do we continue to pigeon-hole Black and brown educators in a system that refuses to change?
Works of Note
Coard, Bernard. How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-Normal in the British School System. London: Unknown, 1971. Print.
Richardson, Brian. Tell it Like it Is: How Our Schools Fail Black Children. London: Bookmarks, 2005. Print.