Posted on: February 8, 2021 Posted by: Olisa Ikezue-Clifford Comments: 1

I want to start by making it clear why I am writing this piece and what I am trying to achieve in doing so. Over the past few months a bright light has begun to illuminate the various ways in which race and the issue of racism permeate every sector of our society. As a result of this, I have set about to reflect upon the role that race has played in my life as a young black man.

To give some context, I was lucky enough to attend Dulwich College, a fantastic private school, from the ages of 7 to 18. Hence, I believe that I can give unique insight into the way in which racism has manifested itself in the private school system. I cannot speak to the experience of all black people at every private school in the country, or even at Dulwich College, however, I do believe that many of us have similar stories to tell. Nonetheless, this commonality of experience does not guarantee a shared perspective on the issue, and so, I claim only to speak for myself.

This piece is not an attack on private schools, or Dulwich College specifically, but an attempt to highlight a wider issue that I believe needs to be addressed. I will begin by looking at the nature of the racism that I faced and then going through what I believe to be the root causes behind it. Finally, I will suggest what I believe are some potential solutions to the problem.

The problem of racism did not begin to rear its ugly head up until the age of thirteen — or rather, I was not aware of it until then. There is a veil of childish ignorance that protects you from such issues. However, from thirteen onwards, I experienced a veritable wealth of racially insensitive jokes and comments. Perhaps shockingly, most of the jokes came from friends of mine at the time, many of whom I am still friends with today. While I know that they are not people who subscribe to the ideology of black inferiority or white supremacy, it does not excuse their behavior at the time or make their comments any less racist. It points to how racism is becoming increasingly normalized. This could be seen as an even greater problem as I would argue that this kind of racism is more pervasive and harder to root out.

To this day, two events remain particularly memorable to me. The first was a running joke that continued for many months when I was fourteen. A good friend of mine thought it funny to refer to me as “Coco the slave” while he pretended to be my “master”. He would caricature a Southern American slave owner while I acted as his slave, and we would laugh about it together.

If I focus on my own actions, my first question is: why did I play along with what I see now to be such a horribly racist and self-deprecating joke? I can make some assumptions based on hindsight but in all honesty, it is difficult to give a definitive answer, since my mindset has changed so much since then and it is near impossible to unlearn my current perceptions and moral compass.

Perhaps I did it to “fit in”. When we made this “Coco and his master“ joke it was met with laughs from other boys, and I think a large part of the reason why I allowed myself to be subject to such racism was that the people I was surrounded by found it funny. What does it say about the environment that I was in, that I felt that these were the kind of jokes that I needed to make about myself in order to fit in?

It speaks to the toxic sense of humour and an overall obliviousness that comes along with a certain level of privilege.This is not to say that privilege breeds racist attitudes, but that privilege disassociates you from struggle and hardship, and as a result of this dissociation, people don’t understand the weight or the impact of their words. This again does not excuse such behavior, but points to a potential cause.

This logic suggests that I allowed such jokes because of the environment that I found myself in. Self-deprecation and the acceptance of racism felt like the best way for me to fit in. Although I believe that there is most definitely some truth to that argument, I am not trying to portray a narrative of victimhood as I don’t see myself as a victim. I don’t think it is helpful for me to view my experiences just through that lens. Doing so does not allow one to have a full understanding of my experience. Looking back now one of the things I wish I had done was to stand up and not allow these kinds of things to go on. In keeping quiet I played a role in perpetuating casual racism by not only allowing it to happen but perhaps also by even encouraging it.

The second incident of casual racism that stuck with me was something that I experienced on a rugby tour the summer before I started my first year of A-Levels. This is one of the more harrowing racist experiences I faced. This is mainly due to the fact that I, and the boys who partook in the experience, were much older and thus more aware of the weight and gravitas of what we were doing.

On the last day of the rugby tour, we were all given a bit of free time, and, as the younger year group at the time, we had to face some “hazing”. Essentially we had to do something embarrassing in front of all the boys as a rite of passage. Many boys had to do various different things, but my “punishment” stood out. For my initiation, a black friend of mine and I were told that we had to have a mandingo fight. A mandingo fight is depicted a lot in popular culture and is essentially when two slaves are ordered by their masters to fight each other to death for entertainment.

Of course, we didn’t have to kill each other, but we had to strip into our boxers, oil our entire bodies and wrestle each other while the other boys surrounded us to make up a ring, cheering us on. This again is evidence of the toxic humor that develops in these environments (private school environments??) but in this instance, it was arguably amplified by the “Lad” culture associated with rugby. Again, I want to be careful not to paint all “rugby lads” with a sweeping brush, as that would be unfair, but I also think it’s fair to say that “Lad” culture played some role in this experience.

What is interesting is that a few of the older black boys present encouraged the fight as well, alluding to the normalization of this type of behavior. These experiences taken together show that it is difficult for a black man or woman to move past the colour of their skin in some instances. From my experience at Dulwich College, being black in certain situations was a part of my identity that was highlighted the most. This is not to say that this is inherently a bad thing. I am a proud young black man, but I am also many other things. My experiences of casual racism show that at times my amalgamation of various identities was simplified down to me just being black, and this was very belittling.

And so, we arrive at the big question: how can and should this issue be tackled? I do not believe that casual racism is something that can be completely eradicated, as it is impossible to police what kids and young adults say in their free time. But there are two things that could potentially help alleviate the problem. First is to tackle what I mentioned as the dissociation from the concept of struggle. To do this schools like mine should encourage people of colour who have achieved great things in their respective fields (why must they have achieved great things?) to come back and give talks on the effects that racism has had on them and their life. Seeing someone in front of them who has personally been affected by racism could contextualise the issue for young students and encourage them to think twice about their own actions.

Another tangible policy would be an increase in the number of bursaries given out, especially targeted at some of the more impoverished areas of London. If minority groups gained more representation in these (private?) schools, people (of colour?) would feel more confident in standing up to casual racism. One of the biggest barriers to private schools is cost, and this has excluded minority groups within London as they earn on average less than the average white household. This does not mean that there aren’t incredibly bright children who deserve the chance to be able to go to these schools. A more aggressive bursary scheme is needed to combat these issues (institutional racism). These are just my own personal thoughts upon reflecting my experiences. I believe that there is a story here that needs to be told, and I have found myself in a unique position to tell it.

By Olisa Ikezue-Clifford

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Michael Tiresias
Michael Tiresias(@michaeltiresias)
9 months ago