How would you describe your experience growing up as a young person of colour in the UK?
I feel like particularly in early mainstream education, I felt a lot of inequality and was on the receiving end of a series of unethical exclusions, due to my disability, eventually being forcibly removed from two primary schools and victim to a policy that was about behaviour, not academic potential. I experienced countless exclusions from age six upwards. I would spend long periods at home, where work was provided and I was expected to work independently, after not being seen as suitable for a class of 30. Exclusion was seen as a strategy to manage my behaviour, a strategy that did not directly manage my behaviour, instead giving me the impression I wasn’t important or wanted. From my experiences, exclusion mostly affected and still affects black boys; after being labelled and given a statement of special educational needs, being in a pupil referral unit (PRU) and being placed in alternative provision, I was surrounded by other young black males, 80% of the time from 10-15.
How do you feel race and racism has shaped who are you, if at all?
I didn’t initially over emphasize with race and colour as the cause of my maltreatment, it was more discrimination around my disability and about my protected characteristics. Because it was mostly black teachers subjecting me to the worst punishments, I didn’t recognise the racial element. I guess I was also trying to not be seen as a ‘typical black boy’ or to fit the stereotype, black had negative connotations on it for me, black was always bad, black meant I was stereotyped, labelled and treated differently. I didn’t understand why, and through exclusion I didn’t understand that my family upbringing was being challenged by a racist education policy and that I was already made the statistic outside of my control that I was trying to get away from.
Undeniably, the fear of fitting into stereotypes shaped my future. I was more reluctant about being seen in a group of black boys, on a council estate, stereotypes about gangs drew negative attention. As I got older I was more aware of what race and class meant and it began to show through people’s attitudes towards me and always feeling like having to go over and above. At eight or nine I was being mentored at a black mentoring programme called Boys2Men, so felt like I always had an ability to critically think, all the reflection and behaviour management through early intervention led me at times to “overthink”, alternative provision equipped me to be more empathetic despite the worlds hostile perception of me as a young black male.
You do a lot of work with the group No More Exclusions, how has your experience of exclusion encouraged you to be part of the challenge against the policy?
After participating in discussions at The Colour of Injustice, Zahra Bei invited me to be a part of No More Exclusions because of my personal journey with exclusion. Being coerced to feel like I was the issue, then proving to myself that I wasn’t, I always felt like exclusion was an important topic. Exclusion caused substantial disruption to my family, and personal life, because of the pressure on myself after always wanting to achieve academically to escape exclusion. Exclusion was a hurdle I leaped over, I knew what it was designed for and didn’t allow negative perceptions to make me think less of myself.
After being labelled at 10, and fitting the diagnostic criteria for “oppositional defiance disorder”, because I was seen as challenging by my teachers and head teachers, those behaviours were then magnified, negatively, when actually what that misbehaved child was trying to say was they were massively unstimulated. Despite requesting to be given more challenging school work, I was held back and not allowed to improve within mainstream education. I felt that harder work would have aided my development more than any preventative behaviour strategies and could have compensated in eradicating those ‘disruptive’ behaviours which were a result of not being engaged enough in class and being bored.
I mentioned the lack of stimulation several times during early education and in most of the meetings I had when I was being excluded.
No More Exclusions finally represented a place where I was understood without having to explain myself, involvement created an environment I didn’t feel anxious about sharing my experiences in, I felt comfortable speaking and not being punished for my opinion about what I always felt throughout life stemming from exclusion. Education to me wasn’t about my achievements as an individual, I got the impression it was about impeding my progression and keeping me “in place”.
You spoke at our event on the school-to-prison pipeline, do you feel like there is a growing link between school and the justice system? What is your opinion on race within this?
Inherently as a young black male there’s an inexcusable link between PRUs and prison. School contributes by creating the belief that as a young black man you won’t achieve academically and first separating you from “normality” in the form of isolation, detention or exclusion for mostly having a different opinion, or having an impairment. I think schools are oppressive and not mindful of the possibility of trauma, or the long-term support needed for those students with special needs. It’s more damaging because they end up feeling alone and are more likely to find refuge around people who they think reflects their perception of life. Some young people might find themselves in positions where they get involved in a life of crime either being left with no other option or being exploited, which then could lead to a lifetime involved with the criminal justice system, and possible inclusion on the gangs matrix especially if you’re under 25. When really the root causes could’ve been solved by resolving the underlying causes of trauma, understanding and listening to young people, and keeping them involved in discussions and solutions about their future, especially if they need extra support or are at risk of exclusion.