There's a quote from Paulo Freire that has stayed with me since I first read it a few months ago:
"There's no such thing as neutral education. Education either functions as an instrument to bring about conformity or freedom."
I've thought about this quote on and off for a while, but my most recent performing job has made me consider it in more depth.
I didn't know about Josephine Baker before auditioning for the play "Josephine". At the recall, my googling of her left the panel impressed by my knowledge. But as the rehearsal process began and I absorbed performance footage, documentaries and the Josephine Baker episode of the "You're Dead to Me" podcast (would highly recommend), I wondered where she had been in my performing arts education.
Thinking back on the plays I covered in GCSE English and Drama and the texts we explored in A-Level Theatre Studies, artists of colour never came up. Singers such as Ella Fitzgerald (the namesake of one of the four Houses at my school) and Aretha Franklin were in my teenage consciousness. But theatre performers didn't look like me. Writers didn't look like me. Directors didn't look like me.
And the doctrine of 'not seeing colour' was so ingrained in me that I didn't even realise the damage this was doing. As soon as I discovered Audra McDonald, I clung to the idea of her like I'd clung to Mary Seacole when I read about her in a book at 8 years old. But I didn't recognise this as a symptom of the gaps in my educational landscape.
And all this isn't even to mention Josephine's near complete erasure from the narrative of the US Civil Rights Movement. I can only imagine how knowing about Josephine Baker in my teenage years - her boldness, her activism, her joy - would have shaped me.
With this particular gap in my secondary education thrown into sharp relief, I began to question other gaps that began to emerge, no longer hidden in plain sight:
Why was I only encouraged to create when it was required for coursework?
Why was I taught to regurgitate what I was taught, rather than think critically about it?
Why wasn't I empowered to forge my own path instead of relying on the conveyor belt of school-university-job?
The answer, I imagine is multi-faceted.
Educated in a culture that prided high grades and Russel Group University offers above all else, taught by teachers who believed in the myth that a degree guaranteed job security, and ignorant to the systemic barriers I would never be completely immune from, I look back and grieve for how unprepared I was for the adult world. I was deprived of the tools, role models and vocabulary that could have allowed me to flourish so much sooner.
Many people, including Josephine Baker herself, stress the importance of education. I myself have always enjoyed learning, and I value the education that I've had and the opportunities it has given me.
But I now understand that it was a flawed education. One that rewarded me for having a good memory and passing exams, but didn't help to emancipate me.
Things are better for young people now, with Black History Month acknowledged in schools and increased social awareness of the harm racial colour-blindness can cause. However, this will only every be cosmetic unless we teach our children to do more that jump through society's hoops.
Freedom comes from knowing how to question the status quo, how to view the world and the systems within it with a critical eye. That's not what I was taught. And now, over 10 years later, I left trying to teach myself how not to conform.