20th November 2014 Brasilia, Brazil

The experience of being black in the UK and around the world

The First Secretary for Prosperity at the British Embassy in Brazil, NneNne Iwuji-eme, made a speech this week at the Fundação Escola de Sociologia in São Paulo during lectures about racial relations in Brazil and the UK. Since today is Black Awareness Day in Brazil, we would like to share her speech with you:


The subject of Black and ethnic minority representation in UK Higher Education as broad as it is very interesting and I didn’t really know where to start. So it made sense to start with myself as a black British woman of Nigerian African decent, who went to university in the UK. What was my experience of the higher education system in the UK, more importantly how did I get there and how common if my story?

Let me start by saying, and I will explain why this is important shortly, I have had a privileged life, both my parents were diplomats who worked in the UN, both were graduates to masters and PhD level. In my house for me and my three brothers and sister it wasn’t whether we would go to university but how many degrees we would get. I studied to PhD, my sister is getting her PhD in medicine in oncology, my younger brother has his masters and my dad’s biggest disagreement with my older brothers was that they didn’t want post graduate degrees after they graduated. Why is this important? It is important for the following reasons, when you look at the representation of black people in UK universities it is high relative to representation in the general population. One in six students in UK higher education is a Black or Ethnic Minority. When you break this figure down social economic circumstances play a big part.

Until I got to university my experience of other black people was other black people of African descent with similar backgrounds to mine. When I got to university I met other black people from different backgrounds. Class, colour, culture and context, in this case economic context must be taken into account. It was in university that I met the first black person of my generation who was the first to go to university in her family, her name is Frederica and she is my best friend today. Frederica’s story couldn’t be more different from mine, she was working class, her family from the Caribbean, and her cultural context focused on the importance of finishing secondary school and getting a good safe job. To her family a university degree while admirable didn’t mean security, and more over they didn’t have the means to support her in university. So she was slightly older than the rest of us and had worked and saved the money to send herself to university.

There are two stories of the black experience in the last 70 years in the UK. Let me be clear there have always been free black people in the UK dating back as far back as the 16th century. I am talking more about the last 70- years which has shaped the experience of black people today in the UK. You have the black African story and the black Caribbean story. For most black Africans of my parents generations, they came to study, get a skill and go home, but for Caribbean’s like the parents of my friends, they came post world war two for a better life, to work and earn, many came with dreams of studying at university or teaching and becoming professionals. However the reality most faced was harsh, a racism that shut doors, relegated most to jobs others didn’t want to do and to harsh economic circumstances which failed to recognize their qualifications from the Caribbean. So you can understand why the parents of my friend would not necessarily believe that a degree would open doors for her based on their own experience. One thing racism coupled with a disadvantaged economic circumstance can do is rob you of your confidence, make you question yourself and doubt your ability to achieve. It also robs the country of the best potential from its wonderfully diverse population.

Without confidence you either struggle with challenge or miss opportunities. My background instilled in me the confidence to go anywhere. If I wanted to achieve something I didn’t ask should I do it? I asked how I can get there, even when faced with challenges. For example I went to a very good private school in the UK and when I was about to leave I met with my school’s careers adviser to discuss my university plans. She told me I was being too ambitious wanting to go to university and that instead I should consider finding work or going to secretarial college. This was despite the fact that I had already been accepted in university or that both my parents were graduates. Later when I told my dad about the conversation, first he said your careers adviser doesn’t pay your school fees and secondly you shouldn’t ask permission from anybody outside about what you have set your mind to achieve, get on with your work. I was lucky I had parents who had experience, but for many of my Caribbean friends, their parents didn’t have a similar experience and trusted the advice of careers advisers, which consequently led to their children either giving up on or delaying their dreams. I saw this when I joined the Foreign Office and met a number of black and ethnic minorities, highly qualified colleagues who had come in at the lowest entry levels and not the graduate level like myself and most graduate white colleagues. When I asked them why, they said it was because they thought or were told the exams would be too difficult.

When you lack confidence you can only go so far, your progress is determined by fear and what others think of you. A friend recently told me of a boy he is mentoring, a black boy from a disadvantage background, who will be the first to go to university in his family, who got accepted into Cambridge but turned it down because he was scared there wouldn’t be anyone like him there. When I applied to Oxford many years ago, they turned me down, so I wrote them a letter and thanked them and told them they made a mistake. I went to university of Manchester, a great Russell group university, and the same department and university as my dad.

In the UK most black students tend to be accepted into universities in cities where there is already a high ethnic minority presence. While we may have good representation of black students in university, blacks are highly under represented amongst teaching staff, there are less than 100 black professors in the UK. Also despite high proportions of blacks in higher education, black students are still less likely to get a job after university as quickly as their white peers. Roughly 55% of black students find a job within a year of graduation compared to 66% of white counterparts. However one thing that is very healthy in the UK and which I am very proud of is that representation of black and minorities in higher education is something that is openly discussed, monitored and measured by society and government agencies.

The UK has as a national strategy to improve and increase diversity in our colleges and universities so that they are representative of society. We believe this isn’t only important for society but essential for economic and mental well being. That progress should be determined by talent and not socio-economic background. Our national strategy for inclusion focuses on improving access which includes engaging with communities and public secondary schools, as well as getting students to think early about universities and courses, including in elite universities and professions they wouldn’t naturally consider. It involves ensuring that once in university students get the support they need to stay in university and move on to postgraduate level. In addition we realize that it isn’t just enough to get more students into university but to ensure that they have equal access to jobs when they leave. In this context both the private and public sector have a role to play.

When I was in university one of the richest experiences I had was an internship provided by HSBC for black and minority university students. This was a competitive internship and for two months you got to learn everything about the bank, shadowing top executives, getting training in interview skills and the opportunity to network with other black students from universities across the country. You got paid a good salary and every intern was guaranteed an interview on graduation for HSBC’s graduate entry programme. It was one of the most rewarding and positive experiences I have had. Programmes like these are encouraged in the UK and a number of big UK companies have this form of corporate social responsibility as a policy.

What I am also proud of is the role black and ethnic minorities are playing in bringing through the next generation of leaders through lobbying government and businesses, mentoring and coaching. I coach and mentor black and white mentees of all ages, and have my own invaluable mentors and coaches too.

In conclusion the advice I would give any black person in higher education is that you need to shape your own experience. As the historian Arthur Schlesinger said: “Self Knowledge for an individual as well as a nation begins with history.”

You need to know yourself, you need to know your nation’s history, and your place in that history and its unfoldment. Armed with this self-awareness you need to be clear about your potential, your purpose and the contribution you want to make to your nation, because it is your nation. Then you need to equip yourself to fulfill your purpose, with the confidence, drive and tenacity including of your ancestors like one such tenacious ancestor whose legacy brazil will be celebrating on the 20th of November.

About Luana Seabra

Luana Seabra has an International Relations background, works with Communication and has quite an obsession for music-related things. She joined the Embassy in 2010 to work with Public Diplomacy, having…

Luana Seabra has an International Relations background, works with Communication and has quite an obsession for music-related things. She joined the Embassy in 2010 to work with Public Diplomacy, having previously worked in Itamaraty and UNODC. She is interested in Political Communications, Soft Power, Digital Diplomacy, Development and Human Rights.

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