Social media influencer Ola Pelovangu has built an online following on TikTok and Instagram, focusing on her life as a working mum of Nigerian heritage. She is married to husband Darcy and has three children, Mayah, 5, Micah-Remi, 3, and Dream, 16 months, and together they are known online as ‘the Pelo Fam’. With stories about racism and culture wars dominating the news this year, we asked her about growing up as a Black girl in Britain, and how she plans to help her own children to prepare for the experience of racism.
I grew up in Nigeria with my grandparents, whilst my mum who was born in the UK worked over here. Life with my grandparents was very comfortable.
Moving to England as a six-year-old was a massive shock to the system. I was lucky enough to attend a good primary school with a teacher who didn’t treat me, a little black girl, any differently, which I believe was due to the fact she was well travelled and genuinely saw culture as something to be celebrated. She gave me the confidence to feel like I belonged: both in my class and in early 90s Britain.
The way teachers speak to children is so formative in a person’s sense of self – and she definitely gave me one of the best starts to life possible.
When I started secondary school, though, things changed quickly. I was one of three Black girls in my year and I felt it. Teachers would fit you into a box. There was such a disconnect between what my parents told me at home – that I was capable of achieving anything – and how teachers treated me at school, telling me that I would never amount to anything.
When I performed well academically I had my intelligence questioned. Once my English paper was remarked and I was accused of plagiarism because at ‘my standard’ it was impossible to have produced such a piece of work.
It became clear that it didn’t matter what I was capable of – it mattered what they thought I was capable of. And that was an institutional problem. My parents always told me that you have to work twice or three times as hard to get given a grade close to what you deserve.
There was a group of white kids in our area called the RA – Racists Attack – and they would stop you getting off the bus and start fights. But the most horrendous racism I experienced was when I was told by other Black kids that I wasn’t Black enough and spoke too white. I was beaten up and had a rib fractured. My sister had her earrings ripped out.
Teachers just said that we should rise above it and ignore it. Many Black people don’t talk about the conflict within the black community itself because it’s almost like if your house is burning then you don’t want to talk about it because we have bigger fires to fight – but if the house is burning you need to get your house in order first before you can address the whole system.
Now, as a mother, it is very important that my children have a diverse experience and meet a range of people. My children will definitely experience racism in their lives. It is a question of when – not if. But I hope it will be less extreme than what me and my parents experienced.
Most schools had a knee jerk reaction to BLM, so when my five-year-old daughter Mayah came home and asked what racism was and mentioned the American civil rights icon Ruby Bridges we had ‘’the chat’’ about racism.
We honed in on the fact that you need to love yourself because not everybody will love you and sometimes the reason could because of the colour of your skin. She is confident and intelligent and I don’t want her spirit to be crushed as she grows older.
I try and teach her to be proud of her heritage, and let her know that she is well within her rights to challenge things, whilst imparting wisdom to those who are both openly and unconscious racist with their actions. I have told her there are occasions where she may not be pulled for opportunities – but there will be a stage where she will be so good they can’t ignore her. I am a living example. I hope her voice doesn’t get silenced and that it never gets to a point where she thinks ‘maybe if I wasn’t black then x’. Mayah told me not to worry – she will always be proud to be a Black girl.
Mostly, I want my children to be confident in their own skin and be able to assert themselves when people make fun of them. We do daily affirmations before bedtime because I believe raising confident black girls is so important. At home we try to instil a love of culture and background so that when situations arise Mayah is confident enough to challenge racial microaggressions. I feel like when you cause people to think and take that breath, that is when a lot of the internal mentalities start changing.
Schools need to address racism in a way that looks beyond overt racism. Lots of real-life incidents involve subconscious racism and schools can help translate these abstract notions into relatable scenarios for children. Make them imagine it was their friend being passed over for a job or playing out a situation in a more relatable manner. Racism isn’t black and white – there are grey and nuanced areas – and this is where schools fall short.
White parents can give children all the anti-racism books they want – but if their actions speak differently, then children are shrewd and will pick up on that. Adults have a lot of work to do in terms of unlearning their own unconscious biases, and challenging their initial thoughts and comments. They have to lead by example. It can be the simplest of things like not using the colour of someone’s skin as a moniker. Little by little, these steps will help teaching have more of an impact.
Racism is not a trend or a moment but a constant strain on our children. The onus is on all parents to reduce its effect on the next generation.