Black British Graduates: Untold Stories by Amanda Arbouin
London: Trentham Books, 2018
Reviewed by Derrick Brooms
Black British Graduates: Untold Stories by Amanda Arbouin presents a longitudinal perspective of ten African-Caribbean individuals across their educational experiences and graduate careers. Arbouin uses a life-trajectory research approach to distill their educational experiences in a retrospective analysis, which has great currency for the contemporary state of affairs for Black learners in the United Kingdom. In an effort to extract and nuance the participants’ experiences, Arbouin combines reproduction theory, critical race theory, Black feminist theory, and intersectionality in order to frame the study. In addition to an analysis of race and education, this work explores how Black graduates in the UK experience the intersection of race, class, and gender in their careers and educational journeys. Arbouin’s complex theoretical framework and explicit focus on a Black perspective allows an in-depth analysis of contributing factors and supports in their lives.
In chapter 2, Arbouin examines students’ secondary school experiences and offers insight into the gendered differences of the participants’ experiences. Arbouin provides an intersectional
analysis of race, class, and gender to show that most participants did not reach their full potential. In particular, the intersections of race, class, and gender impacted their school trajectories as the students experienced racial stereotyping from teachers, lacked school-based support, and received insufficient emphasis on academic achievement. As it relates to the young women in the study, Arbouin found very few examples of teachers actively encouraging students and they received poor careers advice that often contradicted their talent, intellect, and aspirations. For the young men, their secondary school years were filtered with hostile teacher-student relationships; they identified their investments with their peer group “as a source of conflict and a root cause of their underachievement in school” (24). Additionally, the encouragement that they received for sports supported their prowess, which feeds into another racial stereotype about Black males’ supposed natural athletic inclination, and also contributed to their own lack of interest and motivation to learn. Importantly, while their parents’ own backgrounds informed how they engaged with school or not, most participants received considerable encouragement from their families (seemingly away from school) and their family discourses typically centered on “education as a key to success” (31).
Chapters 3 and 4 examine their pathways and experiences in higher education. In chapter 3, Arbouin finds that the majority of participants followed nontraditional routes to higher education and these pathways were informed by their lived experience (e.g., professional experiences, social mobility, encouraging teacher, political awakening, career change). A major catalyst for pursuing higher education were peers who attended college, which helped the participants see higher education as an achievable option. In addition, people in positions of authority in participants’ lives and who believed in their capabilities also provided critical support for their college aspirations and eventual matriculation; these individuals were African-Caribbean and/or were involved actively in improving conditions in African-Caribbean
communities. Arbouin identified motivational differences across gender lines as the women participants cited pleasure of studying as a major motivation and they were supported by family expectations that supported and encouraged their further studies. The male participants experienced family expectations as a pressure. Overwhelmingly, though, their families—which included immediate family, the community and church—offered unwavering belief in the participants and then sustained them in their educational paths.
In Chapter 4, “Learning to Achieve,” Arbouin reveals how race, class and gender converged on the participants’ higher education experiences. The three key findings in this chapter include: (1) the difficulties participants faced in fitting in, mostly due to lecturers’ low expectations of students and lack of institutional support; (2) the role of informal Black social networks, which included peers as well as the presence and support of Black staff who helped enhance their university experience; and (3) insecurities about their own academic ability, which was rooted mostly in their race and class backgrounds. Additionally, Arbouin found that women participants mostly went on to a master’s degree and although they maintained high interests for obtaining a PhD the gender dynamics of time, financial pressures, and balancing childcare with career ambitions all were considerable barriers and challenges that thwarted their aspirations.
Chapter 5 explores participants’ graduate careers where Arbouin finds that they “experienced a bitter-sweet combination of success in gaining entry to professional careers and frustration at battling against oppressive organizational structures that constrained rather than developed them” (82). This chapter brings together two critical themes that are revealed throughout the work. The overpowering impact of race, class and gender in the participants’ lives is evident in each chapter as well as their aspirations, coping strategies, and educational/career pursuits. These intersecting identities mattered greatly in how these participants experienced and tried to navigate both educational institutions as well as life in Britain. At the same time, and precisely because of their identities, the participants in Arbouin’s study also saw and experienced inherent tensions between opportunities and limitations at each stage of education as well as in their graduate careers. The ongoing barriers, lack of (institutional) support, and racism that participants experienced make clear the ways that race, class and gender matter in their lives and also reveal the dire importance of family and community support. While the rhetoric of education as a passport to success can be supported in family discourses and even across society, Arbouin shows that this passport is highly racialized, gendered, and classed.
Black British Graduates is a critical work that provides an insightful view of the lives of a select group of African-Caribbean individuals trying to navigate education and employment in Britain. This work is essential reading for those interested in better understanding Black educational experiences as well as educational inequality and its effects in the UK. Mapping participants’ experiences across educational levels, revealing the pulls and pushes as they navigate various educational institutions, and keeping their intersecting identities front and center in this analysis are salient and powerful in helping unearth the complexities of Blackness within Britain. That participants achieved educationally in spite of and not because of their institutions also shows how education institutions continue to deny and neglect Black students regardless of locale. As Arbouin expertly argues, praising those individuals who are able to navigate the pressures, barriers and challenges is shortsighted and, in fact, privileges those who “make it through” and is complicit in supporting these skewed institutional practices. Instead, greater efforts are needed to dismantle the systems that continue to oppress and deny Blacks educationally and in employment as well. Arbouin’s longitudinal view of these participants’ lives help show how early educational experiences inform and impact one’s aspirations, further education, and even employment.
About the Author
Derrick Brooms, University of Cincinnati