Remembering the struggles, remembering the achievements
31 October, 2023
This blog post is by Paul Rees MBE, the Chief Executive of the RCPsych.
Black History Month is a time when we celebrate the achievements of Black people in the UK and other nations, as well as remembering the struggles that they often face.
The hurdles placed in the way of many Black people in the UK are often put in place at school, where teachers can often assume – often unconsciously – that Black children are more difficult, less hard-working and less intelligent.
There are studies that show that Black children, on average, do badly in tests at school for many years – and then suddenly their marks jump up to being roughly in line with White children when they reach their GCSEs.
Because GCSEs are the first exams that are marked blind, without markers knowing Black kids’ colour and making negative assumptions.
Seeing discrimination at first hand
I’ve seen the discrimination that Black children can face at school at first hand.
When I was at school, I was called a ‘golliwog’ by one teacher and told not to talk to ‘clever White people’, in a mock African accent, in class by another.
The deputy head once said to me: “Why do you Black people want so much?” And another teacher said, in front of the rest of the class: “It’s your sort who cause all the crime in this country.”
Whenever my friends and I mucked around in class, or in the playground, it was always me who was pulled out, told off, and punished.
All my friends were White and I was the only Black kid in the group.
When I was given careers advice, at school, they told me I should think about doing something manual like being a bus driver and that my career aspirations should be ‘realistic’.
If someone told any of my teachers then that I would go on to be a correspondent for BBC Radio 4, a reporter for The Times, a senior civil servant, and someone who advised government ministers they would have been shocked.
If they had been told that I would go on to be a chief executive of a medical royal college they would have been stunned.
Using racism as a motivating factor
Being Black you often feel you have to perform at a higher standard than others in order to be appointed and then to survive in post.
I have always used the racism I faced at school and, since then, at work, as a motivating factor and driving force.
So, I will always be proud of the fact that I was the first ever Black chief executive of a medical royal college.
And the first Black person to be named as Chief Executive of the Year at the memcom UK membership sector awards.
I am also delighted that today we launch our first Race Equity Strategy for our staff team – which we have co-designed with our African and Caribbean Forum.
The strategy will help us ensure equity for people who are from minoritised ethnicities – and ensure we are delivering fairness for all.
First woman President
When we think about the challenges that can be faced by Black people it is important to remember that due to intersectionality, Black women face various additional challenges at school and throughout their lives.
So, I am delighted that it was our college that saw the election of Lade, the first ever Black female president in the sector.
Black women face all the challenges that Black people face in general and then are faced with the additional challenges that women have to contend with – which is why it is fantastic that the theme for this year’s Black History Month is Celebrating our Sisters/Saluting our Sisters/Matriarchs of Movements.
Looking back over history there are many Black women who have made substantial contributions to the UK.
Sadly, it is often the case – as with the four women listed below – that they are often quickly forgotten after their death:
Mary Seacole, who nursed hundreds of injured soldiers near the battlefront in the Crimea War and was cited in the following way by the Times war correspondent, Sir William H Russell: “I trust that England will not forget one who nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them, and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead”.
Phillis Wheatley, a former slave, who was the first Black woman to have her poetry published in the UK, in 1773, having travelled here from America – with US founding father George Washington once saying to her: "The style and manner of your poetry exhibit a striking proof of your great poetical talents."
Annie Brewster, who is believed to have been the first UK Black nurse – working at the London Hospital from 1884 – and described by the hospital on her death in the following way: "She was with us for just over 20 years, nearly 14 of which had been spent as the nurse in charge of the Ophthalmic Wards. With her quick intelligence she became very skilful in the treatment of 'eyes' and her kindness to the poor old people who passed through her hands during this period was unwearied.”
Mary Prince who was one of the first published UK Black authors when her autobiography The History of Mary Prince was published in 1831, with the book describing her horrific experiences as a slave – and going on to become a massive shot in the arm for the anti-slavery movement.
Black History Month is largely about remembering – remembering the struggles, remembering the achievements, and remembering the contributions of Black women as well as those of Black men.
This post was part of our Black History Month content for 2023.