In through the backdoor

October 10, 1997

Heidi Mirza tells Julia Hinde that racism lives and equality is a myth, but that black girls are beating the system

Heidi Mirza, reader in sociology at South Bank University, is unusual in the determinedly objective world of academic research in that she unashamedly draws on personal experience in her work to attack those who consider racism a thing of the past. "I use my experiences in my academic work, I name my pain," explains the 39-year-old daughter of an Austrian mother and Indo-Caribbean father. "That is my starting point to understand what is going on around me. In doing that you expose yourself, write yourself into the text. Academics are not meant to do that."

Mirza believes that in the late 20th century, for all our talk of equality, ideas of innate, scientifically proveable difference between whites and blacks remain at the heart of thinking about race. Particularly virulent are ideas about the inferior intelligence of black people, with stereotypes commonplace. Witness "the unredeeming picture of black women in Britain as unmarried lone mothers, scrounging on the welfare, having babies to manipulate and bribe their way into council accommodation". Liberal discourse may argue that everyone is equal, yet in reality black people, particularly black women, do not enjoy the same opportunities as whites. "Even though ethnic minorities are more likely to have better educational qualifications than their white peers, their unemployment rate is twice as high as that for similarly qualified whites. I am confused by the contradiction between what we say about equality and the reality of racism.'' Mirza postulates that the difference between the ideology of equality and the social reality of inequality leaves a gap which is being filled by pseudoscience and New Right ideologues who argue that differences between the races are innate; that, for example, black underperformance at school is because blacks are genetically less intelligent, rather than because of the unequal opportunities they encounter. "It appears this new age of gene science is able to accommodate a new popular version of biological determinism," she says, dismissing suggestions of a correlation between race and IQ as "the work of the crackpot fringe" and IQ tests as racially structured. "Look at the real facts about the black female condition in the UK," she says. "I found black girls did about 6 per cent better than any of their working-class white male and female peers in the same schools. They do well in their run-down, poorly-staffed, chaotic, failing schools.'' As for the indisputably high percentage of single black mothers, Mirza says her work suggests that black women see having children and a career as important, while few say that having a husband is a priority. "Judgemental middle-class values about when it is a good and right time to have children suggest alternative ways of life are not good," she says.

When Mirza speaks she tells of women not too different from herself. Arriving in England from Trinidad aged 16, she attended an inner-city London school. "When I came from Trinidad I had very high self esteem. I had come from a black country where education was celebrated. When I landed in Brixton I felt like an alien - I entered a world where teachers told me I was no good. But I fought them.'' Unlike her contemporaries Mirza got to university, yet, just like her black friends, had a child. "When I did my finals I was six months pregnant. I am one of them. I am a single, lone mum living in the inner city - so I must be stupid.'' Rejected after graduation from 70 jobs, Mirza finally embarked on a PhD, returning to her Brixton school to undertake a study of race. "As I matured, I realised it was not just an objective study - it was about my own life,'' she says. After a year in the United States and time working on drugs programmes, she moved to South Bank, where she is studying what she describes as a new social movement among blacks to enter higher education. "The impact of black people on universities is massive," she explains. "Ethnic minorities are overrepresented in relation to population size in new universities compared to the white population. Africans are overrepresented by 223 per cent. At South Bank 65 per cent are black. When I go to other places I am thrown by how white they are.'' Her research reveals black girls entering university through non-conventional routes, often as mature students. She says that young black girls see their mothers working as carers, nurses and office workers, and see these as "realistic careers", but also as routes to college. "They tell me it is not that they want to be nurses and clean bed-pans like their mums, but that maybe these jobs could lead to learning, a diploma in social work, an access course in social studies and then several years down the road the ultimate goal, a university degree."

"They ingeniously have worked out a system of 'backdoor entry','' says Mirza, adding: "It is a sad indictment on the pervasiveness of their circumstances that it has become an unspoken norm among the young women that racism does not allow them the normal route into university.'' She goes on: "I am interested in academic desire and what motivates black women to come into university despite all the stuff on IQ and how there are no jobs... It's incredible what people give up, I just want to know why they do it.'' One answer may be a desire to give something back to their communities. Working with Dr Diane Reay, she argues "that there is a covert social movement among black women to better themselves and their communities. Unlike whites, these women engage in collectivity. These women are going back and setting up Saturday and evening schools, supplementary schools for the community's children. Their idea of success is giving back, being part of something. It's amazing.''

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