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UK’s hidden black middle class

TOP MAN: Prudential chief executive Tidjane Thiam at the World Economic Forum in 2010

BLACK PROFESSIONALS still find it difficult to call themselves middle class, for fear of being labelled “white”, says a top academic.

Dr Nicola Rollock has found that despite big strides in securing top jobs and senior positions, the educated black elite are held back by racism and inaccurate stereotypes.

Rollock, a visiting research associate at the Institute of Education says that as a community, black people skirt around the edges of race and class.

She states: “Many black professionals associate being middle class as being white, with particular values like being self-focused and privileged and not thinking about the wider society. Being black and coming from a mostly working class background, they have a better perception of community and helping each other, so they want to distance themselves from that notion of class.”

In the Institute of Education study, called The Educational Strategies of the Black Middle Class, co-author and researcher Dr Rollock said findings revealed that many black middle class parents are uncomfortable with the term ‘middle class’ even though “they realised they were in a different space and their identities had changed since childhood.”

They often identify themselves as ‘professional’, said Rollock, who with her colleagues interviewed 62 parents of black Caribbean heritage over a two-year period.

Professional

The parents, who had children aged eight to 18, were drawn from government classifications on society and wealth. All had professional or managerial jobs and were quizzed on whether they thought they were middle class.


LIVING A DREAM: Dr Maggie Aderin Pocock with her daughter Lauren at an event last December

She continued: “What was evident to these parents was that race still mattered. Irrespective of how qualified you are, how well you speak or whether you have a library in your living room or not, when it came to engaging with the school and their workplace, issues of racism held them back.”

For city worker Francine Dove, growing up in a high-achieving household in south London positively influenced her career aspirations.

Her dentist father and midwife mother moved to London from Ghana in the 1960s and 1970s respectively, and worked hard to create a foundation for Dove and her four siblings to flourish.

“Growing up, my parents were always an inspiration when it came to my education and lifestyle. I feel that if more young black people had such role models, then black Britain would be transformed,” she says.

Dove, 28, completed a degree in computer science at Brunel University in 2006 and now works in risk project management in London’s financial district.

She says that a good foundation, a generous amount of aspiration and a solid education paves the way for success, but you don’t have to be educated at an academic institution to be successful, due to the options now available.

“I think that all three factors play their part in the lives of those who may be considered ‘black middle class’, but I work with individuals who have not been to college or university. They may have started in a junior position in a bank branch, which led to a management position in head office.”

When asked if she identifies as being black middle class, Dove says yes, but adds: “Purely because if my parents are educated professionals, can I be anything else?
“I’ve had people tell me that I can’t be middle class because I’m black, but being middle class does not define me, it’s simply a category I’m placed in once you take into account my background, education and current profession.”

Redefining

Dove is among a new generation of aspirational black Britons who are rising through the ranks and redefining notions of class.

She and scores of others are helping to destroy a stereotype perpetuated in the media that the most successful black Britons come from the fields of music, dance and sport.

US sitcom The Cosby Show was considered groundbreaking when it first aired in 1984, with its middle class African-American family main characters that many felt was long overdue.


GROUNDBREAKING: Cosby Show cast members accept a major TV award in the US last year

For some years in the UK, black Britons have been breaking down barriers and blurring class lines in areas like business, law, social enterprise and medicine.
Their achievements are featured in the annual Powerlist, which celebrates the UK’s 100 most influential black people.

Launching the 2012 list, publisher Michael Eboda said: “People are always surprised that we find new people every year but I’m not. The Powerlist began with the premise that there is a plethora of professional black people in Britain, who are very influential, but who only a few are aware of. I doubt we’ve even scratched the surface.”

Just look at Tidjane Thiam, the chief executive of Prudential – he became the first black leader of a FTSE (Financial Times Stock Exchange) 100 company when he was appointed head of the insurance group in 2009.

How about Pat McGrath, regarded as one of the world’s leading make-up artists?
Not only has her work graced the covers of the bestselling fashion magazines, she is the global creative design director at giants Proctor and Gamble, and leads Max Factor and Cover Girl cosmetics.


RENOWNED: Leading make up artist Pat McGrath

There is also space scientist Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock. She overcame dyslexia to achieve her dream job of building space satellites.

When a recent Voice poll asked readers if there is a black middle class, 71 percent of respondents said yes – 29 percent disagreed.

How do some of us fit into this class? Dove indicated factors such as an advantaged background, education and professional status – areas also highlighted in the June 2011 Institute of Education, University of London study into black middle class families.

Competition

Despite a year-on-year rise in tuition fees and fierce competition for places, figures show the number of black teenagers accepting university places has grown steadily over the past five years.

Statistics from university admissions service UCAS show institutions accepted 16,808 black applicants in 2006, rising to 29,688 in 2011.

Growing up in a Ghanaian household, my older sister and I were not pressured into becoming doctors, lawyers or accountants.

However, my parents’ expectation of high grades was paramount. They emphasised that getting a university degree would benefit us in a competitive job market, affording us a lifestyle based on our merits.

Some may think being middle class means browsing the aisles of Waitrose in pursuit of rustic breads, or self-consciously wearing a tweed suit jacket with elbow patches without being ironic. And interests such as the theatre are still commonly regarded as a white middle class pursuit, but the recent success of Nigerian themed musical Fela! at the National Theatre – and other such productions – has encouraged a healthy turn out in black audiences.

For the run of Fela!, 96 percent of tickets were sold.

There was also a high turn out for the Broadway Fela! production in New York, where research shows there is a thriving black middle class.

Identify

But in the UK, many of us find it difficult to identify with something considered to be ‘white’.

Rollock says parents felt educational achievement would help their children become socially mobile and act as a possible barrier against racism in their children’s future.


ACHIEVEMENT: Daniel Woode as a teenager in Ghana

It is a belief echoed by many first generation migrants such as my Ghanaian-born father, Daniel Woode, who came to Britain to do medical training in 1969.

He believed hard graft led to social wealth, and that “educating yourselves and your children would open doors and enable them to climb the social ladder.”

He says he understood the distinction between wages and a salary and how the latter afforded him a lifestyle that included home ownership, more foreign holidays and better social activities. But he stops short of attaching a class label.

“You’ll get people who’ll criticise you for daring to aspire for greater things. They’ll label you ‘stuck up’, but you shouldn’t pay them any attention,” says the retired psychiatric nurse.

He believes the problem with black Britons penetrating the upper levels of society is down to stereotypes and job promotion.

This is backed up by last year’s survey of 1,577 employees, from all ethnicities, by equality think tank Race for Opportunity.

The study, called Breaking Down Barriers, revealed that nearly 20 percent of ethnic minority employees have never been promoted and on average receive far fewer promotions than their white counterparts.

Fifty five percent of African-Caribbean employees polled said their promotion chances were damaged by a lack of support from their line managers. My father says: “What happens when you’ve worked your way on to the job ladder and then you’re competing with others for the same position? The promotion is out of your hands unless the recruitment manager is liberal-minded enough to encourage black people to get to the top.”

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