Over lockdown, I stumbled across my secondary school leavers’ yearbook, in which an alarming number of messages told me ‘not to bomb anyone’.
At the time, I probably laughed this off – at school, I may have even encouraged comments like this. I didn’t realise then that I was feeding into harmful stereotypes.
Finding my yearbook got me thinking about my high school experience and just how isolating it felt to be a South Asian girl in a hijab at a private school.
I went from a small Islamic primary school – where most of the children looked like me and came from similar backgrounds – to a girls-only private school in my local area.
My parents enrolled me because the school had notably high GCSE scores and a good OFSTED ranking but I couldn’t have predicted what life would be like over the next five years.
I still distinctly remember my first day. I quickly noticed that not only were there no other girls wearing a hijab (I stopped wearing it a year later in hopes that it would make it easier to ‘fit in’) and that I was the only student who had a skirt that went past my knees.
Modesty was an integral part of my faith and I never questioned my mother when she asked the lady at the school uniform shop if she could add a few inches to my ivy green skirt.
I scanned the classroom for someone that looked like me. There were only two other girls with similar complexions to mine, but the seats next to both had been taken so, I went to sit at the back, on my own.
When the form tutor called out names on the register, everyone turned around when I shot my hand up in response to mine. You could see that they were confused about the name ‘Sarah Harris’ not matching my face.
It was a reaction that I became increasingly used to, not just in learning environments, but in almost every waiting room and doctors’ office.
Prior to rediscovering my yearbook, I wouldn’t have said that my years at secondary school were bad. In fact, I was a fairly happy teenager. I had some great friends and made some fantastic memories.
But looking back, I feel as if my adolescence was whitewashed. Instead of embracing my culture and being proud of my heritage, I pushed it to the side and tried everything I could to fit in the stereotypical ideals of a Western teenager.
There were about 150 girls in my school, including both primary and secondary. Of those, less than 20 were of colour.
Throughout my five years there I never came across a teacher who was of colour. However, the maintenance staff and cleaners – who I would often bump into after school – were usually from an ethnic minority background.
Research shows that 93% of headteachers in England are Caucasian, even in areas where ethnic minority students make up the majority.
Racism wasn’t something I had experienced overtly and I was grateful for that. I didn’t realise though, that I was experiencing it covertly, as well as unconscious racial bias.
Towards the end of my five years at the school, I asked my form tutor if I could speak to her privately as I had been having trouble with a particular teacher for a few years and it had reached the point where my anxiety would skyrocket on days we had a lesson together.
I tried everything, from making sure my homework was immaculate to eventually hiring a private tutor in the subject to ensure my performance didn’t falter, but no matter how hard I tried, things weren’t improving.
After some careful observation and a few inquisitive conversations, I realised that the other few brown and black students felt the same way and were also having trouble with the teacher. ‘Are you saying that you think she’s racist? Because that’s a big accusation to make,’ my form tutor replied to my concerns.
I had been silenced before I even really had the opportunity to say anything. Inside, I was burning to shout out, ‘yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying’, but at 16, why would I want to cause such trouble for myself and possibly make things more difficult than they already were? So, I let it go.
Thinking about it now, I wish I had pushed back. Growing up and entering new environments has allowed me to see that there was nothing wrong with being different to everyone else.
My education and childhood experiences should not have been negatively affected by the colour of my skin. But at the time, the only way I saw myself making it through would be by adapting.
I turned myself into a running joke and made cracks about my culture and heritage so that it wouldn’t hurt so much when other people made them.
The only times these aspects of my life were actively embraced was during history or religious studies classes, where it often felt like I was made to be the unelected voice of millions of people.
During a trip to the local gurdwara (a place of worship for Sikhs) a teacher asked me to speak about the ‘culture.’ Given that I myself was not Sikh, there was little I could say.
As soon as I left secondary school and moved to a public college, I submerged myself in groups of people who looked and acted like me. I was able to find myself and learn to appreciate my culture; an experience I had been deprived of during my time at private school.
I often wonder how my experiences would have differed had I gone to a state school that was more diverse. Would I be a different person now? Would I have been prouder of my background as a child?
Educational institutions have a duty to treat every student, as well as staff, equally. We shouldn’t be there for show and to representation, we should be there to receive the same level of attention and care that our white counterparts are given.
Our adolescent experiences play a large role in shaping us in our adult years and it is vital that schools play a role in helping children of different backgrounds to embrace their culture and feel included.
Whether this be by diversifying the teaching curriculum to hiring more staff of colour, it is time things change.
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