It’s time Black youths had more relatable role models

Black youths endemically underachieve but will Levelling Up meet their needs?

What does the future hold for Black youths?

As the incumbent Prime Minister bides his time until a new Conservative leader is selected, there has been wider speculation – from within the party, the opposition and charity bosses – about the sustainability of the flagship Levelling Up policy; a 2019 Conservative manifesto promise to even out inequalities between regional and social groups in the UK.

With the cost of living crisis widening the chasm between rich and poor and no clear roadmap to steer more of the population away from certain hardship, it’s clear who the real losers are – our children.

We live in an idealistic society that peddles a narrative underpinned by the tenets of meritocracy. That opportunity to rise out of those council-owned high risers to one day achieve a more materially comfortable life because of applied grit, determination and intelligence is a very seductive vision. But at best, it’s a fallacy; an out-of-reach dream, not least for the underprivileged, comprising not just white working-class children but Black youths who endemically underachieve more than any other ethnic group in the country.   

Still, the question of social mobility continues to pervade the public discourse, highlighting the gaping disparity in empathic understanding between policymakers and their socially disadvantaged beneficiaries.

Katherine Birbalsingh, the controversial “social mobility tsar”, recently commented that working-class students should aim lower than Oxbridge – her main argument being that perceptions of ‘success’ must broaden beyond the anomaly of a caretaker’s daughter, brought up on a council estate, entering Oxbridge to qualify as a lawyer. As ‘A’ level students await August for Results Day, how many of working-class stock will have been discouraged from applying to a Russell Group university because they’ve been told it’s beyond their reach?

Teachers can be among some of the worst offenders for cutting down young dreams with what they dispense as a healthy dose of ‘realism’. Indeed, my form tutor once said that my ambition to become a social worker was not achievable for someone like me; I had to strive for something much more realistic – like an office job at a local factory in Birmingham where I lived.

It’s not without irony that I became a recruitment consultant and agency founder and have since enjoyed a 22-year career in this field. If one needs to make a social change, that change has to come from within the very problematic systems in place.

My parents had unwavering faith in my talent and potential, so I grew up with a strong sense of self-belief. I was able to convert this negative feedback into positive action. I had a resolve to prove that I could be successful, even if it weren’t to be in social work, but I know that many more children will believe in and introject this negativity. They will be condemned to live a self-fulfilling prophecy where their potential will never be fully realised.

Whilst more accessible benchmarks of success must be communicated and celebrated in this difficult journey for social betterment, discouraging working-class students from aiming for Oxbridge is demeaning, ‘othering’ and – whether intended to or not – smacks of snobbery. A subtext lies within this messaging that warns of knowing your place and staying there. You don’t belong. The danger is real. Aiming lower may mean never fully realising one’s potential.

The socially disadvantaged and the marginalised must see more people like them entering the very educational institutions and professions ordinarily out of their reach to believe what is possible, give and take tenacity, intelligence, hard work and, yes, luck.

We are seeing more ethnic ‘diversity’ within the Government in that, superficially, there has been a paradigm shift from the pale, male stale model of what constitutes a ‘leader’ to exemplars of the ‘good immigrant’. They are the children of refugees or economic migrants that have been able to provide elite education and opportunities that their offspring would one day enjoy riches of the top 1% and hold some of the highest offices in Government. They are remarkable in that they are anomalies – an exception to the rule – which makes them just as unrelatable to the children of the man on the street as the very aristocrats and upper-class students that Rishi Sunak was once allegedly pals with at Winchester.  

It’s for this very reason that I established the Black Talent Awards – the inaugural celebration of which is happening on 29 September 2022. The initiative has had valuable backing from brands like Merlin Entertainments, Serco and EDF and provides a vital platform to champion not just Black talent but also nominate key organisations that can demonstrate clear accountability for the success of their DE&I efforts.

Children, not least the most disadvantaged group of all, Black youths, need relatable role models that can instil valuable hope in what they can achieve. This has never been more important than in a society where everyone else might underestimate them or consign them to failure. If we are to collectively break the narrative of Black young people chronically underachieving – be that academically or professionally – we must create a new ecosystem that firstly builds up belief and confidence in themselves that anything is possible.

Denise Myers is CEO of recruitment firm Evenfields and founder of the inaugural Black Talent Awards, which aims to champion relatable professional role models and tackle employment discrimination.

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