Aspiration Anxieties: Developing Middle-Class Masculinities among Black African boys in London

By Derron O. Wallace

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In post-Brexit Britain, who considers the impact of the aspiration agenda on ethnic minority young people –particularly Black boys? What is the role of Black boys in building the ‘aspiration nation’? Better still, what is the role of the ‘aspiration nation’ in building them? In my book chapter, ‘Aspiration Anxieties: Developing Middle Class Masculinities among Black African Boys in London’, I explore these and related questions, noting the complex influences of migration and motherhood on the formation of Black African boys aspirations. The findings suggest that the transmission of neoliberal logics of aspirations across multiple social institutions can inspire “aspiration anxieties” – what I characterize as an unyielding tension between desire for educational advancement and structural disadvantage, between optimism about occupational development and limited work opportunities, between long-held dreams of social mobility and stalled upward mobility.

It is crucial that we consider future of Black African boys in British society. The most recent British census confirms that for the first time in recent British history, Black Africans outnumber their Black Caribbean counterparts. While immigration from the Caribbean has slowed to a trickle, the movement of economic migrants and refugees from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe has increased considerably. But Black African migration is not only having an impact on wider British society; it is informing British school as well. Whereas Black Africans accounted for 1.7% of the primary and secondary school populations (ages 5-16) in 2003, they were noted as 3.3% of the school population in 2013. With the demographic shift in Britain’s Black population comes the increasing cultural influence of Black Africans—in schools, in neighbourhoods, in civil society institutions and the wider society. Yet, studies of Black Africans immigrants in Britain—and Black African boys in particular—remain sparse.  The chapter I provide in the anthology, Masculinity and Aspiration in the Era of Neoliberal Education: International Perspectives, adds to the literature and spotlights the complex formulations of aspiration.

Through the ongoing influence of their immigrant mothers, the participants highlighted in the chapter draw on their aspirations as strained resources for the transformations of three sites—the self, the nation and the homeland. Firstly, they sought to develop themselves as middle class men, earning admission to Russell Group universities, securing leadership positions in corporate and civil society, and privileging the institution of marriage as a marker of status and stability. Secondly, they wished to contribute to the economic and moral character of the nation as ‘worthy migrants’—avoiding ‘the dole’ and becoming men of industry to justify their presence in the nation as a credit to the nation, not a liability. Lastly, despite hardships endured during the ‘Great Recession’ and Britain’s prolonged austerity measures, they desired to aid in the transformation of their homelands by providing strong financial support to families overseas.

These aspirations come at a cost. Participants encounter significant psycho-social burdens, or what I refer to as aspiration anxieties, when they realize that the opportunity structures of British society do not privilege their aspirations as necessary for the future of the nation. They wrestle with their limited capacity to pursue their dreams and their mothers’, and internalize such shortcomings, as a personal problem, not a public issue. When participants realize how institutional racism influences university enrolment at places like Oxford and Cambridge, they grapple with abandoning or amending their aspirations.  However, the pressure of their mothers’ aspirations pushes them to declare unrealistic aspirations even if they induce considerable stress.

It would be foolhardy to suggest that Black African boys are the only ones who encounter aspiration anxieties.  Multiple young people, from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds, struggle with aspiration anxieties. Yet, there is very little attention devoted to understanding the challenges that prohibit young people from living out their aspirations and proving themselves as productive citizens. Politician, pundits and parents stand to benefit from listening more attentively to young people, including Black African boys, about how aspirations can function as an ideological whip that constrains their futures.

This blog is adapted from:

Wallace, D., (2017) ‘Aspiration Anxieties: Developing Middle-Class Masculinities among Black African boys in London’ In Stahl, G., Nelson, D., & Wallace, D. (Eds.), Masculinity and Aspiration in an Era of Neoliberal Education: International Perspectives. Routledge, New York.



Derron O. Wallace is an Assistant Professor of Education and Sociology at Brandeis University.

Twitter: @DerronWallace



Categories: Sociology of Education

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