Hashi Mohamed Recommends 5 Books on Social Mobility
Hashi Mohamed's groundbreaking work People Like Us explodes the myths of social equality and racial tolerance, utilising powerful first-hand testimony alongside rigorous socio-economic analysis. In the piece below, Mohamed selects five other books that address the vexed issue of social mobility from a variety of angles.
Appiah’s book was an important book when attempting to make sense of identity, who you are and as you grow in a society where you may not feel completely at home at first.
The problem, as the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah points out, is not that there is anything ‘wrong with cherishing your children’. But when we live in a world in which parents have access to vastly unequal resources, we must confront the fact that this instinct, however natural and understandable, cannot reign unchecked without harming others.
When the Ghanaian-British professor of philosophy Kwame Anthony Appiah found himself adjusting his accent in an American direction when telling New York taxi drivers where he wanted to go, he saw it as a natural instinct to make himself easier to understand to people who were often, like him, immigrants in America.
Eddo-Lodge’s incisive look at race, racism, culture and the lives led by many young black men was important to understand. Much of what she said resonated with me.
In Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, the journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge explores how the confidence of young black men in ‘the system’ is undermined at every turn: at school by the lowered expectations from their teachers; by the poverty of ambition of the culture that surrounds them; by bad experiences with authority, particularly the police; by the fact that, if they get to university, they’ll have to work harder to get the same grades as their white peers; by the far higher rate of rejections they’ll receive when they send their CVs out; and by the extremely high unemployment rates that affect young black men. As she puts it: ‘Our black man can try his hardest, but he is essentially playing a rigged game. He may be told by his parents and peers that if he works hard enough, he can overcome anything. But the evidence shows that that is not true, and that those who do are exceptional to be succeeding in an environment that is set up for them to fail.’
Noah’s experiences growing up in South Africa as a child of a black mother and white father may seem quite far from my own experience. But his observations and conversations with his mother about his father were powerful. The need to reconcile, understand, digest and ultimately be at peace with the fact of an absent father is crucial to many people’s social mobility journey.
Whether it means finding your father for the first time, re-establishing a relationship, or learning to live with their absence, you have to do it to be able to move on with your life. On this, I am with the mother of comedian Trevor Noah. Noah, who is mixed-race, was brought up in apartheid South Africa, and born at a time when interracial relationships were still a crime. His father wasn’t around during his childhood, and when he was twenty-four, over his own protests, his mother told him:
‘Too many men grow up without their fathers, so they spend their lives with a false impression of who their father is and what a father should be. You need to find your father. You need to show him what you’ve become. You need to finish that story.'
Hirsch’s book is quite controversial for a variety of good reasons. For me, it was the journey that she described as experienced by her parents and then herself which I found pertinent; particularly because I felt like it was the experience over two generations which I felt I have lived in my own.
Afua Hirsch’s book Brit(ish) is about identity and belonging, particularly in relation to the challenges faced by successive generations of immigrants. Hirsch was born in Norway, to a British father and Ghanaian mother, and brought up in relative wealth in Wimbledon. It was a life full of privilege, evidenced by a ‘spacious house, a garden with fruit trees and swings, summer holidays walking in the Alps, a private education’. As an adult, she fell in love with a man named Sam, whose background both chimed with, and lay in stark contrast to, her own: ‘He comes from Tottenham, one of the most diverse inner-city communities in Europe. Almost all of his peers have parents who are, like his Ghanaian family, first-generation immigrants from African or Caribbean countries.’ Sam experienced the sorts of material deprivation growing up that Afua was insulated from by her family’s wealth, but, unlike Afua, he was very sure of himself and his place in the world, something she envied. Describing herself as ‘shocked’ by the deprivation of his childhood, ‘when it comes to identity, I tell him, he was born with the equivalent of a silver spoon’.
Any social mobility journey will involve asking difficult questions, making difficult choices – and living with the results. Those results might pop up in surprising ways, and be expressed differently between different individuals: my experience is different to Afua’s, which is different again to Sam’s. Sam, she says, doesn’t understand why she and her friends – graduates of Oxford and Cambridge with ‘the best degrees’ – are so unsure of themselves. But where they are rich in social and cultural capital, they feel adrift, never quite belonging anywhere. They feel like intruders in the white middle and upper classes, but their privilege alienates them from the kind of black communities that Sam comes from. Where Sam ‘thinks in terms of generating wealth and opportunity, I think in terms of identity and belonging. Where he imagined gaining access to elite institutions like Oxford as a road map to making money, I lived it as a crisis of confidence.’29 And this makes sense. While the first generation of immigrants – of which I am one – is often focused on survival and ‘making it’, the more established second generation, freed by the efforts of their parents from the effort of survival, have time to explore the experience they are having, and they often find it a jarring one. For when the moment arrives for the individual to step into the upper echelons of society, it can raise more questions than it answers. But while musings about belonging and identity are a luxury, one that is perhaps not available to someone worrying about where the next meal is coming from, neither can they be ignored. Ultimately, who you are, and where you fit in are not vague, self-indulgent questions: they are the first building blocks of the future you are building for yourself.
Westover’s book is powerful on the force of education to transform lives. But in the social mobility context it has its own limitations; and it is important to understand this if we are to fully appreciate its potential in the truest sense.
Education can also be transformative in itself. In the American academic Tara Westover’s bestselling memoir Educated, she reveals how her discovery of education allowed her to leave her complicated and dangerous family circumstances in order to forge an independent life, eventually ending up as an academic at the University of Cambridge, ‘a changed person, a new self’. ‘You could call this selfhood many things,’ she says at the end of the book, ‘Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal.’ But, she continues, ‘I call it an education.'
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