Proud to Be... Intelligent

Emmanuel Gebreyes, 15, Glasgow, shares what 'Proud to Be' means to him and his experience of the societal stereotypes of Black people.

Content Warning: This blog post contains mentions of and shares examples of racial slurs which may be upsetting to some viewers. 

Black history – partially – means the background of the oppression faced by Black people … but to me and many others it doesn’t just stop there, if that was the end of the journey, how on earth would we ever grow? When spreading the history of prejudice, the desired outcome should be to analyse, learn and grow from that oppressive history. Therefore, today I am going to talk about a particular stereotype that has personally affected me, a brief historical acccount, and my retaliation to this stereotype.

If you are still at school your teacher is probably not Black, not of any Black dissent at all in fact. If you are at university or college your lecturer is probably not Black either. If you were to meet an academic, they probably would not be Black, correct? Wrong, Black people are intelligent, just as any other race in our world and could very much be that academic you happen to bump into. That is the very stereotype I wish to speak about today, that Black people aren’t and shouldn’t be intelligent.

A common reference for this stereotype are those reports comparing intelligence between various races, but those very stats infrequently account for socio-economic states and other affecting environmental factors. Through these misinformed statistics, plus the only academics you are often exposed to throughout childhood (teachers) not being Black, many develop a perception that Black people surely can’t be smart because if they were they would have had at least one Black teacher by now. To clarify, I believe the lack of Black teachers is an issue due to systemic barriers rather than Black people themselves, but that is simply a different conversation for a different day.

This preconceived judgement is something I have dealt with while growing up, not limited to my perhaps ignorant childhood peers, but also extending to well-educated adults.

As a young person, often when conversing with an adult the inevitable topic of aspirations and education, in discussion when explaining my passion for maths and sciences I'm occasionally met with stifled shock, as to not be “rude”. Adults are often taken aback, but more subtly, by the outcome of the question whereas, when I make this same statement to other young people two possible reactions are dealt - one being an infamous slur that I am in fact an “Oreo”; as white people are the only ones sophisticated enough to actually enjoy education and choose to listen to genres such as Soul music, therefore; any identity of myself as a Black person is diminished in that person’s clouded eyes.

This problem is no random occurrence and is the result of generations of preventing opportunities for the brightest and oppressing the most knowledgeable Black people, causing a lack of exposure for those intellectual Black people who are embedded in our society thus, misrepresenting the Black community.

Thankfully I find it more straightforward than some to spin this narrative and recycle it as my motivation, but for others, it is never this simple. Young people are very impressionable and often desire to fit in.

Disregarding a young Black person’s passions for more academic subjects can have a monumental impact on the way they conduct themselves, the way they view academics at a social level and the way they perceive studying.

This stereotype does not only span academics but also more creative subjects such as music, literature, linguistics, or drama. We must encourage and empower our growing young Black population to progress their passions, whether they are academic or musical or sporty...

When I am confronted by this situation, I tend to use this as fuel, as motivation to further these passions and shock more and more people of my abilities and hopefully push the boundaries for up-and-coming young Black people. Occasionally, during vigorous revision for a test or exam, I may encounter a daunting mental block ending in prolonged procrastination, particularly for subjects I am not very fond of – English.

One way to overcome this hurdle is envisioning the people that have doubted my abilities, my talent and attempted to suppress my ambitions. This technique allows me to power through and makes sure my mental capacity is exercised to its full ability and a true reflection of my ability is displayed on the test score. On the other hand, when engulfed in the uncomfortable conversation itself, I will manifest the encounter as a form of motivation for myself and others. Spinning the narrative also allows me to take as many opportunities as possible to spread my experiences and make changes to even one person's day.

A few months ago, during "exam" season (alternative arrangements due to the COVID-19 pandemic), I was pitched an opportunity to be on STV News regarding my experiences as a young Black male in Scotland’s schools. At first, I was sceptical, due to the obvious intimidating exposure of national TV, lack of experience in front of a camera, etc... But, when relaying this opportunity to my friends and family, I felt more optimistic and empowered to change the way the school experience for Black people is viewed and hopefully represent widespread change.

Before the opportunity came about, I had been severely racially abused in my school, and as I had done before, I took the STV opportunity and spoke about the incident and how my friends had called it out and supported me throughout – again, flipping the narrative. Since then, I have appeared once more on STV regarding racism, featured on a national conference alongside Maureen McKenna about Racism in Education, taken part in a meeting with – at the time – Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills and Deputy First Minister, John Swinney and taken part in various research projects concerning racism.

Sometimes, I think to myself, how did this all start? From flipping the narrative, that’s how it started.