Why we need to think about role modelling

Why we need to think about role modelling

by Daniel McNeil
M. A. History, University of Toronto
April/May 2003

In 1968 it was considered common sense for “[white] British working men” to take “to the streets in protest at Mr Enoch Powell’s sacking for his explosive speech on race”.1 It was considered “natural” for them to fear a loss of “their” culture, women and jobs to “new” arrivals, and follow a “natural leader” steeped in Anglo-Saxon culture and unabashedly appealing to the welfare of the “common [white, English]man”.

Paul Gilroy has not only documented the rise of the far right and ethnic nationalism, but also simplistic views that “role models and mentors are the only desperate answer to the ubiquitous failure of black boys who do badly at school, not because of racism, but because their teachers are afraid of them and their fathers are absent from their homes”.2 Also noting the continuing influence of institutional racism and opinion leaders able to inspire “one’s own”, Gary Younge has dismissed role-modelling when it “takes an individual who has done well, parades them in front of a group that is not doing so well, and says: ‘If you try hard enough, you too can do this’…It suggests that if people do not succeed in those narrowly defined material terms, it is because they did not try hard enough.”3

Such thoughtful comments have been useful in allowing Black “spokespeople” to insist that role models should come from, and give back to, the community. Nonetheless, Black leaders rarely add that Black youths do not only identify with people who have the “right” kind of jobs, share their skin tone and are from “their” community. They don’t have to be weak caricatures of Ali G, considering objects only in terms of how they compare to the John Nike leisure centre and a local framework of drum n bass and garage pirate radio stations, or an international perspective that only includes hip hop (or r n b) from the US and a vague notion of Jamaica.

Black leaders tirelessly promote the need for whites to learn about different cultures and how non-white groups view Britain, but with a “common sense” view of role modelling how can they challenge whites saying that they cannot identify with any Black figures (except those Black friends necessary to prove their own lack of racism, who are often encouraged to perform as exotic objects, or disavow any cultural difference to just become “English”)? Thus, to continue to state the moral argument that British education is not just about learning what is “safe”, but also what will challenge whites (who do not consider themselves Black) to acknowledge the many facets of (post) modern Britain and the world, Black role models cannot just be seen as a requirement for Blacks.

It is important to emphasise the need for whites (alongside non-whites) to know the history they haven’t been told. As whites indebted to Powell and (New) Right wing cultural practices still can’t quite bear to see various cultures represent what “we” (“they”) are (except maybe at Carnival), Black role models are essential. A truly multicultural nation cannot only have its history, politics, culture, etc analysed from a Eurocentric standpoint – unless it wants to privilege white national role models all too often simply described as Great national figures. And challenging white racism is a fundamental task of true Black leadership, allowing Black figures to not only reach “their” (racial) community, but also contest the stereotypes held by whites and the denial of Black achievement.

Black achievers need to be displayed alongside continuing British investment in white normativity, yet Black youths can strive to be pioneers, identify with the values and struggles of non-Blacks and even see Blacks in positions of power whose values they reject. Consequently, we must ask questions as to how it has been considered “natural” to follow those with a similar pigmentation and background, and certain occupations have been emphasised as role model material.

We need to ask why so many hard-working Black females and males have been ignored as role models. Why haven’t Black social workers and nurses been promoted as role models to the same extent as politicians and businessmen? Do established Black leaders seriously think that young Black men cannot learn from the values of people in various occupations where Blacks are represented? Or do they fear that respecting someone as a person means that men will want to do their job, rather than aiming “higher” as doctors and lawyers? Or “naturally” be unable to identify with the values of people in caring, so called “feminine” occupations? While male youths may attack those that strive to “better themselves” in the “white system” as effeminate or even “buller men” and “batty bwoys,” should it be accepted as “common sense” in the UK, like the US, that hard-working Black women succeed because “the black male has threatened the white infrastructure more than the black woman…The few [men] we do have [in our department]…they’re not the macho black”?4 And why are Black British community leaders parroting the lines of African American leaders re: Black entrepreneurship and the corrupting influence of youth culture?

The dominance of rigid hierarchical and materialistic values, as well as the gendering of roles, can be major causes of distress in various communities. When perpetuated by Black leaders it can allow Black male youth to simply add that they agree with “their leaders”, it’s just that they have figures that exhibit greater materialistic and masculine success in music videos. It is the easy linking of success with monetary rewards, and the sense that rich Black men can get any “ladies” they want, which needs to be challenged. It cannot be countered effectively if established Black leaders take the egotistical option of promoting an image of themselves when they call for positive Black male role models, or the small business route of developing a few businesses and demanding “buy Black”, without the ability to support major business initiatives and co-operatives.

Can one also pinpoint multinational corporations aggressively marketing “their” stars, athletes and lyricists promoting their lifestyle rather than their creative talents, and young individuals looking for short cuts to the top, in order to show off rather than obtain security like the ideal respectable role model imbued with a strong (Protestant?) work ethic? Of course, but middle class leaders have also been guilty of constantly calling for financial funds while distancing themselves from their community by their dress, appearance, etc. They’ve called for youth to accept their authority, without realising the limitations inherent in their condemnation of “handouts” from a social-welfare state while chasing start-up loans in a workfare one, or their focus on the lack of Black male role models instead of an emphasis on providing extra support for single Black mothers.

Black leaders and role models that reflect conservative concerns with the “traditional family” and offer no radical reconceptualization of the status quo cannot challenge the glitz and glamour of music celebrities (or at least the lives that their publicists have us believe they lead – as Little X, a prominent music director noted recently in a Much Music interview, “why do people believe music videos are real life? They’ve got it in their heads that movies and TV serials are fiction, but not videos”). Images that sell women in thongs, easily available to the dons with the cash, will not end unless they stop making money. The only way to stop their financial success is by promoting other lifestyles that are inspiring.

Even if one can’t stop the gendered roles “imported” from the US on TV, it’s no good simply attacking them; one must provide viable alternatives so that youths have a choice. They may simply take bits from MTV’s cribs and bits from the church and school, home and sports club, so they could wear Rocawear, but not accept the values of a pimp or a hustler…baby. I see nothing wrong with that, although middle class leaders concerned with creating sacred icons and dictating the life choices of others, probably will (see the outrage of the African American “Talented Tenth” at Cedric the Entertainer’s character in Barbershop pointing out that there were plenty of Black folks who “sat their ass down” and were arrested before Rosa Parks).

Yet those middle class “suits” have been declared bankrupt in many Black North American and British working class communities – they often can’t earn as much as those pursuing the criminal or “urban culture” route and they do not have enough authority to cast the first stone. They certainly can’t provide the answer to the Black male “problem” by simply pushing role models who fit the image of a successful citizen, complete with suit and tie. While it is important to celebrate individuals who overcome obstacles, the business of creating role models cannot slip into solely praising individuals that display material wealth. There are many Black role models who prove that material goods cannot dictate what a man or woman can be, and provide fitting individuals (not occupations) Black youth can look up to aside from, or as well as, the music celebrities and local criminals. By failing to pay heed to Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton’s warning (“the goal of black people must not be to assimilate into middle-class America, for that class – as a whole – is without a viable conscience as regards humanity”)5 and faced with cable TV and the Internet, middle class Blacks in the US and UK can promote role models that may come from, and even give back to, their community, but they remain distanced (in a way the Wu Tang Clan are not) from working class Black communities.6

As a Black male from a working class household led by a single mother and a supportive grandmother, I could not only look to role models like Ian Wright, but also a white football coach who would walk everywhere in the same tracksuit and be willing to give up his record collection so my team could have a holiday. Individuals like my coach Karl Shaw must be promoted as role models for all children, not just ‘Great men’ like Winston Churchill who championed racism, imperialism and elitism. Only role models whose lives provide moral critiques of the Britain developed by one of Churchill’s most devout publicists, Margaret Thatcher, can successfully inspire Black youth to go a little deeper. And as Ms Dynamite and Karl Shaw show, these values aren’t just found in males or Blacks, but in having empathy with various local, national and transnational role models. Thankfully there are also Black males whose horizons reach beyond Staines and the popular media’s image of Africans and diasporic peoples, because images of successful Black males should not just include those who have made enough money to get out of Black communities or stay within them to insist on their own status. Promoting committed and caring role models, who reject the easy rewards of their position, will not only inspire Blacks in the diaspora with their actions, but also prevent the likes of Enoch Powell being the only leader white working class youths can identify with.


1 Stop Shouting, Start Talking”, Observer, April 28, 1968.
2 Paul Gilroy, “Ali G and the Oscars”, Open Democracy, April 4 2002.
3 Gary Younge, “Role Model behaviour”, The Guardian, March 27, 2002.
4 P. Essed, Everyday Racism, 169.
5 Black Power: Its need and its substance
6 See Prof. William King’s comments on Colin Powell, ‘whites and middle class Blacks are proud of him. But it is very difficult for the young brother on the corner to see Powell as a hero. To them Powell is a light-skinned bro’ done good…for himself’ Voice, March 26 1991, p. 11.

Author's bio

Daniel McNeil is a graduate student at the University of Toronto. His research interests include observing how inclusive rooted or indigenous Black communities are of newer immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean, and looking at the rhetorical use of 'Americanisation' in Canada and the US.

by Daniel McNeil

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