In 1992, Heidi Safia Mirza published ‘Young, Female and Black’, which was the culmination of her research of 198 young woman and men, including 62 black woman aged 15-19 who were the main focus of the study. They all attended two comprehensive schools in south London. Heidi Safia Mirza conducted observation in the school, used questionnaires to obtain basic data on the sample, and conducted informal interviews both with members of the sample and with parents. She also used secondary sources such as school records and exam results. Heidi Safia Mirza carried out detailed case studies of three black women.
Mirza argues there is a ‘myth of under-achievement’ for black women. The girls in her sample did better in exams than black boys and white pupils in the school, and Mirza believes that in general the educational achievements of black women are underestimated.
Mirza also challenges the labelling theory of educational under-achievement. Although there was evidence of racism from some teachers, she denies this has the effect of undermining the self-esteem of the black girls.
When asked whom they most admired, 48% of the black girls named themselves and over half named somebody who was black.
Some of the girls felt that some teachers put them down and did not give them a chance to prove themselves. However, ‘although the girls were resentful of these attitudes, there was little evidence that they were psychologically undermined by this different treatment’.
A few teachers Mirza describes as ‘overt racist’. The girls tried to avoid these teachers if possible and were certainly not prepared to accept their negative definitions of black people.
Another group, whom Mirza describes as ‘the Christians’, tried to be ‘colour blind’, recognizing no differences between ethnic groups. Although the behaviour of this group was less damaging than that of the overt racists, it did have its problems. A few of the teachers were active anti-racists, described by Mirza as ‘the crusaders’. However, Mirza describes their campaigns as ‘often misguided and over-zealous’. They put more effort into promoting these campaigns in the staffroom than they did into preparing for the classroom.
Another group were described as ‘the liberal chauvinists’. Like the crusaders, they were well-intentioned. They wanted to help black pupils, but their ‘help’ was patronizing and often counter-productive. They felt they understood their problems and knew what was best for them.
The final group identified by Mirza was a group of four black teachers. Mirza found this group were effective teachers who were liked and respected by their pupils from all ethnic groups. Although they showed no favouritism to black pupils, they could be ‘of immense value when it came to advising and understanding the girls’ needs’.
Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex