Development Monthly | #24 October 2023 | Black History Month Through the Lens of HE
This Black History month, I write this reflective, article in the hope that our academic educationalist community can deepen the way in which we approach the notion of Black History and the experiences of Black people, but this time may we not only consider the historical challenges and struggles, but begin to realise the generational effects of these on all aspects of the lives of Black people today through exploring a part of the lived experience of a Black British professional interacting and working in a landscape where they are the minority.
My hope is that we can really consider and value the impact and part that we all play in shaping the lived experiences of the Black individuals that we meet, work with, educate, and interact with in day-to-day life. The shaping of my career and my lived experiences were very much influenced by those around me and how they acted towards me, and the value that they placed upon me and my contribution as a member of the community.
At just 3 years old I was sitting at the dining table, to the right of my father reading the newspaper. This image is a story of old that my mother persistently tells every person that she meets. She recounts this story to me at every family gathering or any time we have an intimate mother-daughter conversation. It is almost as if she uses it as a means of legitimising me as her “clever”, and “successful daughter”, or to reinforce the point that she foreknew the academic successes that I would achieve and almost premeditated them.
For me, there are deeper feelings of my mother using this story to demonstrate the foundations of my success as a young(ish) black female academic; former Head of Department and manager in a large Further Education college; and now a Lecturer in a Higher Education Institution. This story alone has a lot to say for what my mother deems “successful”. I always ask myself why, for her, me reading the newspaper at the age of 3 is such an important milestone in my career. Perhaps, the reason that my mother did not view her own success to the same merit as she viewed mine is because what she did and achieved was what she deemed to be expected by her cultural community: a Ghanaian woman living in England through the eighties and nineties, raising her family with very little help from the outside world. Perhaps, also, it is because she could foresee the societal challenges that I would face as a result of the ethnic group that I was born into, and the socially constructed prejudices based upon this that have enveloped our society for centuries.
I draw upon this artefact as it gives me impetus to explore the central tenet of ‘self-concept’, the creation of my own as a minority individual underrepresented in my field, and the impact that this has had on my career and establishment of the role(s) that I now hold. This artefact allows me to reflect upon the intersections and perceived barriers that I have transcended, and the perceived successes that I have achieved as a Black British woman seeking to establish herself in a professional-academic world dominated by the White-British ‘status-quo’.
My self-concept has always been, what I would define as, unwavering. I have always had a steady and somewhat constant perception of how others see me which in turn influences how I see myself, impacting upon my levels of self-esteem and confidence. My father always impressed upon me that he believed in me and that I had the capability to be anything I wanted to be. My father’s consistent positive reinforcement of my abilities was insurmountably the foundation of my success. Having someone demonstrate a genuine belief in me catapulted my self-belief into another stratosphere which over time became etched into the fabric of my being, solidifying it and making it extremely difficult to alter. Therefore, it is arguable that having a high self-concept is imperative to being successful and ‘overcoming challenge’. However, dependent upon one’s level of self-concept it is equally arguable that the actions of others with whom one has a personal or professional connection can equally impact the measure of one’s self concept, and inherently one’s level of success.
Cooley (1902) first coined the concept of ‘the looking glass self’ and put forth the notion of individuals perceiving themselves the way others perceived them, but it is Mead’s interpretation and adage to Cooley’s concept which is particularly important here. Mead (1934) posited that:
“Self-concept arises in social interaction as an outgrowth of the individual’s concern about how others react to him. In order to anticipate other people’s reactions so that he can behave accordingly, the individual learns to perceive the world the way they do.”(Mead, 1934, p.)
Applied to my situation this notion elucidates the reasons for my unwavering self-concept in that one could suggest that through my many positive interactions with other I may have grown extremely skilled at reading people and determining their social cues, idiosyncrasies, personalities and core value systems. For example, I did not experience any life-damaging racial abuse or discrimination during my childhood, or at least none that were known to me, and this therefore reinforced the notion, for me, that the people that I interacted with in social contexts, be it teachers, friends or religious acquaintances, perceived me as ‘of value’ and equal to them; another member of the “community”. It is important to note that McKenzie (2003) advocated the view that the subjective experience of racism was a risk factor to constraining Black and Ethnic Minority groups in the United Kingdom and to causing them emotional distress. The lack of discrimination and racial abuse in my own experience due to the ‘good’ and ‘just’ actions of others who played a part in my life growing up, was key to the development and sustenance of my positive self-concept and resultant positive self-esteem and success.
Clark (2004) in De Maynard (2009) asserts that the subjective experience of racism perpetuates an individual’s propensity to have a disparaging outlook on everyday experience. However, my positive attitude was formed based upon how I construed others’ reaction to me and my positive interactions and experiences of other people. It is also highly pertinent to state that within the social communities that I participated in I was increasingly apt to learn how different individuals perceived the world, their ideologies and social norms and integrate them into my way of behaving so as to learn about how to cooperate and coexist with different people. It is difficult to say whether this process was always conscious or unconscious and it would be sensible to determine that this was dependent upon which community I was acting in at any given time. One might argue that this was an example of me assimilating to fit in but is such a thing not common in most contexts within society be it Sport, Education, Employment, and more and does not such a thing perpetuate a sense of belonging.
What is interesting to note regarding Meads’ development is the impression that individuals seek to anticipate other people’s reactions in order to behave accordingly, moreover, in order to receive a positive reaction from the individual, which in turn reaps a positive self-concept. Upon reflection on my childhood and the various ‘insider’ communities to which I belonged (for example school, church, friendship groups, sports teams) it is this cycle that was a continuous feature that allowed me to develop a positive-self-concept in each community to which I was a member of: me interacting positively with others> others valuing my contribution to society and positively interacting with me> my self-concept being built and cemented.
So, what am I trying to say…what is my message to you this Black History Month? Well, it is this: rather than us simply considering the historical features of black people in Britain and the various momentous events and successes of famous individuals, such as Jamaican-born Mary Seacole setting up the “British Hotel” for wounded soldiers during the Crimean War or Lewis Hamilton winning his first formula 1 Championship in 2008, let us dig deeper. Let’s really realise, contemplate and be aware of the internal, often arduous, and frustrating struggles that normal everyday black people may have faced to reach their success or even begin their journey towards them. This Black History Month and beyond, let us also recognise and celebrate the important part that we all play in building the positive self-concept of other people and contributing to their life success today.
Clark, R. (2004) Interethnic group and intraethnic group racism: Perceptions and coping in black university students. Journal of black Psychology, 30(4), pp. 506–526.
Cooley, C. H. (1902) Human nature and the social order. New York: Scribner’s.
De Maynard, V. A. (2009) Dissociation in Black or Black-British People of African and African-Caribbean Descent in the United Kingdom. International Journal of Mental Health, 38(2), pp. 37–73.
McKenzie, K. (2003) Racism and health. British Medical Journal, 326(7380), pp. 65–66.
Mead, G. H. (1934) Mind, self, and society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Join the discussion @The_AHEP #Develop or scroll to the bottom for comments
Check out previous issues of Development Monthly