I Heard What You Said by Jeffrey Boakye review – a lesson in everyday racism

The teacher relates his experiences in the education system – many of them shocking – with insight, intelligence and wit

Jeffrey Boakye draws on 15 years of experience as a secondary school teacher to tackle racism and inequality in Britain’s schools. His experience, like the book, is a mixed bag. For every black student who flourishes under his interest and encouragement, there are instances of overt bigotry and baiting from other students, passive aggression and smirking truculence from peers and colleagues. For every small win there is a depressing realisation, for every apparent triumph a poisonous sabotage. Every time Boakye congratulates himself there is a deep wake of nagging doubts and reservations: “I’ve walked around schools with signs of whiteness jumping out at me at every turn. Science displays of famous scientists from history without a single non-white face represented. Literature timelines guilty of the same.”

Boakye’s tone is pleasantly chatty and lightly humorous; quite a feat while slipping issues of race, class, sex and cultural supremacy into everyday classroom anecdotes. He occasionally lapses into an egregious – and sometimes plain weird – egotism: “Depending on how long you’ve been tracking my movements, you may or may not know that my Twitter handle used to be @unseenflirt… But when the book deals started coming in, I had to think again.” Yet any boasting, humble-bragging and solipsism soon get punctured by Boakye’s actual experiences in the classroom and by the realisation of his own relative smallness in the system.

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