As someone who still can’t believe I can now walk into a local high street beauty store and buy more than one foundation colour, and that we’re getting a Black Doctor Who, I understand why people might think that things have changed for Black people in the UK since I was a child.
Growing up, Stephen Lawrence was a name I knew before I even knew what my favourite colour was. I had the phrase ‘twice as hard’ recited back to me as a mantra regularly during family gatherings, though it took me a long time to realise what it meant.
And I’ll never forget the feeling of eyes piercing my skin when the topic of slavery came up during history and I was the only Black person in class.
But what is it really like to be a Black teen in Britain today?
In the UK, schools are still sending Black children home for their natural hairstyles, while Black Caribbean girls are more than twice as likely to be excluded compared to white British girls, and a shocking survey revealed that 95% of young Black people have heard and witnessed racist language at school.
To find out what life is like as a young Black person in 2022, we asked four teens to share their experiences.
‘As an influencer, I get racism in my comments every day and it’s really draining’
Miah Carter, 19, is an influencer from Reading and lives with her boyfriend Marley and their dog Narla.
‘My real name is actually Lemiah but growing up no one could pronounce it and I didn’t feel like it fit in with everyone else so I shortened it. Now I love being called Miah and I’m used to people saying me that.
Growing up, I would get into a lot of trouble at school. I was labelled as a naughty child and in primary school, no one really understood me why I would misbehave.
I got diagnosed with learning difficulties in Year 6 and the doctors suspected I might have autism but I didn’t get a full diagnosis until Year 10. So throughout my whole childhood, from nursery to year 10, I didn’t understand why I acted the way I did.
I went to four different schools and got excluded over 100 times. I think my teachers didn’t know what to do with me and in secondary school, my teachers would just shove me in isolation.
I would tell the teachers that I needed help but no one would do anything. Sometimes I compared the way I got treated and how they would talk to me with the white kids and wonder, ‘Why don’t I get treated like that?’ I think my teachers just dismissed me as naughty, rather than in need, because I’m Black.
But everything changed after my diagnosis. I went to an autistic school and they were the best two years of my life. One of my teachers was from Barbados where my dad’s family is from. We’d talk about our culture, food and carnival and she taught me so much about the country. Being able to go to talk to her made me feel so welcome and so safe.
Notting Hill Carnival is my favourite time of the year and makes me feel so connected to my culture. I love the food, the colours, the outfits, and the dancing. It makes me so happy and proud to say that’s my culture, it’s so beautiful.
I think that there is a difference between the way Black people are discussed in the media compared to white people, whether the stories are good or bad. I think social media has been good for combating that and has really helped a lot with highlighting positive Black stories.
However, it also has some downsides, and it can sometimes be overwhelming being able to see racism on apps in comparison to the racism you might see in real life. Because I’m an influencer, I get racism in my comments section every day and it’s really draining.
But I’m hopeful that things are getting better.
People like Chunkz, Filly and Nella Rose are positive representations of Black people in the media. Because of where they came from and how hard they worked, I look up to them a lot.
I think the media is changing though, I recently saw a Black person on a Billboard and it made me smile. A few years ago I wouldn’t have imagined that.’
‘I love being Black, but there still needs to be more positive representation’
Temi, 13, grew up in Enfield in North London but moved to Peterborough last October with my mother and brother. Her parents are from Nigeria and Gambia.
‘When we first moved to Peterborough, I didn’t really like it because I didn’t feel like I fit in because it’s mainly a white area. It was like I was the only Black person and I just felt left out.
I was very nervous to leave London because I’ve lived there all my life and I was at my old school from Reception to Year 8. It was also really scary leaving all my friends. But everyone has been quite nice to me at my new school, although a few people weren’t at first because they had never met a Black person before.
Peterborough is definitely different to London. In Enfield I felt like people understood me and there were loads of black people at my school. But now I don’t really talk about my culture in class because I don’t think the kids here understand it. I know that if I mentioned that I was having a Gambian dish for dinner the other children wouldn’t know what I was talking about.
But I love my culture and I would say food and music are my favourite parts of it. Cooking is a big part of my life and definitely connects me to my culture. I cook a lot with my grandma, I love finding different recipes with her and then making it for the rest of the family.
A big part of my culture is how food brings people together.
I love being Black, however I remember one Christmas I really wanted a Barbie but I couldn’t find one that looked like me or had the same hair type as me and that made me feel really different. That’s why I think it’s important to have people who look like you represented in the media, and why there needs to be more positive representation.
My mum really helped me get past feeling different. She reminds me all the time that I am perfect and beautiful just the way I am and it doesn’t matter if someone doesn’t like me for my skin colour as long as I love it.
In the future I want to see more positive images of Black people. Where I come from there is a lot of happiness and I want that to be shown.’
‘Racist abuse at school made me try and scrub the colour off me’
Luke, 18, grew up in Northampton with his parents and his younger sister. Now in his first year of university studying Psychology, he hopes to become a clinical psychologist.
‘In primary school, I can’t remember ever noticing a difference between myself and white people because I suppose young children aren’t necessarily racist. I had lots of Black, Asian and white friends. And no one ever said anything about anyone else’s race. Secondary school was the first time I realised; “Okay maybe people are treating me differently because I look different.”
I went to a majority white secondary and that’s where I experienced racism for the first time, although I didn’t recognise it as racism at first. I started getting called names by a group of white kids, words that I hadn’t even heard before. And when I told my parents, they explained they were racist words.
When my parents contacted the school to arrange a meeting, the teachers made it seem like they were taking it seriously but at the end of all their investigating, they didn’t actually do anything.
So then I just started thinking; “Okay, this is what life is now, I have to live like this and be targeted by these people because I was born a different colour to them.” I remember even trying to scrub the colour off me in the shower. And that’s around the same time that I started feeling depressed and anxious and I got diagnosed with PTSD.
My grandparents who were part of the Windrush generation, are my role models. They came here from St. Vincent and Grenadines in the Caribbean.
My mum’s dad told me about when he moved to the UK when he was 17. He told me about the struggles he faced, being denied opportunities, because he was Black, and being spoken to in derogatory ways.
Despite it all, he managed to get a really good job and turned everything around and he never let racism affect him. I was really inspired by that and his story proved that I shouldn’t let it get to me either.
Although racism still exists, I don’t think my experiences of it are as bad as my grandparents, I like to think society has become a lot better at accepting Black people.
Thankfully, my time at university is a lot better than secondary school, although I was nervous about moving somewhere new. I picked the University of Southampton because of how diverse it is. When I was looking at options, I made sure I walked around to check that there were at least a few Black or Asian people.
I want to become a clinical psychologist. I don’t feel necessarily worried about getting a job but because I’ll have a lot of interaction with patients, my fear comes mainly from them having a mentality of racism towards me. I try not to worry about it too much for now, but it’s in the back of my mind.’
‘I feel like some people don’t think I have a right to voice my opinions‘
Tọpẹ, 18, grew up in a Nigerian family in London and is in her first year of university studying sociology at university in Coventry.
‘I grew up in East London and I think I’m really lucky that it was a very multicultural area, and that my school was as well. I enjoyed having the opportunity to learn about so many different cultures and beliefs, as that knowledge has made me more aware than maybe someone that didn’t have the chance to meet people who are different to them.
I also think that I am lucky that I had Black teachers who really supported and believed in me even when I didn’t really believe in myself. There was always at least one teacher I could talk to during every stage of education – it felt very nice to have that support.
My sociology teacher in Year 12 was Black and because I wanted to do sociology, it felt like there was a place for me to study that subject as well, because my teacher did it and she’s successful.
Even though I feel proud to be Nigerian and I love celebrating my culture ,sometimes I struggle with not being fluent in Yoruba. I understand the language, but I don’t speak it and that sometimes makes me feel like I’m not Nigerian enough.
I am lucky that I had Black teachers who really supported and believed in me
My name, Tọpẹ, is a Yoruba name and I wish I could pronounce it with the right accent but I can’t because I don’t speak Yoruba properly. My name connects me to my culture, so not being able to say it properly, sometimes makes me question whether I am really embracing my identity.
On the other hand, there are times when I don’t feel British enough, because I’ve been made to feel like my opinions don’t matter and it’s not my place to comment on things especially politics. I feel like I have to be a silent nodding head in the background.
To me, growing up Black in the UK means a mix of things. Sometimes there is anxiety and uncomfortability due to the fear of being hated or disliked just for having Black skin. And I feel quite a lot of fear about speaking out because I’m scared of being called divisive even though I’m talking about my personal experience. I know speaking out shouldn’t be something that incites fear in me, but it does.
However, I also take joy in the fact that being a Black teen in the UK is filled with comfort and laughter, good and bad coexist in one.
The sense of community I feel is great because whatever you go through there’s still going to be a community of people that accept you as you are, and that makes me smile.’
Young Minds is the UK’s leading charity fighting for children and young people’s mental health. For more information and support click here.
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