My name is Alexandra and I am a white, middle-class female, living in London. I grew up in the English countryside and went to a single sex private school. There were no black people in my village and you could count on one hand the number of black students at my school.
After finishing high school I went to study English Literature at the 400year old institution that is The University of Bristol. Seen affectionately as a home for those with Oxbridge potential but a slightly lagging work ethic.
I didn’t really want to go to University. I wanted to go to Drama School to study acting, but after failing the audition process I wimped out of a second round and followed all my sensible, traditional peers to a ‘Good University’.
There were lots of reasons to go to University after School. Firstly, it offered a safe middle ground to adulthood. You’re living away from home, but with the structure and security of not complete independence. It was a fun place to meet people – thousands of new students every year all very ready to socialise, form cliques, get frisky and bond. It offered a bit more time before you had to make actual adult choices about what you wanted to do professionally, as well as support in getting you into places. And finally, provided you put in enough work, you leave with a degree which in turn gets you into the next stage of life – the workplace.
All good reasons, though in hindsight I find it slightly strange that learning wasn’t really a key factor. Yes I expected to come out ‘smarter’ but it didn’t literally feature in my thought processes around going. I never said to myself, “I can’t wait to go to University and further satisfy this huge thirst for knowledge I have”.
My University was marginally more ethnically diverse than my school, though in a first year accommodation hall, of 350 people, only five were black. What there were significantly more of were white public school crews. People who seemed to have moved to University with their entire Lacrosse team, third cousin Tilly, and old friends they’d met “at a few shooting parties in the highlands”. It wasn’t exactly a cultural immersion, so much as boarding school for people above the legal drinking age.
There were a lot of smart people at that University, and it was definitely ‘cool’ to do well, but the vast majority of students seemed to have quite a clear cut vision of what ‘doing well’ looked like.
It essentially looked like doing the right amount of work to secure a grade, decent enough to get you into one of the following professions: banking, law, medicine, accountancy, consultancy and possibly media for us more creative types. It didn’t take a lot of soul searching to land at which of the acceptable professions you would slot into. What felt like ‘the norm’ was that people did what their parents had done, and had readily available contacts for work experience.
I’ve always struggled with this approach to life.
The approach wholeheartedly adopted by most of the people I grew up with.
They strive for repetition.
Their greatest ambition is to earn the same amount as their parents, do the minimum work required to live the exact same life they grew up with. Whilst it’s a nice space, a safe space, it isn’t an evolutionary space, and come on people – the world around you is evolving!
If you aren’t making an active decision, but a passive one based on your perception of what life is supposed to look like, I believe you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. On a basic level your life won’t be anywhere near as interesting as it could be.
While white culture accepts this repetition as the norm, Black culture has taken the back foot they were given and flipped it into an opportunity.
By not following generational rules, the young black communities are creating new rules for society and doing a good job of it. Ambitions which centre around improvement and betterment, rather than repetition.
When talking about race and culture it’s critical you’re totally honest about your background and relationship to it. Race is rightfully a sensitive topic. Which is why I’ve gone into detail about mine. I didn’t have a lot of direct experience with black or urban culture growing up. My entry point was through music.
Since seeing So Solid Crew perform 21 Seconds on Top Of The Pops, my music taste has been predominantly MOBO (music of Black Origin). Hip-hop and Rap, Garage, Grime. I loved hip-hop mainly for the beats, which just made me want to dance and move and feel. They hit me much deeper than the typically ‘whiter’ and softer genres like Indy or house.
As I’ve got older though I’ve seen another beautiful thing in hip-hop. An energy that encapsulates black culture and is what makes it so special. It’s a striving for betterment, for growth. A hunger to be the most successful member of their family or neighbourhood.
No rap song has ever been released in which the chorus goes:
“All I want to do is send my kids to my old school
living in the house I grew up in would also be cool.”
Black culture doesn’t encourage repetition; it encourages evolution. That doesn’t mean being dismissive about where you come from at all, but it means honouring your foundation and home town, by growing as a person and showing the potential in a person originally from that place.
The people I grew up with are looking for a sensible partner from a similar background who understand the ultimate goals of parents associations and bake sales. Black culture encourages finding an equal. Finding someone who will continually make you raise your game.
Black culture honours work ethic, overcoming obstacles and self-belief. Denzel Washington said: “The best advice that was given to me was that I had to be 10 times smarter, braver and more polite to be equal.”
And so he was.
White culture is lazy. It mimics an old world rather than creating a new world.
As an ambitious woman keen for women of all backgrounds to get in the C-Suite and to occupy positions of power, I ask that we learn from Black icons like Jay-Z and Oprah.
That we educate ourselves, not purely on maths and English, but on creativity in business, self-belief, continual evolution. We retain the lessons of the original leaders – those of integrity and individuality. Of not simply conforming, but defining and continually re-defining who you are and what your world looks like.
Or risk being left behind.