Learning to be a chameleon

Quite recently on my brave new journey I spoke to a black student openly about my pride that she had conquered a troubling time, and was back on course with her studies after a break. She admitted that she had found university life really difficult. She had discovered it hard to leave home and what she knew. She disliked the cliques that had formed amongst some of the other students. She skirted around the elephant in the room, flicking her eyes at me and back to the floor. In a soft gentle tentative tone I approached what I had suspected but not previously asked, poking at that elephant: “Do you think your colour played a part in..?” Her answer came before my words had even been finished – her words tumbling out into the space between us, her shoulders which had been tense and drawn up towards her ears dropped, her dark eyes searching mine “oh yes, yes Annie, it’s the thing I have found most difficult. I hate walking into a room and being the only black face. I hate walking down the street and being the only person like me. I hate speaking out in class because then people look. It makes me feel so strange”. I do not think these words would have been spoken had I not asked my question – and I know to my shame that previously I would have left the question unasked. We would have danced around the elephant in the room, ignored the real issue.

I have reflected on this a great deal. This young woman had come from an environment where she was surrounded by people who shared the same culture and the same colour. Life isn’t easy when you constantly navigate a society riddled with white and class privileges, but perhaps there is comfort to be found with others who face the same challenges and have a shared culture. As we spoke together it struck me how hard it must be to be thrown from this into what is an alien, hard-to-navigate environment as academia is wont to be, but doubly so being a largely white environment where as a black person you could not hide, and in which you were immediately seen as ‘other’. I still feel that discomfort everyday, but I have had years to practice ‘fitting in’.

I have learned in my 57 years in a mostly white environment how to navigate the day-to-day experiences – how to use the right language so as not to stand out, how to tone down my words in order to blend in, how to smile politely when wanting to scream, and definitely not poke at the elephant in the room because that upsets people. I have learned how to be a chameleon – adjust who I am to fit my environment. I have gathered the correct ‘cultural capital’ (Ofsted buzz word of the day alert) which has enabled me to navigate life to be relatively ‘successful’ in societal terms. Although, Bourdieu as the theorist most closely associated with ideas of ‘capital’ suggested that everyone has cultural capital, he recognised that particular forms of cultural capital are more valued by those with power in a society. During my childhood, without realising that this process was going on, I was learning what particular cultural capital was valued, not just in terms of my class, but also in terms of my colour, often finding it was not the one I inherently owned.

I wasn’t born into a family that had much economic, social or cultural capital. However, I have led a rather charmed life. My mother has always been a reader, and passed this love of books onto her daughters. I devoured books at a rate of knots throughout my childhood. She adopted her BBC British accent when coming to England, and corrected our poor grammar regularly. She tested my times-tables and my dad, a builder by trade, gave me ‘sums’ to do whilst he made calculations and measurements in his work diary. I took my 11+ exam and just missed passing it, but luckily for me the local secondary school became a comprehensive school in the year I arrived. Many children who had passed their 11+ did not go to grammar school as the exam allowed, but instead joined this exciting new venture in our local town. There were many new teachers, most of whom seemed to have a vested interest in making this new ‘comprehensive’ school and its inhabitants a success.

I remember one teacher in particular – he had studied English at Oxford and was a small, wiry, enthusiastic man, who would almost dance and jump as he recited poetry, arms flying. My overriding memory is of him ‘galumphing’ in front of the class as he relayed Lewis Carol’s “Jabberwocky”- spittle flying in his enthusiasm. I can still recite all of that poem – I can hear him behind me “Come on Ann…with more feeling…the vorpal blade went snickersnack…” I remember him so clearly and the speech he gave us in our first year “This is the first comprehensive year at this school, and you are the ‘creme de la creme’. You will do well and do us proud.” His enthusiasm for English guided me to understand the likes of Shakespeare, Milton and Swift; all the usual old white men that haunted the whole of my secondary education. He would have us acting out plays and reading passages aloud, correcting our pronunciation and encouraging us to more enthusiasm – now I look back his passion and patience were his talent and he was an awe-inspiring teacher. He was not the only one who stands out in my mind…so many great teachers trying to change the world of secondary education and offer more young people an opportunity beyond the low expectations of previous years in that school. My older sister, who came through the school before me, talks of the low expectation from staff that lower CSE’s were all that those young people would be put forward for, rather than the higher GCSE exams, whatever that young persons true capability. The school’s careers teacher told my sister that she should set her sights at working in a shop, as a typist or hairdresser because that’s all she could hope for. This was in stark contrast to my school year which for the first time had children with a mix of abilities and from a mix of social classes all of which equated to high expectations. I was not the most intelligent in the year, but I was friends with some of those white girls who were. I went to their houses for tea trying foods I’d never tried before (French cheese and olives – what strange magic is this?), and to their parties. I learned the rules of engagement. Social and cultural capital banked.

Music classes were a revelation. Our music teacher was another person who had a significant influence on my life. We listened to classical music in class, something I had never experienced before, and were asked to imagine what the different instruments were representing. We learned to follow musical scores as we listened. We sang parts and rounds. I joined the school choir with that music teacher’s encouragement and when in my 2nd year one of the leads for the school musical ‘Oklahoma’ was unwell I took their place. I learned the script and score in less than 4 weeks. I loved every moment of the rehearsals (which took place during the school day meaning I missed lessons, so my joy was on several levels). I found that being on stage and pretending to be someone else was liberating. My music teacher recognised something in me and applied for money from the local authority music service to enable me to have singing lessons. More cultural capital banked.

I remember being driven to the first singing lesson by my dad in his works van. We found ourselves on a leafy green avenue containing huge (compared to my small terraced house) detached Edwardian villas. We looked at each other nervously – this really wasn’t the sort of neighbourhood we were used to. He dropped me off half way along the street “I will come back for you in an hour. I don’t think this is the sort of street where I should park up and wait in my van. They will call the police!” I climbed out and started looking at the names of the houses as I scuttled past them. Curtains twitched. An elderly man appeared in one garden “Can I help you young lady?” I asked for directions to the house name and he looked surprised. I wasn’t sure whether it was the destination, or the perfectly English accent from my round brown face that surprised him more. He pointed to the next house.

I really cannot remember what the inside of that house was like now, except I have a memory of lush soft furnishings, porcelain figurines and real paintings on the walls…and of course the piano with a vase of flowers on the top. I was awe-struck by my surroundings…and even more shocked when after introductions, the blonde-lady ordered me to lie down on my back on the beautiful oriental rug on the floor and place my hand on my tummy. I was informed that this was the way she was going to teach me to breathe. I can remember thinking in my head, the cheeky joker never far away, that I’d done an acceptable job of doing that all my life…but I stilled the jest and listened intently as she explained how we breathe correctly using our diaphragm when we are lying down. The whole hour was spent in breathing correctly, and singing musical scales.

My dad picked me up, but never drove me up that road again. He would drop me at the end of the road, and I would have to walk up ‘curtain-twitching avenue’. Each singing lesson would start with breathing and scales and over the weeks I began to learn some choral pieces. After 8 weeks of personal joy and escape, the singing teacher turned to me at the end of the lesson and said something which remains a redacted text in my memory: “You have a lovely sound but I cannot teach you anything more…You have a dark colour in your voice and a register break – I cannot teach you how to train this….Your lessons will no longer be paid for by the County” I stumbled out of that large house which had felt like an uncomfortable sanctuary at times, mumbling my thanks for her teaching me. I didn’t ask her any of the hundred questions in my head because through experience I had learned that from my black face those words were usually interpreted as cheek or aggression. At the time it just felt like rejection – in my head I just heard that it was something to do with my dark colour and I was used to that. I only told my dad part of the conversation as I was ashamed that I had somehow failed the grade because of my colour, explaining that they wouldn’t pay for the lessons anymore. He accepted that – as a family we certainly couldn’t afford the cost of singing lessons. Over the years I convinced myself of this often told white lie – classical music wasn’t for the likes of me.

I did well at my GCSEs and some teachers congratulated me, saying it was only what they expected whilst others articulated their disbelief at my success (mathematics in particular springs to mind). The school had started a 6th form and it was expected that I would stay on to do A’ levels. Some of my friends decided they didn’t want to stay in the same place where they had spent 5 tortuous years, and left for distant (to us) FE colleges, or into work. However many of the bright young things who I had been friends with for the last 5 years stayed on in the 6th form to take A’ levels. I had started to notice that I was cut from different cloth – I couldn’t afford the latest LPs; I shopped in the local charity shops for my clothes. I just wasn’t the same and their shared looks had begun to make me feel this. I had started to be aware of the differences of class and money. I too often felt like an after thought, the outsider, the fashionable accessory with the rise of the anti-nazi league. When my mum left our family home shortly after I started in 6th form, and I was miserable and angry I turned to music to which I could shout and gesticulate to – punk and two-tone – and joined my gang of rebels. I had obligations at home during the weekday evenings because of the change in circumstances, so would bunk off school at lunchtimes and meet my fellow angry teens in a local pub. I had a part-time Saturday job which gave me some money, and I used this to fund my weekends of parties and pub-crawls. As often happens with rebels, the gang I found myself in contained intelligent, critical, questioning young people. We drank and smoked and put the world to rights in clever ways…but my school life suffered and my A’ level results were a disaster. The only choice that I could face (after dismissing an offer to go to Acting School or to resit) was to get a job.

I decided that I needed to make money (the call for economic capital) and applied for jobs which the careers office told me had ‘good career prospects’ for someone like me who had failed to meet the grades for university. I got a job in a large life assurance company, in their accounts office. The reason I write of this is because I gained a whole heap of the right sort of cultural capital in this place. I learned how to format a letter correctly and choose language which was precise, concise and authoritative. I had to dictate these letters to the typing pool over the telephone using the phonetic alphabet and check their spelling and punctuation when the letter was returned – my boss would check and sign my work and correct me harshly if I had missed anything. I learned to calculate and balance huge ledgers…even after the office building gained its first computer which took up a whole floor of the building to itself and was cosseted by air conditioning to ensure it didn’t lose the plot. I had to speak to a variety of people on the telephone – multi-millionaire tenants living in high-end penthouses in the city owned by the company; builders who were refurbishing properties shouting for quicker payment; accountants in our City office asking questions on my calculation of property accounts; old people, now broke but from ‘old money’ backgrounds querying each penny of service charge calculated “why do I have to pay for common parts?” Each interaction taught me how to ‘be’ with different groups of people. Sometimes I would speak to someone on the phone, and when we met in person their face would give away their surprise that here stood a black person who sounded so white.

So all of these experiences and many others have taught me how to function in a white world where class matters. I have learned how to choose the words I use, the way I look, the subjects I discuss and adapt these to a given situation – to be what others want of me. I have gathered cultural capital which makes others view me as powerful on one hand because of my job, my academic qualifications, and some of my friendships. On the other hand my early background and my outward appearance results in views and actions from some that I am somehow ‘less than’. I am increasingly angered by the ways that individuals and institutions parade images using these to acclaim their pride and equality, but which do not equate to meaningful action in reality. Even if individuals do not or will not see their part in this, society itself and the structures within it promotes and reinforces inequality and privilege where opportunities are fewer for particular groups, and barriers are greater. We all have to acknowledge the existence of such privileges in order to bring about anything like real change however uncomfortable that feels – breeding more discontented chameleons is really not enough.