by Ahmed Sule, CFA
In April 2017, Hashi Mohamed a Somalian barrister who resides in Britain presented a programme titled “Adventures in Social Mobility” on BBC Radio 4. I wasn’t aware of the programme until a couple of days ago when a friend brought it to my attention. In the next couple of lines, I will share my thoughts on the 36-minute documentary with a focus on cultural connection and socially conscious mentorship.
Using his own story as a case study, Mohamed examined the obstacles British working class ethnic minorities face and what can be done to improve the odds of them succeeding. In telling his story, he interviewed some of his mentors who helped him along the way to gain a place at the upper echelon of British society.
Mohamed’s family moved from Somalia to Kenya and at the age of nine, he came to Britain barely able to speak English. Over the next couple of years, he settled in different parts of London moving houses eight times between 1993 and 1997. At one point he stayed in a house with seventeen of his relatives. He lived in a deprived neighbourhood, attended some of the worst performing schools and struggled academically. Eventually, Mohamed took his studies seriously, received a scholarship to study a postgraduate course at Oxford University and he is now a lifetime member of The Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn working for a prestigious law firm.
Mohamed’s documentary reveals that having good grades alone might not be sufficient for people from less privileged backgrounds to gain entry into some of Britain’s esteemed professions. He notes that if youngsters from poor backgrounds want to move up the social ladder, they have to adapt by embracing the culture of the so-called upper classes. According to the documentary, speaking like how the elites speak; drinking like how the elites drink; visiting the places that the elites like to visit are some of the unwritten rules one has to learn in order to get a job in a City law firm. In short, one has to be willing to drop one’s cultural identity in order to blend. When Mohamed was looking for a work placement at the BBC, he sent an email to Peter Barron, the BBC’s Newsnight Editor at the time and was fortunate to get the job. In the radio programme, Mohamed asked Barron why he got the role. Barron said Mohamed’s email was well written and he used clever lines like, “I swapped MTV for Newsnight a couple of years ago and I never looked back.” Mohamed’s admission that he stopped watching something that was culturally appealing to him still resonates with Barron many years after reading his application letter.
After working with the BBC, Mohamed wanted to become a barrister, but he realised that he needed to have a “rich cultural hinterland to be a good fit for the Bar.” Elizabeth Ransom, the CEO of a law chamber helped Mohamed increase his “social cultural capital” by culturally connecting him with some members of the legal aristocracy. According to her, “We discussed how you can establish a relationship with these people, how you can like the things that they like …… They love music, drama, theatre. ….. The things they want to share are fine wine, maybe football often cricket, opera.” She even took Mohamed to the proms to watch classical music. Reflecting on those experiences, Mohamed said, “ I believe those experiences opened my mind and job prospect.” Mohamed’s advice to youngsters from poor backgrounds trying to navigate the social class maze is to adapt. He urges them to be “Chameleon like. It’s a trick you have to perform. You have to be a number of people in a number of different settings.” He notes that even though he behaves black when he is with his nieces and nephews, he tells them that they must be ready to “switch this off” as they “need to do this in order to get far.”
Even though Mohamed concludes the documentary by noting that Britain will lose out if it continues to discriminate on the basis of class, his suggestion for youngsters to play the role of “chameleon” in order to succeed is misplaced. Getting a good job and hanging around the so-called upper classes should be a means to an end and not an end to a means. Pretending to be what you are not just to be in the company of the “privileged Joneses” is indicative of a deeply seated inferiority complex. When people of colour surrender their culture just to fit in, it is often an admission of the inferiority of their culture. It demonstrates that their source of validation comes from being accepted by the white upper class. To paraphrase the Ghanaian educationalist James Aggrey, “Whoever is ashamed of his/her culture has no reason to live.” In his book Black Skin White Mask, which explores how black subjects through the mechanism of racism sometimes imitate the culture of the coloniser, Frantz Fanon notes, “When the black man comes into contact with the white world he goes through an experience of sensitization. His ego collapses. His self-esteem evaporates. He ceases to be a self-motivated person. The entire purpose of his behaviour is to emulate the white man, to become like him, and thus hope to be accepted as a man.” This inferiority complex is especially prevalent among the established and aspiring educated black bourgeoisie who aren’t satisfied until they live in the white man’s neighbourhood, send their children to the white man’s children’s schools and in some cases till they have the white man’s woman.
Some may argue that adaptability is a human trait, which is essential to survive in a dog, eat dog world. Granted; but what happened to just being yourself? What happened to self-respect? Why should you sell your soul for a mess of aristocratic pottage? Societies benefit when a rainbow of cultures interacts. The diversity of culture contributes to the diversity of opinion and promotes a more creative atmosphere. Pretending to like something or be something you are not so as to be in the company of the privileged class is deceitful and does neither the deceiver nor the person being deceived any good.
Another issue I’d like to address is mentorship, which plays a critical role in guiding the next generation to succeed. When people are mentored, whether by their parents or an industry practitioner, the instruction given to the mentee is often along the lines of, “Work hard; “Don’t give up and the sky will be the limit”; “Keep moving forward with your eyes on the goal”; or Hashi Mohamed’s advice, “You need to find the right way to speak to different people, at different times in different contexts.” However, I believe that this approach to mentorship is incomplete and should be complemented with a socially conscious content.
Injustice prevails in many endeavours of life including but not limited to finance, media, politics and business. The capitalistic notion of focusing principally on having a good career, making money and mixing with the right people without challenging injustice is one of the reasons why injustice persists. With capitalism being the dominant ideology in the world, the default mode is for us to genuflect at the altar of the rich and the famous, hence why we are obsessed with imitating them. While it is good to give tips that could help the next generation get jobs in investment banks, succeed in business and make lots of money, it is also necessary to instil in them a sense of social consciousness. It would be beneficial to society in the long run if mentees are taught to be on the lookout and fight in their own little way against tribalism, racism, classism, sexism, militarism or any other form of ism. Social mobility is important, but even more important is social justice. When I mentor people, I tell them that somewhere, some time ago, somebody took a stand that provided an enabling environment for them to dream big. I plead with them to take a stand to challenge and where possible, pull down the barriers of justice when they enter the Promised Land.
Parents should strive to teach their children the importance of social justice from an early age. There are children’s books about icons of social justice like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa, which parents can get their children to read. Instead of feeding children with a rose-tinted view of the world, where everything is normalised, parents should help them identify instances of injustice at school and in their surroundings. One is not too young to be socially conscious. For instance, Joshua Wong, the Hong Kong student activist first became socially aware when his father took him as a child to visit the underprivileged. Ziauddin Yousafzai, the father of Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Prize winning human rights activist encouraged his daughter from a very early age to stand up and speak up for girls deprived of education.
Wong’s and Yousafzai’s parent’s approach to mentorship differs significantly from the common approach of people like Graham Eklund QC, Hashi Mohamed’s former boss at a City law firm. Eklund advised Mohamed during his pupillage to blend by being a “fly on the wall”. In the documentary, Eklund said, “If you blend it is easy for people to work with you and live with you. If you want to be political or have a strong view in the way things are done or you want change, my advice to people in pupillage is don’t try and express those views while in pupillage. Just be a wall paper.” Could this wall paper approach to mentorship explain why the workplace is full of people who are more concerned with what Martin Luther King describes as, “tranquillity and the status quo than about justice, humanity, and equality”? If instead a socially conscious mentorship approach becomes the norm, by the time the children of today enter the workplace tomorrow, they would likely be armed to tackle injustice rather than having a sense of entitlement and looking down on the poor.
Mohamed’s documentary reveals a lot about class in Britain and exposes the shallowness of British society. In financial accounting, there is a term called substance over form, which means that the reality of something should be given more prominence than its appearance. In Britain (a country where superficiality reigns supreme), the terminology has been revised to “Form over substance.” Eloquence is often confused with intelligence and that’s why it’s not surprising to see thousands of Brits spend thousands of pounds on elocution lessons. Eloquence is a constant theme throughout the documentary. Mohamed notes that the language skill you get from an urban background is not the sort of skill needed in a City law firm. His mentor Peter Barron notes, “How you sound is a huge part of the battle.” One of the youths who Mohamed mentors notes, “From a young age, I learnt that if I refine my voice in a certain way, people will take me more seriously.”
Partly due to the obsession with “polish” rather than substance, Britain’s long-term competitiveness is under threat. Mediocrity is amplified as people are put in positions of authority based on their social standing and accents. As countries like China, Singapore and Germany make strides in producing a new generation of scientists, Britain continues to lag behind deluding itself into thinking that a degree in History, English Language or Literature at Oxford University is more prestigious than a degree in Engineering, Mathematics and Physics at the same university.
Admittedly, Mohamed’s adventure in social mobility exposes the flaws in Britain’s social class system; however, his mentorship style needs to be enhanced with a more socially conscious approach. A socially conscious mentorship programme could help raise a generation of people who will be able to empathise with the marginalised rather than raise a generation of courtiers and jesters for the aristocrats. If mentorship in the black community continues to be devoid of a socially conscious element, we face the risk of continuously producing rich, cultured and educated Uncle Tom’s and Auntie Jemima’s who are of no relevance to their race and society.
Ahmed Olayinka Sule, CFA