BLACK BOYS ARE TOO FEMINISED
Martin, a mixed-race 15-year-old south Londoner, had just downed half a bottle of vodka. The boy was already known for attention-seeking, bad behaviour and aggressively challenging authority figures. But in his drunken state, with his inhibitions gone, he wasn’t more threatening. He was crying – violently sobbing – for his father. “I want my dad. It’s not fair. I’ve only spoken to him once on the phone. Why does he hate me? I fucking want to see him now.”
Martin was taking part in a residential summer camp run by my charity, which takes black boys and offers them educational coaching and mentoring. Martin had smuggled in the alcohol without us realising. Raised by a single white mother, he had never known his dad.
Higher education minister David Lammy today appealed for black fathers to become more involved with their children. He is aware, as I am, of the devastating consequences of absent fatherhood within the black community: 59% of black Caribbean children live in lone-parent households, compared with 22% of white children.
Another boy at camp couldn’t get along with the others; he told me that he loved fighting and displayed an excessive amount of attention-seeking. The headteachers of each boy’s school – who were also both black – told me that the mothers blamed school for making their sons behave badly. The heads spoke of a personal dislike shown by the students, which they reported as a wider dislike of black male authority. When the boys did open up at camp, it was to our female staff whom they felt they could trust.
Psychologists have known for some time that children’s attachment to fathers and mothers derives from different sets of early social experiences. Specifically, mothers provide security when the child is distressed, whereas fathers provide reassuring play partners. As part of our orientation we played a simple game called Trust; I stood behind Martin who had to blindly fall into my arms. He refused to do it.
Typically, this kind of tough play love would never come from his mother. Instead of allowing him to fall, she would probably grab him from behind and whisper in his ear: “This game, it’s too dangerous; I’ll buy you a PlayStation instead.” A typical father would say: “Come on, son, fall. I’m behind and you’d better not look back.”
We have been running summer camps for five years: boys are taken from their familiar environment and work on high-level science projects at universities. All the boys have bucked the trend for inner-city African-Caribbeans, scoring an average of nine high-grade GCSEs.
When we set up the programme, we had high aspirations to nurture the next generation of black Britain’s intellectual best. However, our academic ideals soon became secondary; many of the boys, once freed from the arms of their single mothers, suddenly had to cope with a world run by adult black males – figures in their lives who were mostly absent, unreliable, despised by their mothers, and usually unsuccessful.
These boys kicked up against us. It was like we were their dads who had walked out of their lives, and suddenly we demanded their respect.
More than racism, I now firmly believe that the main problem holding back black boys academically is their over-feminised upbringing. First, because with the onset of adolescence there is no male role model to provide guidance and lock down the destructive instincts that exist within all males. Second, in the absence of such a figure a boy will seek out an alternative. This will usually be among dominant male figures, all too often found in gangs. This is the space where there is a kind of hierarchy, a ritual and, of course, a sense of belonging.
We have wasted years, and lives, looking in the wrong direction as to the causes of crime and education failure. We’ve had endless studies attempting to prove institutional racism – while all along our boys’ psychological needs weren’t met.
The current government policy of rolling out role models to black youngsters is another attempt to externalise the problem that lies within. It has left us with little research and knowledge about a group that gets kicked out of school the most. Meanwhile, the black family continues to disintegrate and it seems no one dares say a word.
By Tony Sewell