Who’ll be my role model?

Yesterday morning, on the Vanessa Feltz show, they were discussing the issue of Black role models - a topic which came out of the launch of a new internet-based Black-oriented TV station called “Colour TV”, headed by a journalist called Dotun Adebayo who co-presents a show on BBC London on a Saturday evening, aimed at a Black audience (as is the show after it, presented by Geoff Schumann). Feltz played a clip of Adebayo talking about the black motor-racing driver Lewis Hamilton, about whom it is alleged that many do not know that he is black. So this led onto a discussion of role models for young Black men, or rather the shortage of positive ones.

Some might say I’m not the best placed to give an opinion on the issue, given that I’m a white guy myself (the title of this post, by the way, comes from the Paul Simon song You Can Call Me Al). However, I noticed that nobody was talking about why the Black community need yet another sporting role model, even if it is in a white-dominated sport. Adebayo himself was interviewed about his Colour TV venture on Tuesday as well, and said that he noticed that many of the most successful Black people in England had received at least part of his education in Africa or the Carribean, where any boy can meet people of his own colour who are professionals - doctors, lawyers, teachers, that sort of thing.

Sports and entertainment are well-established escape roots from deprivation for young black men (and possibly young men from other deprived backgrounds), but they make unrealistic role models. Only a handful of people in each generation can be great sportsmen, musicians or actors; it’s a way for a small number of people to make a lot of money for little of what the average person would recognise as work. I remember reading an interview (I can’t find the location) with Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls, an Atlanta-based guitar duo, in which she said that she felt she had not really worked in her life, but had made a living out of doing what she enjoys doing, namely music. However, footballers tend to burn out early, with their career over by the time they are 40 and many not being able to make a living as coaches or journalists, and as for musicians, it’s pretty common for them to be dropped from their contracts after just one record because their music doesn’t sell. It’s usually not a career.

It’s true that most famous role models are sportsmen and entertainers, of course, and even that many white people admire the Black musicians and sportsmen. The fact is, though, that famous role models are not enough; people growing up need to know people who are grounded and disciplined, and able to show them a better way of life than that offered by gangs and crime. This, by many accounts, is what many young Black boys growing up in parts of our cities lack. (I don’t mean to stereotype; in the UK, a lot of white working-class boys also lack a learning culture and do badly at school. The problem of learning being seen as un-masculine by adolescent boys affects a number of ethnic groups.)

Anyway, you can listen to the programme again here until next Wednesday insha Allah, with a contribution from me about an hour into the programme, the first caller after the 10am news bulletin.

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