I first met Nicola when we were both guests on BBC’s Woman’s Hour and basking in the company of Jenni Murray. Nicola is a prominent academic, with a post at the University of Birmingham and a string of plaudits. Sit down while I list a few of them:
Nicola is best known for her research The educational strategies of the Black middle classes and, the landmark report The Stephen Lawrence inquiry 10 years on, the conclusions of which were debated in Parliament. She is editor of the journal – Whiteness and Education published by Routledge – and author of the award-winning bookThe Colour of Class: the educational strategies of the Black middle classes which documents how Black middle class families navigate their children successfully through the education system.
Nicola is also the recipient of the 2016 PRECIOUS Award for Outstanding Woman in Professional Services for contributions to race equality. In 2015, she was recognized as a 2015 Woman of Achievement by the Women of the Year Council and was included in the 2014 Powerlist of Britain’s most influential Black people.
Jane: Nicola, I am bowled over by your list of achievements. You are clearly determined to make a difference. Can I take you back to your childhood for my first question? Where did you grow up and were there any early signs then of the life you were to embark upon?
Nicola: I was born and grew up in south west London. My parents are from Barbados and I spent quite a lot of time there as a child so I consider myself both Barbadian and British. Seeing numbers of Black people back home – in Barbados – occupying high level, powerful roles was totally normal. It’s such a contrast to what we see here in the UK.
My dad was absolutely fixated on our getting a good education. His used to say, “once you have it, no one can take it away from you”. I also loved reading as a child. It sounds a little geeky but going to the library on Saturday afternoon was my idea of pure happiness. I used to sit in my bedroom for hours on end lost in books while gorging on penny sweets from the little shop around the corner. Later that became a love for English Literature which I took as an A-level so I guess becoming an academic – where amongst other things I get to read, write and do research – makes sense.
It’s somewhat redundant to ask about experiences of racism as we know it’s rife. Add to that being female and I imagine you may have a few tales to tell. Is there any one experience you have had which has influenced your life and/or work significantly?
It’s impossible to pull out just one single experience. Racism exists in both explicit or overt forms and, in more subtle everyday forms. I think that mainstream society fails to really recognize that. It is constant. It can be in the form of being undermined, contributions being ignored in meetings, comments about hair, having to overly justify your talents or experience, being ignored in a queue and the white man who arrives after you being seen to. My parents’ mantra when I was growing up was that if we – I have a younger sister – went for a job with the same qualifications as a white person, the white person would get the job. Even though I didn’t really understand the magnitude of what they were saying, I did know that it meant that I couldn’t rest on my laurels or assume being qualified would be sufficient to being successful. Of course, research would later show that what my parents said was completely true. Often there’s an assumption that this means you will just be sat festering in a pool of anger or have low expectations for yourself about what you can achieve. I can honestly say that I know no person of colour in my circles who ticks that box. If anything they – we – are more strategic, determined and purposeful about our ambitions.
You’ve won a number of awards recently, some of them academic and some from outside of that arena. How has that impacted on you?
It’s amazing and exciting. If you put it in the context of what my parents told us when we were children – about always having to work harder than white counterparts to succeed – then the awards feel like some degree of recognition for that. Of course the academic awards are very important because that’s the sector I work in but I’m especially honoured that some of them come from outside of higher education. For me it’s a measure of the fact that the work I’m doing is resonating with the experiences and views ordinary people. That is extremely important to me.
Some of the awards you’ve won related to your achievements based on your gender or your ethnicity or a mixture of the two. The comedian Shappi Korsandi recently withdrew from a book award where the focus was the author’s ethnicity. What’s your view about identity specific awards?
We don’t live in an equal, meritocratic society. There is an elite who benefit from being able to pay for exclusive private schooling, choose which good neighbourhoods to live in and know the ‘right’ people who will put in a word for them when it comes to work. Most of the rest of us – and I include the white working class here – are fighting to survive and succeed in this system. I see identity specific awards as a way of saying: ‘We’re not waiting for you to recognise us or value our work. We are taking responsibility for our success and will give recognition to each other’. It is quite simple – if society were equitable and if mainstream awards truly recognised and embraced our talents, then we wouldn’t need separate ones.
The Women’s Equality Party recently had its first national conference and there were a few comments about its lack of a a diverse audience i.e. very white. Is it something you are involved with? Do you think it has a role to play for black women? If so, how do you think they can widen participation and broaden their appeal?
I can’t comment on WEP but I am mindful that when the issue of gender is raised it tends not to include the experiences of women of colour. We are invisible. It happens time and time again in the academy. I’d like to hear more white women acknowledge their own raced identity and experiences when they’re talking about gender and consider that there are differences between being a white woman and a woman of colour. I really like, for example, that Jane Garvey (presenter on BBC R4 Woman’s Hour) will often say explicitly, ‘I’m a white, privileged, middle aged woman, I’m not sure I’m best place to comment on that’. I’d like to hear more white women begin to reflect in that way.
If you could introduce one piece of legislation into the UK what would it be?
My first degree was in Psychology. I then went on to do postgraduate certificates in Family & Couple Therapy. As part of that training all students had to undergo psychotherapy. It was challenging but it really encourages you to look at the underbelly of who you are, how you came to be that way and how to better learn from your experiences. So, I’d actually legislate for everyone to have therapy with the aim of improving how we understand ourselves and how we relate to each other.
We often make what we consider to be rationale decisions which, in fact, are based on insecurity, fear, anxiety, hubris and so on and end up hurting others or we end up in situations that we would otherwise prefer not to be in. I think it would revolutionise the world of school, work, politics, how we engage with each other as citizens and how we form relationships and raise our children.
How important are role models do you think, in helping women aspire to a different life?
I worry that the role model debate suggests that just because x did it, you can too. It completely ignores that society is based on structural inequality which is predicated on the type of school and university you went, getting work experience at daddy’s firm, who is in your social network and so on. At the same time, I’m mindful that some people regard me as a role model and I see it as my responsibility therefore to be honest about the barriers I’ve faced and continue to face and how I work to navigate them.
Do you have a role model who has inspired you?
I don’t have a role model as such. I do have sponsors – people who can introduce me to others and help me reflect on particular life challenges. It is more of a two way process than being a role model or even a mentor. Then there are those I admire and respect for different reasons. It might be the way they handle questions in a live interview, their ability to actively listen, how they engage with debates on gender or their intellectual sharpness. I saw Cindy Gallop on Channel 4 news a few months ago and loved her energy, gusto and the sheer gumption with which she argued for gender equality.
Then I look to Baroness Lawrence and how she somehow managed to stay the course in the fight for justice for her son Stephen. I’m both humbled by her fortitude and resilience and also angry at the fact that she was in essence compelled to be that way in order to gain some degree of justice. The Stephen Lawrence case is a sobering and shameful reminder that equality is never easily won.
What advice would you give to anyone looking for a similar career path to yours?
When potential scholars of colour approach me for advice, aside from the usual writing for publication, networking, teaching and bringing in research grants, I tell them that they must tap into existing groups (of scholars, activists, allies) where they know their experiences and racial identity and all the experiences that go with that will be largely understood. Such spaces also provide solace, support and a source of information exchange. Higher education can be isolating, especially if you are from an under-represented group, and it is important to establish a range of strategies to negotiate and survive it.
If you could choose to have one book given to you, that came with dinner with the author, just the two of you, what would you choose, and why?
Just one? That’s really hard. I think James Baldwin. I’ve read his biography and a number of his novels and we would be able to talk politics, race, identity, sexuality and the ways in which these shape how we engage one another and form policy. Is it really just one? If I could squeeze in another around my table, it would be George Schuyler (author of the powerfully insightful satire ‘Black No More’ which I highly recommend) or Maya Angelou. Her poem ‘And Still I Rise’ is a frequent and necessary source of inspiration and strength.
And finally, what period of history would you like to live in for a while, assuming we have cracked the time travel issue…?
I saw Motown a few months ago with my family and, my sister and I were singing along and pretending we were backing dancers. So – notwithstanding the awful racial tensions at the time – I’d be part of a 1960s-backing ensemble, complete with the wigs, co-ordinated dance routines and sparkly outfits! When not performing, you’d find me frequenting my favourite dark, underground, jazz bar – the kind where you need to whisper a code at the door to get in. I’d be elegantly dressed and wearing long gloves that matched my outfit and smoking cigarettes from an impossibly long, but very on trend, cigarette holder.
I can see you there now! Many thanks, Nicola, for taking time out of your busy schedule. It’s much appreciated.
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Posted on February 28th, 2017 by Jane