A few months ago, I attended a networking reception at a top city law firm, where I began chatting to a trainee solicitor who had finished his studies and was now making big money in the city. After initial chit-chat, I asked him what he enjoyed about a seemingly stressful job, and he replied with a smile, that it was being able to put money in his mum’s bank account and knowing that she wouldn’t have to work so hard again. Both of us being black, first generation, working class students, I knew exactly what he meant.
As cliché as it is, I always wanted to be a lawyer growing up. There were also other options, model, nurse, designer, journalist, (unfortunately the music ting didn’t work out due to my horrible voice and stiff hips) but lawyer always kept popping up. A fiery, feisty child, I realized that I enjoyed arguing, and was quite good at proving people wrong, and I could do this all day? For loads of money? My parents supported me in the run up to my degree, even though they didn’t have a clue what was going on. The sheer simplicity of choosing Law as my UCAS degree option then simply waiting for responses made me think, what if somebody was unable to pursue the degree that they wanted, because of their background?
It reminded me of what black kids have been told whilst growing up; we must work twice as hard in order to receive half of the praise and reward of that received by our white counterparts. This explains the high levels of black, working class attainment in comparison to the shockingly low levels of white working class attainment. This gap changes dramatically in secondary school, where the exclusion rate of Afro-Caribbean boys is three to four times the rate of their white counterparts. The teacher who deems you too ‘aggressive’ and feels ‘threatened’ when you react to feeling picked on? This has unfortunately happened to many black teenagers in inner – cities, where they are labelled as ‘problematic’ and in a constant cycle of exclusions and meetings and reprimand, they never get to actually learn. Unfortunately, it spills into higher education, where representation is sparse, especially in Russell Group Universities, all the way to the very top at Oxbridge, where seeing a black face is as common as a blue cat.
For these reasons, first generation immigrant households traditionally tend to favour ‘vocational’ degrees, ‘solid’ stuff that leads to a career in finance, medicine, law or engineering. All of these professions that are commonly perceived to ;
- Require some sort of ‘intelligence’ whether it be equations or numbers, in that they are seen as something you must be really smart to do well in.
- Gain respect from peers and the wider community for its ‘usefulness’ in generating a stable income – an aunty at a family function pops into your head, ‘my son is a cardiac surgeon’ she proclaims smugly, as you quietly pile food onto a paper plate for ‘takeaway’ purposes because you can’t afford McDonalds for the fourth time this week.
Newly arriving immigrants come with ‘fresher’ dreams, hopes and aspirations to ‘make it big’ in the UK, to emulate all the cool actors seen in imported VHS tapes, to be as ‘wealthy’ as the cousin from London who comes to visit every few years with kilos and kilos of gifts. Yet when they arrive, their degrees are ignored, their lives consumed by pressures of surviving here, and their dreams of becoming a doctor or a lawyer, which are seen as the upper echelons of society in many cultures, are put on indefinite hold.
In the usual cycle of life, they have children and settle down. These children are told stories of their parents coming ‘first in every class’ (debatable) and how important education is. These same children will grow up, seeing their parents work two or three jobs to keep the family afloat. Not to go on extravagant holidays to the Maldives or pay for a renovation, but simply to put food on the table and a warm roof over their children’s heads.
However, we are not our parents. Therefore, the question must be asked, do those whose parents and grandparents migrated to this godforsaken grey island, feel a pressure for us to choose degrees that lead to a ‘stable’ and ‘respected’ profession for the sake of carrying on their immigrant family dream, as opposed to choosing degrees that they genuinely find rewarding, that might be of a more creative nature?
Aforementioned child is now in the process of applying to university. They have seen their parents working hard, with high hopes for their children, who according to statistics, excelled in primary school. Taking into account the enormous debt of a university education and additional living costs, taking into consideration the fierce competition for vocational courses such as apprenticeships and how low initial wages are, what is the next course of action? For many, it is to pursue a degree and grow in a profession they enjoy. For others however, it is balancing the responsibility of your parents’ aspirations and expectations, with the discrimination faced by BME graduates in the job market, with wanting to leave university with as little debt as possible in order to live your best life.
This trilemma explains why many people feel a pressure whilst in university, adjusting to the academic rigour and independence of higher education with your parents’ expectations in your ears. What if you want to study English Literature, and become a lawyer after?
‘Do you think I came all the way to England, and worked three jobs, for you to study a language you already speak? English Literature? Are you going to become a teacher?’
These concerns, although misguided, are well meaning. After experiencing first-hand discrimination upon arrival, black parents and grandparents simply want the best for their children. The difficulty of being unemployed and black in modern-day Britain, in reliance of an ever-shrinking welfare state is something that everybody is trying to avoid, and the well-worn image of the starvin’ artiste is stamped in their minds, where an English degree is no good unless you want to be a part time poet. They don’t have the access to social media or the insight that we have today to see how feasible a successful career as a black creative really is today.
Although we are seeing so much more Black Excellence in the creative industries, there are so many more writers, designers, artists and teachers that the BME community has to offer. It is so important to let young adults feel free of any pressure or expectation from within and outside of the household, and to let them enjoy their own rewards and learn from their own mistakes.
By Rahel Aklilu