Shonagh Reid portrait

Written by Shonagh Reid

Shonagh Reid is a former secondary school senior leader. She is now a Diversity, Equality and Inclusion Consultant and Coach.

I am often contacted by colleagues who want to share their experiences of being an educator who is from an ethnic minority. This blog explores research and some of their personal experiences. 

If you’ve watched ‘Motherland’ on BBC you may have come across the character of Meg, the new character in series 2. She’s vivacious, on top of her game and successful. In one episode Julia asks her how she manages it all. How does she manage to stay on top of her work, managing the children, being present for the children, being a ‘good wife’ and doing all of that with good cheer? Julia is struggling with all of the above and with a husband who just doesn’t get it. Meg calls this the ‘mother’s load’- the extra bits that women pick up along the way: the packed lunches, thinking about what kit or clothes the children need, planning the shopping etc. etc. The ‘mother’s load’… it resonates with working mothers. Of course I laughed; it’s funny because it’s true. But I know Meg has another load, but she doesn’t talk about this in the series. She doesn’t talk about her ‘black woman’s load’. She doesn’t mention this: the extra baggage that you have to carry around on top of everything else due solely to your race. 

Black Woman’s Load: The Evidence

I was recently invited to contribute to a report by UCL Institute of Education. I met with Antonina Tereshchenko and she asked about my experience as a black educator. In her final report, ‘Making Progress?’ also written by Martin Mills and Alice Bradbury, she outlines some bleak facts and statistics most of which we might expect such as the low representation of ethnic minorities in schools and the higher prevalence of these communities in Pastoral roles and disadvantaged areas of the UK. 

In addition, the report is littered with ‘black woman’s load’. I’m focussing on the black female experience here as the intersectionality is important, the report says: 

‘Our participants highlighted how both overt and covert racism takes a toll on BAME teachers’ wellbeing, progression and job satisfaction. BAME teachers had the same high levels of workload as all teachers, plus an additional ‘hidden workload’ of coping with racism’.

What does this look like for black women in schools? We know it isn’t overt, it’s quiet, it’s discreet. It’s watching situations dealt with differently for groups of people whether they are children or colleagues and when you examine situations closely and reflect from all possible angles, having no explanation for the different treatment at all. 

Black Woman’s Load: The Tropes

Aggressive. Intimidating. Loud. Frightening. Unprofessional. 

These are the tropes that are placed on black people and black women in particular. And it is these tropes that provide the ‘black woman’s load’.

Aggressive

Why are black women so often described as aggressive? What is it about our behaviour that gives us this label? Do we shout at colleagues? Do we actually physically fight or threaten others? 

We don’t want to be seen as aggressive. So what do we do? We ensure we plan our conversations carefully. We read books on difficult conversations and plan in detail what we are going to say. How will we sit? Where will we sit? What will we offer in a way of refreshment? What will we wear? We need to ensure we don’t appear aggressive so let’s examine colours, fabrics and the cut of our clothes to soften the image. How will we speak, we need a quiet soft tone and we must make sure we keep an open body language and don’t lean forward in the chair.

Intimidating

We black women who are successful are very intimidating, but why? Is it our success that is intimidating? Is it what we were told in our ‘talk’ as children, that you have to work ten times as hard to reach the same goals as your white counterparts? Do they know that, and does that intimidate them? Is it the fact that we have to be more organised and more thorough to prove that we were worth giving the job to? Does this intimidate people? 

So what do we do? We try to choose clothing and hairstyles that keep people at their ease. We mind how we speak, we consider more carefully how things will be received by our colleagues. We debate how far we will ‘smooth out’ our blackness to appear less intimidating. 

Loud

When we come across another black person the guard can come down just a bit. We can relax just a bit and be just a little bit more ourselves. We share a similar cultural experience and therefore culture comes through, the laughing, the gestures, the big voices, the exuberant good byes. Is that just a bit too ethnic? Just a little bit too black? Just a bit too loud? The noise is intimidating. 

So what do we do? We turn it down. Turn it down ladies. Don’t appear in groups of black people that are too large because you could be perceived as a gang or not mixing well enough with your other colleagues.

Frightening

What is it that is frightening about us? Why do we create fear? Tereshchenko’s report says: 

‘Several additional teachers also felt that articulate, outspoken, unionised, top of the pay scale BAME teachers were ‘feared’ the most and subjected to covert (and at times overt) racism’

Why? Is it our appearance? Is it the typical news stories and stereotypical images of black people in general of being violent, drug using musicians or sports people? Is it our abilities? 

So what do we do? More of the same really, tone it down, turn it down, watch how you speak, watch what you say, watch how you say it, watch what you wear, watch how you wear it…

Unprofessional

Is this not the label that we fear the most? Unprofessional. By this point, you’ve worked harder than your peers, outperformed them, earned your promotion and more. You have to be more professional than everybody else. How do you demonstrate that? Well, you don’t miss deadlines, you have a clear vision, you forget nothing, your work is a high standard at all times, you take on more work for others and continue to deliver, you drive your area forward. You may even have considered the other trope of afro hair being ‘unprofessional’. Maybe you relax your hair not because you want to, but because you just want to appear to be a bit more professional and a bit less wild and intimidating.

Black Woman’s Load: The Impact

These are considerations over and above the normal considerations that our white counterparts have in schools and other industries. The impact of these considerations is exhausting. The impact of these considerations is your ‘black woman’s load’. The extra space in your life is taken up by constantly thinking about toning it down, being less intimidating, not appearing aggressive, not being yourself, not being loud, not being frightening. 

This is the extra, unseen workload that is referred to in the earlier extract from the report, 

‘Our participants highlighted how both overt and covert racism takes a toll on BAME teachers’ wellbeing, progression and job satisfaction. BAME teachers had the same high levels of workload as all teachers, plus an additional ‘hidden workload’ of coping with racism’.

Black Woman’s Load: The Future

Tereshchenko’s report identifies several recommendations for schools including, 

‘A better preparation of school leaders and a conscious effort by them to improve the racial literacy and diversity within the SLT is paramount for a favourable racial climate for BAME teacher retention’.

This would of course help, but it isn’t just about SLT, it’s about the entire school community and Trust executive teams. 

Meg in ‘Motherland’ tells Julia that she passes her ‘mother’s load’ on to her own mother. Great idea, pass some of the drop offs, the washing etc. on to someone else with more time and probably more patience. You can’t pass on your ‘black woman’s load’.  It simply can’t be done. It has to be borne, carried and endured. 

Nationwide ethnic minority educators are trying to work with schools to discuss diversity and decolonise the curriculum. Looking into the distance of time, there may be a fairer experience for black female leaders in education and other industries, our colleagues may understand more about our lived experiences and their own fears and biases. When that happens we may be able to be ourselves, focus on our jobs rather than how others perceive us, have people judge us by the content of our characters and performance. We may put down our loads. 

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