What it’s like being a black girl at a British private school
‘Being one of only a handful of black girls has actually made me abnormally insecure’
Tiwa Adebayo is an 18-year-old girl from Stanmore, London. At the age of 11, she joined the famously competitive and academically prestigious Haberdashers’ Aske’s School for Girls in Elstree, Hertfordshire.
Just like the other 120 girls in her year, she shared similar aspirations. She hoped to get a smattering of A*s in GCSEs, top marks at A Levels and ultimately a place at an Oxbridge college.
Despite these superficial similarities, Tiwa always felt different. She always knew that she was part of a minority. The distinct feeling of being different and part of a tiny minority started when she was at primary school: “This girl I was in an argument with started abusing Nigeria and telling me to ‘go back to my mud hut’ or words to that effect”.
Habedashers’ Girls school told us: “We are proud of our diverse school community, which is representative of the local communities that we serve. Girls and staff work in an environment of tolerance in which different ethnic, religious, political and cultural backgrounds are shared and celebrated.”
When Tiwa moved to the secondary school, her feelings of otherness “were only etched deeper into her psyche”. She said: “I was one of only five black girls out of the 120 that started with me, this number has since decreased. The year above me was left with no black girls when the only one departed after her GCSEs. In addition, to this day, the only black members of staff are the cleaners and a science technician”.
Despite the school having a somewhat diverse student body, with many girls of Jewish, Indian and Cypriot origin attending, being a black girl was particularly difficult for Tiwa.
It was common for girls to touch her hair in the school corridors without asking and she was frequently confused for other black girls who she held no resemblance with, other than the colour of their skin. She was also shocked by ignorant comments from some of the otherwise intelligent girls when they referred to Africa as a country, asked her if they could call her a ‘negro’ and suggested that she wouldn’t show up in their selfies.
Ignorance was even apparent from teachers. She explained: “I have repeatedly been forced to explain to teachers in charge of school plays and dance shows why I can’t make my hair look the same as all the other girls and I have even been made to sport a pair of “American Tan tights”, which obviously did not match my skin tone, in a production of Bugsy Malone”.
Keeping up with European standards of beauty at a preppy, mainly white all-girls school was difficult. Tiwa said: “For a long time, it seemed like European features and hair were more desirable and that, for the teachers who were organising school plays and concerts, my natural features were an inconvenience.
“Being one of only a handful of black girls has actually made me abnormally insecure.”
Yet Haberdashers’ proudly boast: “Tolerance and acceptance of others form a strong part of the whole school curriculum from the youngest girls all the way through to the 6th Form and prejudice and intolerance are confronted wherever they might occur.”
But as Tiwa grew older, she became aware of Beyonce’s message of “black female acceptance” and this helped her gain confidence in her own identity.
Beyonce’s Super Bowl performance was particularly momentous to her: “As a black person, it was both inspiring and completely unfamiliar to see somebody as well known as Beyoncé wholeheartedly embrace black features such as her ‘baby hair’ and ‘her negro nose’, both aspects of myself that I have long struggled to accept.
“For many black girls it is one of very few times that they are told by the media and society that they are beautiful”.
Since then, Tiwa has made sure that she spreads the words of ‘The Holy Beyble’ to her peers: “I have participated in Black History Month assemblies and written speeches about Beyoncé in my bid to ensure that my peers are as “woke” as I am, which is something I have really enjoyed and learnt a great deal from.
“I have also learnt to stand up for myself, be it by point blank refusing to let anybody touch my hair, insisting that people pronounce my name correctly or constantly correcting people who refer to Africa as a country”.
Whilst being a minority at one of Britain’s bastions of tradition and privilege at times proved challenging, it has been “overwhelmingly rewarding and fulfilling “and, according to Tiwa – who plans to attend Cambridge University in September – it has taught her more about herself and others than anything else she has ever had to endure.