Being Black At Private School

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to complain about the privilege of attending private school. I understand that privilege and I am very grateful for the education I received. However, being one of the only Black people in my entire school was not easy to say the least, and I wanted to discuss this topic to emphasise the lack of teaching surrounding POC realities in these private institutions and how this contributes to the general ignorance, bigotry and racism experienced by people of colour in the UK.

The casual racism I experienced at school was nothing more than normal for me; the daily hair grabbing as if I were a pet, the constant questions about my heritage, the dirty looks and mistreatment from teachers, the racist abuse on my walks to school, the list goes on… To put it simply, I was not treated as an actual pupil (or human for that matter) and my concerns, especially when they concerned my race, were almost completely ignored.

Private schools are institutionally set up to help the privileged and have historically acted as all-white boys’ clubs - the residual racism and prejudice is still very apparent. This was made clear to me on multiple occasions such as being singled out by a teacher in front of the whole class and being told that my ancestors were slaves. I was also told by the headmaster that a racist slur hurled at me “wasn’t that bad” and when I once expressed that I felt I wasn’t being treated well because of my race, I was sent out of the headmaster’s office crying as I had “greatly offended him.” When it came to the racism I experienced from other students, it is not surprising that these teachers were of little help even after being called the N-word, labelled as a “big brown girl” and called “dirty”. My brother, who attended the same school as I did 10 years prior, was given predicted grades of CCD by prejudiced teachers despite routinely coming top of the class and eventually achieving AAB which significantly impacted his ability to get into good universities. Furthermore, my school broadly segregated students of colour and white students, who were put into the much nicer houses that were closer to campus.

The impact of these experiences were very dehumanising and made me feel alienated from my peers as different, less-than and ugly. I have become numb to the ignorance and bigotry of white people and have had to overcome much of the internalised oppression that grew from my time at a predominantly white school. But mine and my brother’s experience is far from unusual, and some students have faced much worse. This year, Olisa Ikezue-Clifford who attended Dulwich College described in his article in The Times that during his rugby tour, older teammates had told him and his other Black peer they were to have a mandingo fight as their initiation into the team (Clifford, 2021).

This is just a small peek into the complexities of being Black in a very white environment. But what is most important here, is the systemic nature of prejudice in these institutions. Not only did I have no one to turn to in the all-white faculty, but as a young child,  I couldn’t ask my white peers for support either as they simply wouldn’t understand. So where do students like me go and how do we hold these institutions accountable?

Many students of colour face these issues in their schools, private and public, and parents are often left defenceless to these institutions when they are the minority. The issue with private schools, however, is it is much harder to hold them accountable as they are independent institutions and most of those attending as well as those in power are white. This is also emblematic of the much broader issue of racism and discrimination in institutions throughout the UK with the majority of those in top jobs and positions of power attending private schools. Not only are those who attend private schools exposed to an intensely racist and white environment, they are not reprimanded when they engage in racist behaviour and are taught from a young age that their behaviour is valid and acceptable. Statistics show that two-thirds of those in the cabinet, 65% of senior judges and 57% of House of Lords members are all privately educated (Independent 2020) (Guardian 2019).  Students of colour are taught something entirely different: that their voice is not important.

As a final note, to further express the nature of systemic racism in private education we can look no further than our own university. Joseph Chamberlain, who I’m sure you have seen plastered and celebrated all over campus, was in fact Colonial Secretary in 1895 and promoted expansion of the Empire during his time in parliament. More notably, he was partly responsible for securing colonial rule of South Africa which saw the introduction of various concentration camps which saw the deaths of thousands (Purves, 2019). More must be done to uproot the classist, racist and divisive nature of private education and the culture created in these environments. For starters, let’s stop celebrating colonialism!


Hannah Bettelley

9 Nov 2021

POLSIS in Colour /

Being Black At Private School