A conversation with Alex Wheatle, an award-winning black British novelist, to understand how underrepresentation can affect young people and their career
“In prison I found one of the most positive influences in my life”, Alex says. As scary as this may sound, a closer look to our society, can easily explain why a young black man is more likely to find inspiration and encouragement in a place like jail than in the outside world.
Alex Wheatle went to jail after taking part in the Brixton riots in 1981. He was only 18 when the police knocked on his door the day after the protests. The months that followed would be just the beginning of a long journey of learning about himself, and building up enough awareness to make him the man he is today;
“It wasn’t really the system that helped me. The institution itself won’t lift you up. But I was lucky enough to meet a Rastafarian who educated me about where I come from, about my history.,” he explains.
Alex would call himself Nelson, in memory of Mandela, as both men inspired him throughout his life.“ He gave me reasons to believe I come from a great people too and that my history is not only about slavery and salvages.”
Now 54, Wheatle is an award-winning black British novelist of Jamaican heritage. In his young-adult novels, he touches upon social issues and troubled families living in London’s southern areas. He also wrote about his Caribbean culture and the London riots in the 80s.
Wheatle grew up in a children’s home in Shirley Oaks, Croydon. In 2016, thirty years later, some of those children decided to speak up to denounce the mental, physical and sexual abuses they suffered in the council-run home care. A two-year long investigation revealed that 700 children were abused from the 1950s to the early 1980s;
The Shirley Oaks Survivors Association (Sosa), of which Alex is a member, identified 60 alleged paedophiles and accuses the Lambeth Council of destroying 140 care records. In 2016, the Council declared it would pay tens of millions in compensation to the victims.
During our conversation, he often mentions Nelson’s words and the impact of Jamaican culture on his works. “We need to understand the importance of teaching young people about their culture. We need to give them something to relate to, to make them aware they come from something good because they need to believe they can give a great contribution to society,” he continues. “Because of the dominance of western cultures, sometimes others get lost or squashed down and this would result in kids who feel left out, marginalised in schools.”
While he sips his tea, I can’t help but notice how down-to-earth he is. It is not only because he still has that now rare, golden characteristic of being humble, but it is him being so similar and close to the rest of us that seems hard to believe. Is he an exceptional case of human being? Or are we getting more and more used to seeing only celebrities as successful and perceiving them planets away from our experience of life? I try to think of black and successful people I know. Morgan Freeman, Michael Jordan, Barack Obama, Usain Bolt, Stevie Wonder, Rihanna, Beyonce’. Ok, the list may not be so short, but I cannot really say I relate to those people.
It seems that to reach the front pages of newspapers we need to become extremely successful. The kind of success that isn’t accessible perhaps for the majority but that is seen as the final aim for more and more young people. We are left, then, with role models who are more likely to look like a billionaire YouTuber rather than the guy who managed to open the shop in the corner or our parents who managed to simply buy a house.
“Self-esteem can’t really be helped by people from the film industry or the entertainment world; we should rather propose ordinary people, who have done good in their community as an example of success to emulate,” the novelist and social activist says. “Sometimes those presented in schools during ‘special occasions’ such as the Black History Month, for example, have achieved great things, but those are just too out of range for many young people.”
Wheatle’s words are the result of his personal experience but also of what he sees by regularly visiting schools and prisons to promote reading.
And if one of the first places we find achievements is in school, it is worthy to have a look at such environment and consider how diverse education is today. Overall, we can’t deny that diversity both among teaching staff and pupils improved. Alongside the creation of programs to celebrate diverse cultures such as the Black History Month, data show an increment in non-UK nationals academic staff, accounting for nearly two-thirds of staff’s growth.
But diversity in education is not improving if we look at the recent cases of Cambridge and Oxford. Those universities and their colleges have always been considered strictly reserved for the elite. However, for the first time, we have data that confirms the discrimination unfairly applied by showing that good grades will not be enough to guarantee BAME applicants a place. 13 out of 32 Oxford University colleges failed to make a single offer to black A-level applicants in a six-year period, with only three offer a place to a black A-level applicant every year.
The situation is even more critical at Cambridge University, where a quarter of its colleges failed to offer any place to black applicants.
A closer look at top-level jobs and powerful positions show an even more chronic disproportion and an almost complete absence of BAME people.
The exclusive analysis conducted by The Guardian in partnership with Operation Black Vote and several academics concludes that only 3% of Britain’s most powerful and influential people are black or come from ethnic minorities, worrying numbers if we consider that those account for nearly 13% of the UK population.
The investigation looked into 39 areas such as politics, civil services, businesses, top universities, advertising, art bodies, media, trade unions, NHS trusts. “In some sectors – the police, military, supreme court and security services as well as top consultancies and law firms – there were no non-white supremos at all,” the report concluded. By looking into more than 1,000 people in each of the 39 categories, The Guardian found only 36 from ethnic minorities (accounting for 3.4%) and of those only 7 were women.
More data over social equality have been published by the new Ethnicity Facts and Figures website, launched in October by the Prime Minister.
Disproportion can be seen in several areas, from housing, employment, police arrests. However, this data does not only show that discrimination and inequality problems still exist in our society, but also that things are slowly changing. The first step to fight social injustices is by accepting their existence and acknowledge where they are put in place.
Lack of diversity in public and private organisations can strongly affect how young people see themselves and their future career. As Alex Wheatle says, we all need to put more effort to show more attainable kind of success because otherwise young people will fail to see their achievements as something ‘good enough’.
Giving career opportunities to a wider range of people is not only a matter of fairness but it would create a better society where everyone will feel part of and contribute.
“It is everyone’s responsibility to lift up and encourage each other,” Alex Wheatle tells me. Independently from their race, all young people need to believe to have the same opportunities and believe they can achieve great things.”
Words: Fabiola Zaccardelli / Subbing: Silvia Tadiello