Jeffrey Boakye draws on 15 years of experience as a secondary school teacher to tackle racism and inequality in Britain’s schools. His experience, like the book, is a mixed bag. For every black student who flourishes under his interest and encouragement, there are instances of overt bigotry and baiting from other students, passive aggression and smirking truculence from peers and colleagues. For every small win there is a depressing realisation, for every apparent triumph a poisonous sabotage. Every time Boakye congratulates himself there is a deep wake of nagging doubts and reservations: “I’ve walked around schools with signs of whiteness jumping out at me at every turn. Science displays of famous scientists from history without a single non-white face represented. Literature timelines guilty of the same.”
Boakye’s tone is pleasantly chatty and lightly humorous; quite a feat while slipping issues of race, class, sex and cultural supremacy into everyday classroom anecdotes. He occasionally lapses into an egregious – and sometimes plain weird – egotism: “Depending on how long you’ve been tracking my movements, you may or may not know that my Twitter handle used to be @unseenflirt… But when the book deals started coming in, I had to think again.” Yet any boasting, humble-bragging and solipsism soon get punctured by Boakye’s actual experiences in the classroom and by the realisation of his own relative smallness in the system.
I Heard What You Said peters out towards the end. You can’t help feeling that the short, clear, first-person chapters would have worked better as YouTube videos or in-person talks giving an introduction to the issues of everyday racism, cultural and historical blind spots and equality within the school system. The book might have been a deeper dive into the painfully persistent roots of the prejudices within schools’ walls, the insularity of the country’s main syllabuses and the sheer intransigence of so many educational conventions, both practical and cultural.
But then there is an interesting schism all the way through the book: any Briton of colour who has taught or lectured, or indeed been a student at any level in the UK, will have experienced or witnessed all the instances Boakye describes. In fact, we dismiss many of these instances as “nothing” – part of the everyday hum of negative assumptions, biases and stereotypes that we have to navigate all day every day. Yet for many other readers even small examples will be shocking and disturbing at worst or at best something they’ve just never encountered or thought about before. And so every idea has to be baby-stepped out. This is a line Boakye has to tread both as an author in this book and a teacher out in the world: is he an insider or an outsider, an interloper, an impostor, a token or a saviour, a pet or a threat? His candour in grappling with these dilemmas gives a uniquely gentle flavour to this book.