Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Response to 'Where are all the role models?' from Sidney Boahen

A friend of mine was this year listed as one of the UK's top 100 black graduates. I'm really proud of him, as I hope to get myself into the same list next year. It's the type of honour that makes someone look at your CV for that extra 2 seconds, or hold a conversation with you for a couple minutes longer than your peers, because they think you've been certified as having something to bring to the table. In other words, it opens doors.

Until this publication came to existence however, there were volumes of calls for black role models for black children; black professionals who themselves opened doors for black youngsters. My friend, Sidney - Future Leader and ACS Debater extraordinaire - has just added his voice to those calls but I'm afraid I will have to disagree holistically with his argument. I suspect he knew I would, which is why he tagged me in the facebook post.

I am wary of allowing a young person to believe that they can be anything they see someone else become. I'm a rich rapper and you can be like me... I'm a rich footballer and you can be like me... I'm a rich lawyer and you can be like me... but there aren't any well known, rich or successful astronauts (of African descent) so even though you've spent every night since the age of 7 staring at the stars trying to name and count them, I want you to pack away that telescope and look for a profession our community is aware of. This here is the mistake a lot of our most outspoken friends make. Their heart is in a good place, and I do agree that young people can extract advice from, and have doors held open by, elders in their community, but I don't agree that a role model must always be the same race as the young person or that a role model is necessary for success.

Sidney in his article, doesn't account for 'the firsts'. We hail these firsts as demi-gods! (when I think BET, I think "XYZ paved the way for the rest of us") but what did these firsts have that we seem to lack in our present-day community, without the will to find it? I would say it was colourblind determination to achieve the goal they set for themselves based on their own internal desires regardless of the context in which they lived. Understand me before you lambaste me. That is not to say that people like Barack Obama, or Tidjane Thiam (who Sidney refers to) were not aware of the obstacles positioned in their way because of their skin colour and heritage. It is rather to say that knowing full well that there were hurdles in their path and that the finishing line was 100 metres away, they worked their damned hardest to come in pole position when their opponents were running a simple 100m sprint. It had not been done before, but if they were to wait to see it done, they would have missed their queue. It frustrates me that one would say "You can not aspire to be something that you have not seen" when if anything our history has shown that the opposite is exactly the case. Slavery went on for centuries. Generations born onto plantations - bought, sold, raped, maimed. Slaves, for hundreds of years, had only seen slavery in their community but that didn't stop them from wanting to be free. They hadn't seen freedom, but aspired to it with fervent passion. If Barack Obama had waited to see a black man become President of the USA before he decided to run himself, you would all still be waited to see Barack Obama as President of the USA before you decided that your heart's desire is yours for the taking.

If you can't see someone standing there in all their shining glory, with the door wide open waiting for you, then it's up to you to recognise that your number is 1. You are the first. You may never be the richest, you don't need to be. You need to be the best you can possibly be at the thing you have a passion for. And if your motivation rests on you being told that what you want to do has been done many times before by people who look just like you, think, 'Do I love it enough to do it when I can't see anyone at all?' When you can answer yes to that question, you're on the path to great things.


  1. I think there are some who do not need to see someone else "like them" to pioneer and many who need to be inspired by that same idea!

  2. I co-sign the above.