Olaoluwa Akerele (Lao), a 41-year-old attorney with Nigerian heritage and who is based in London, is a Black father raising two boys in southwest London.
When asked about the education system and the Black influence within it, Lao commented, "When there are Black educators, they tend to be sports teachers. It would be great to have more academic Black educators."
Lao also discussed the disadvantages of the lack of Black educators in the classroom and the importance of his children learning about Black British history throughout their school journey. His response centered on the broader historical context: "Yes, it is extremely important that all children learn about Black history. Not just Black British history because that would imply that the story started with Black people as enslaved. Teaching about Africa and the richness, ingenuity, and prowess that existed before white people ‘discovered’ Africa is key. Then they can learn about how Black people came to the U.K. And that, no, it did not all stop with Martin Luther King or (politician and abolitionist) William Wilberforce."
Lao expressed concerns about the impact of a lack of diversity among educators, noting, "The disadvantages are that it perpetuates the idea that success for Black people comes through entertainment or physical activity. For children, their teachers sit at the apex of wisdom. They appear to be the most learned—the institution of school holds such respect—often children tell their parents that until their ‘teacher’ declares things to be true, it’s not true. If this authority is only white, then it is deeply problematic. Black children will always feel that authority exists outside of themselves and it can skew their idea of what is possible for themselves."
Early education serves as the testing ground for children as they embark on their independent journeys.
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For many, school isn't just about the formal curriculum; it's a place where children acquire valuable life skills. They learn to communicate with peers, develop diverse approaches to tasks, and encounter various cultures and mannerisms. The lack of Black educators and role models in the teaching profession in the U.K. can impact students' experiences and their sense of belonging in academic settings.
This is something I experienced firsthand. Even though an ocean separates the education system that handcrafted Lao and I, the lack of Black educators was still relevant in my upbringing as well. Typically, when growing up, my father and other athletic coaches would be the only Black adults on campus. This has inspired my passion to become an educator. Not only because of the absence of Black influential leaders but because of the hope, inspiration, and support that Black culture advocates for children in the classroom.
Amarion Scarlett-Reid, a Black 19-year-old intern at The Black Curriculum who is studying politics and international relations at the University of Birmingham, seemed visibly moved when I told him this story. The Black Curriculum is a U.K. program that aims to "address the lack of Black British history in the national Curriculum," according to its website.
We discussed the issue of under-representation of Black educators after a London screening of Blue Story, a British film about two best friends from different areas of London who find themselves becoming enemies in a violent and insidious postcode war. The movie ties in Black love, friendship, and gang warfare.
Scarlett-Reid was raised in northern London with a Jamaican father and a mother of Guyanese and Jamaican heritage. He expressed admiration for my ability to speak passionately about my father's impact as a Black presence in the classroom and on the basketball court.
"I never really considered teaching in the way you do, but I can now understand how having such a role model to look up to every day can truly be inspiring," Scarlett-Reid confessed to me. "You see, while growing up, I can't recall ever having a teacher, let alone a Black educator, whom I could relate to or aspire to be like."
His words intrigued me and prompted me to ask whether he had ever had a favorite teacher. He offered a perspective shift, challenging my preconceived notions. He replied, "Not that I can think of. I've had perhaps two or three Black teachers throughout my school years, and among them, one was my math teacher with whom I didn't see eye to eye on anything. Despite sharing the same skin color, I am from the Caribbean, and he was from Kenya, and our life perspectives were entirely different."
This revelation forced me to recognize that the issue extends beyond skin color or race; it is deeply intertwined with cultural differences, trauma bonding, and diverse backgrounds. It's a reminder that the impact of educators, regardless of their ethnicity, goes far beyond their racial identity and highlights the importance of fostering connections and understanding among students and teachers from all walks of life.
Two months later, I still think about this conversation. It’s left me pondering the complexity of what it truly means to be "Black." Despite sharing the same skin color with individuals worldwide, it’s clear that people do not necessarily share the same life experiences, traumas, or social norms.
Scarlett-Reid's response forced me to reflect on my own upbringing and experiences in school. I began to contemplate the Black educators I had encountered, the demographic of students I had shared classrooms with, and my own sense of placement as a biracial individual.
I’ve often felt like a chameleon, adept at communicating with people from different racial backgrounds and possessing a liberal approach to various social issues. A professor of mine, Tommy Mouton, referred to this phenomenon as "code meshing." He distinguishes it from code switching as code meshing allows people to maintain their identity across various communication settings. With code switching, people adjust their behavior to fit the environment—they feel like a chameleon, blend in, and allow others to take the stage. With code meshing, people set a standard of respect that mirrors the respect they receive.
As Lao said, having Black educators outside sports and in primary courses could potentially become the beacon of code meshing. This invites students into a communication parallel day in and day out that allows them to experience and learn from a Black educator. It’s a safe place for students to engage, reflect, and appreciate all cultures.
When pondering the concept, you start to understand that it’s more than just a Black father wanting to have his children and their classmates learn about Black history. It's bigger than that. It’s allowing all colors of life to have insight into the things Black individuals went through so that they’re able to code mesh and communicate with a better understanding of Black culture.