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Can Black Students Take up Space in Predominantly White Schools?  

“I’ve never seen a Black penis before,” isn’t a sentence you anticipate hearing on your first day of school. In the first episode of Boarders, we watch Jaheim being casually fetishised before he’s even had a chance to put his luggage (black bin bags in his case) in his room. Straight off the bat, we get a wild introduction to the potential day in the life of a Black private school student. 

When you’re from inner-city London, no one clues you in on what to expect when you enrol in one of the most elitist schools in the country. Boarders, written by ITV2’s BAFTA nominated Timewasters, Daniel Lawrence Taylor is a BBC Three six-part series that follows five Black students who have all received scholarships to St Gilbert’s, one of the UK's oldest and most prestigious schools. 

After a video of students taunting and abusing a homeless man goes viral, the headmaster attempts to save the reputation of the school. The answer? Invite Black students from underprivileged backgrounds to St Gilbert’s. This is where we’re introduced to Jaheim, Leah, Omar, Toby and Femi. We watch them navigate the messy and often complicated experience of being othered in a space that typically does not factor in your existence. 

The motivations for sending your child to a private school are clear. Better opportunities, social mobility, networking, and the list goes on. But, what the five students had to endure for these opportunities often made me wince. From popular student Rupert believing that Jaheim is related to Stormzy and Skepta to everyone believing that Toby was a drug dealer. The experiences may be exaggerated for dramatic and comedic effect but they aren’t far off from the stories I’ve heard from my Black peers who attended similar schools. 

Should you send Black children to a private school? The debate is an ongoing one. Every Black person I’ve spoken to who has been to a private school is grateful for the opportunity. But, when asked if they would give their child the same fate, the answer is usually no. 

The concept of taking up space comes up a lot in these conversations. It’s the idea that although these institutions were not made for us, we can create change and potentially disrupt the status quo by embracing them as our own. But, how realistic is that? If these spaces are a breeding ground for racism and trauma, is it still worth trying to take up space?

*26-year-old Sam, a model from Birmingham, started attending private school at the age of 13 after transferring from a state school. Being one of five Black people in the whole school was initially quite a shock to him. 

However, Sam said he felt “privileged going to a private school as the number of people in my classes was much smaller. But I found it difficult at first to make friends as many of the other students lacked social skills.”

Though he experienced microaggressions, realising how privileged he was fueled his motivation to work hard. “It opened my eyes and made me value the community I had around me at home much more. It made me realise that I had certainly taken being around a lot of black and brown people within the area I lived in and at my state school for granted,” Sam adds. 

He explains that his time in private school inspired him to help other Black people have access to opportunities they couldn’t afford. “I created and led a virtual internship at Santander during my time there as a legal and compliance graduate, which was exclusively open to black students. Overall the experience made me more sure of myself and appreciative of my blackness: that I was in touch with my culture.”

32-year-old project manager, Eni Adeyemo also enjoyed her time at her school. Adeyemo went to a private secondary school but found that it didn’t have too much of an impact on her identity as she went with her sister. I built a rapport with black children in my year and above and we all formed an alliance in a way, as we were a minority,” she says. 

She adds that “during that time, Black culture was popular so we often had the white children intrigued and wanting to join in.” Overall, she found her time in private education beneficial as she was able to excel in education but wishes her social life was more balanced. 

“There weren’t any Black teachers that we could relate to with our issues and also children that were typically assertive were deemed ‘badly behaved’ and got into trouble a bit. I think that was a time I grew out of being quiet and standing up for what is right,” Adeyemo says.

*25-year-old Paris who is a public affairs officer, on the other hand, can’t speak too positively of her experience. When Paris looks back at her time at school she says “It was probably the worst time in her life.”

After being bullied in her state school, her local council advised her mother to look at boarding schools out of the city to give Paris a fresh start. “I had a taster week and I felt incredibly homesick, this made me apprehensive but everyone was nice. Or so I thought,” she said. “People looked at me differently and I couldn't work out why I felt like a pet monkey in the zoo,” Paris said of her time in boarding school. 

One moment that stands out to Paris was her senior prom. Paris said: “This is where I started to realise no matter what I did I would never be accepted by these white mum bought me some Louboutins but from Vestaire and everyone accused me of having a fake pair.” She always felt like an outsider in school and says that it’s only now as an adult that she can put theories to the feelings she felt. 

Paris struggles with the concept of taking up space. “I don’t think it was fair to put me in that environment. It impacted me in ways I don't think my mum realised it would,” Paris says. She acknowledges the importance of taking up space but believes that being a diversity quota does not mean or reflect that an institution is actively working to be different. She believes that, “unless an institution matches the hiring of diverse students or candidates for jobs with actions to break down barriers so that you can achieve your full potential it's meaningless.”

28-year-old Tré Ventour-Griffiths who is an Independent Scholar-Creative from Northamptonshire feels similar to Paris. Ventour-Griffiths has been in several white institutions since he was a child. The first private school he attended was a white village family-run prep school in Great Houghton. He describes his time at that school as his introduction to whiteness. “This is where I learned about wealthy white people and what many of them thought about Black people,” he says.

Ventour-Griffiths shares that one of the reasons he was sent to a private school was due to being multiply neurodivergent. “I found out I was dyspraxic while at school and the smaller class sizes made a difference. State schools are intentionally under-resourced and due to this, my parents saw that I would have a better start in life due to my needs, at a private school,” he says.

Ventour-Griffiths shared that racism at school was a way of life. “I was objectified by certain teachers while being called racist names by white students, including the N-word and ‘Black bastard’.”

But, one of his worst memories came when he attended another private school when he was a little bit older. “During a class on colonial slavery, the history teacher wanted to do a 'fake slave auction,' so she made myself and two British-Indian boys ‘the slaves’ getting the white students to build an enclosure of sorts. Comments and events like these have played on my mind for a number of years,” he says. 

When complaints were made about racist incidents, he was told he "couldn't take a joke" and his claims were ushered off. When asked if he thinks Black people can take up space in historically white institutions Ventour-Griffiths said yes and no. “I think we can take up space, but it's a matter of if we feel safe doing so. This varies from person to person. Also other experiences, including class, culture, familial background, friends, community,” he adds. 

He continues: “In truth, I would not send Black children to private school unless parents/guardians have exhausted all other choices. Firstly, ask yourself why? The way society measures excellence is flawed, often in proximity to whiteness and private schools are dripping in whiteness.”  


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