Marcus Shepherd – 28th February 2021
We are currently living in a period of time where the discussion about race has never been more prominent, particularly in the education world. From the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, the public stances and statements from the majority or organisations pledging to end racism and the many powerful and inspiring voices driving the discussion around racial equality and diversity through Edutwitter.
As a mixed-race leader of a school, I am often asked to share my experiences and opinions on the issues concerning race and diversity in both education & the wider world. Although I am a confident leader & speaker, race has always been a topic which I have rarely publicly engaged with and often personally struggled with. It has only recently, since I have engaged with fellow mixed-race educators, professionals and leaders that I have felt I have found my voice.
So why you may ask (or not)? Well, it may help for me to provide some context to my upbringing. I was born to a White British mother and a Black Ghanaian father. My father was absent for most of my life and therefore I had very little contact with my Ghanaian family, culture or heritage. I have never visited Ghana (in fact I am yet to visit any country in Africa) and the closest I got to any Ghanaian cultural experiences were a few phrases of Twi, a Ghanaian language, as a result of my persistent begging of my father for him to teach me. On the rare occasions I have met other Ghanaian people who speak Twi, I always proudly state to them “Ete sen?” (‘How are you?’) to which they joyfully reply in fluent Twi. This is, unfortunately, where my cultural experience of Ghana (and often the conversation) ends.
I grew up in Coalville, a small ex-mining town near Leicester, with my White British mother, older sister and younger brother. My family (who I adore) are all White British, other than my siblings and I, and as such we were brought up in a White British culture. I do not want to suggest there is anything wrong with my experience of being raised in a White British culture, this is not the point I intend to make. However, what it did do was often create a conflict for others with regards to how I look to the world (my colour) and the culture which I present.
You may be thinking, why this is of any relevance to the question in the title of this blog? The reality is, my upbringing and subsequent experiences are the foundation of many of the reasons why I haven’t spoken about race until now. Let’s explore them a little….
- Being mixed-race is a very personal & unique experience
In this statement I am not suggesting that only mixed-race people have a personal or unique experience of life. What I mean by this is that it is very difficult to generalise people’s experiences of being mixed-race as there are so many different variables which may appear irrelevant to others.
There are those that are more obvious such as:
– Which races/nationalities make up your heritage?
– What colour are you?
But then there are those more subtle, which can have a significant impact on the experiences you will face:
– Are you exposed to both cultures from your parents?
– Do you live in a community which represents both parents’ heritage or just one?
– Do people make assumptions about your culture based on how you present?
– Do you feel a cultural belonging to your heritage?
– Can you pass as someone who is not mixed-race?
One of the reasons I have been reluctant to discuss race is based on people’s desire to be less nuanced when identifying racial groups. People will often (with no ill intentions) ask my opinion about certain issues. They are often asking me to rule on whether a comment, opinion or system/structure is racially insensitive or offensive. I often must politely say to them that I cannot act as the spokesperson for all people of colour and that my opinion will be based on experiences and to a degree, privileges, that others have not experienced. As much as it is important to distinguish that not all people from one racial group are the same, this is even more apparent for those of us who are mixed-race.
- I am very much a novice when it comes to racial inequality & diversity
People will often seek my opinion or input on the diversity issue as they will assume that I am some form of expert or better informed on the issue as a result of assumed experiences. I am not saying that this is negative, as it does allow for the discussion to be had and positive actions taken. However, my experiences have not made me particularly well informed about the racial inequality issues faced by many.
Having been raised in a White British community for my entire life, I have never really engaged, on a cultural level, with me being black. Most of my friends growing up were white, I had only two non-white teachers whilst at school and my family, whom I am close to, are all white. This created a sense of normality for me in this environment, so I never really had to consider diversity. To me my curriculum, pop culture and workplace represented me and my family. This sounds silly when I read it back, but being raised in this community and culture I did not see or notice myself as different. The unfortunate thing for me is that although I may have seen myself as fitting in and belonging to this community, often others did not, but we’ll touch on this later.
What this has meant is that I am not well versed, or even experienced ,in understanding the challenges of people who do not feel represented in domains and as such feel a degree of ignorance in this area. I believe some of this is down to the fact that my upbringing has given me an element of white-passing, which is important for me to acknowledge and not assume that this is the datum for all others in their experience of race and diversity.
- I have often found it difficult to understand where I fit in the discussion
Being mixed-race can often put you in a difficult, confusing and often upsetting space. As much as I have discussed being brought up in a predominately white culture/community and not feeling out of place, racism was never far away. I have been called numerous racial slurs, ranging from derogatory insults directed to Black Africans to those intended to insult people from Southern Asia. When I began going out to pubs and clubs as a young man, I had to be careful which places I went as some establishments had less than welcoming attitudes towards me. At kick-out time I would always make my excuses about why I could not hang around and leave sharply, as I had too many bad experiences of drink leading people to want to start a physical altercation with me based on my race.
However, I felt this would all change when I moved to University. This was to be my first experience of living in a much more diverse community, and one in which people could share my experiences. Unfortunately, this was not to be the case. It was here where I first experienced being referred to as a ‘bounty’ or ‘coconut’ due to the fact that my culture did not match with the expectations that others had based on my race. It was the first time I had tried to reach out to a part of my culture I felt disconnected to and as a result I had felt further from it.
I want to be clear; these were both examples of bad experiences of a minority of people. Since my professional career has begun, I have friends and colleagues of a wide diversity of races, religions and cultures who treat me with both acceptance and respect. I do not for a minute believe or promote the view that this is exclusively the treatment of mixed-race people by these groups. But it is the unfortunate reality of my early experiences.
I often found it difficult to hear that I didn’t fully understand the black experience or that I ‘wasn’t really black’. However, since I have engaged with race and fully understood the phrases ‘white passing’ and ‘white privilege’, I now understand and appreciate that my upbringing allowed me to benefit from elements of these. When using my voice to speak out and further the discussion, it is important I understand this privilege I have experienced.
- It reminds me that, in most spaces in my life, I am different.
The most telling reason though comes down to self-protection. As I have discussed, I grew up seeing very few people who were not white and as such this led to me not seeing myself as being different. This was often the case, but it meant that when I was racially abused it brought the reality of my differences back to me in the most hurtful manner.
I have had numerous racists remarks made to me but the one that really hit home and awakened by engagement with race was in my previous school as Principal. I had needed to deal with a very confrontational and challenging young man and as a result he yelled, in front of the whole school, a racial slur directed at myself. I brushed it off and dealt with the situation before returning to my office. This was the first instance of racism I had experienced in a long time but in the privacy of my office I then started to cry.
I wasn’t expecting my response, but I soon realised that it didn’t matter how long I had gone without having to see myself as different, others did. I was the Principal of the school, the highest level of influence and authority in the building but in that moment, I felt vulnerable, ashamed and helpless. Those who have experienced it will understand the sick feeling in my stomach, the sense that everyone in the building was staring at me and my feeling of utter shame that came with this comment. It was in this moment that I realised that I not only had to add my voice to the discussion, but I had to use whatever influence I have to move things forward.