How should we prepare our children for racism?

The number of children seeking counselling from Childline for racist bullying increased by over two-thirds in 2013

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A recent report on racist bullying by ChildLine and a commentary by the teacher and black feminist Lola Okolosie on her experiences of ‘intra-racism’ among minority ethnic pupils have reinvigorated discussions prevalent in the 1980s and 90s about racism in schools.

The ChildLine report showed that the number of children seeking counselling from the charity for racist bullying had increased by over two-thirds in 2013, rising to 1,400 reported incidents. Islamophobia was highlighted as a particular concern, with Muslim children being called “terrorists” and “bombers” by classmates. Other children were bullied because of their looks or because they were recent migrants. In a ChildLine counselling session, a girl of 13, described the slow erosion of her confidence.  “I used to be proud of my roots until I started getting bullied at school because I look different to everyone else in my year. They tell me to go back to where I came from and that I’m ugly or horrible to look at. I know they’re trying to make me feel bad about myself and it’s starting to work.”

For Lola Okolosie, as a teacher in London, there is also another side to racist bullying – how racism can be a part of the mortar of everyday intimidation and aggression between pupils. “Walk into any multicultural school in our large cities and you will find that black and brown students will readily take part in racist bullying against each other’ Okolosie writes.

As chilling as these examples are, such experiences are only part of the problem of childhood racism. An issue that is rarely talked about is how racism affects parenting. For anyone who is the parent of a child who is racially marked in some way because of their colour, or cultural and faith difference, it is almost impossible not to have thought about how our children will negotiate their way through a world of varying racist heat.  Should we protect them for as long as we can from an awareness of racism? Should we practice a version of psychological inoculation – exposing our children to racism in the hope that it might build future resilience? 

As a parent, researcher and former school governor I have come across both approaches - and parents often vary their strategies according to a child’s age or disposition. The writing of the black feminist and poet Audre Lorder is strewn with autobiographical accounts of her parents’ protective dissimulation in the face of racism in the streets, on public transport and in restaurants when she was growing up in the 1940’s US.  In one account, Lorde recalls how her mother always carried small pieces of newspaper in her purse to wipe-off salvia spat at them at ‘random’ on the street. “It never occurred to me to doubt her. It was not until years later once in conversation I said to her: “Have you noticed people don’t spit into the wind so much as they used to?” And the look on my mother’s face told me that I blundered into one of those secret places of pain that must never be spoken of again.”

For Lorde, this shattering of the warm security of a childhood world, was more than the loss of innocence and exile that we all experience when early memories are recast. Seeing hatred and violence wrapped around her family’s everyday life was an existential as much as a political jolt in adulthood. In a research study on the transition to first time motherhood in the East End of London, I also came across the psychological inoculation approach to dealing with Islamaphobia among Muslim mothers of Bangladeshi heritage. Some mothers felt that if they didn’t educate their children about racism, particularly when they experienced abuse in the street, it could be a more devastating shock in later life. One mother linked the difficulties of these childhood experiences to the Islamic concept of Jihad as struggle, seeing it as a responsibility to educate her children about religious and racist intolerance. She told me “I’d like them to be out there and struggle to actually practice their religion, and see others, and have that respect back, rather than being cushioned.” 

Racism blights and complicates childhood and parenting and we actually know very little about the corrosive damage or long term reverberations that living with racism inflicts upon children and parents. A paradox is that greater awareness of racism in the form of the diversity curriculum or perhaps through parents sharing their experiences does not necessarily help with promoting mental wellbeing or resilience. The Martinique-born psychiatrist and post-colonial scholar Franz Fanon believed that living with any consciousness of racism is to live in a ‘constellation of delirium, forever bordering on madness.

It is certainly true that as you gain more knowledge about what racism is and how it works, you are likely to encounter more aggression, denial, guilt and the most perverse of all: hurt innocence – ‘I never meant it like that’, ‘I don’t know what you mean’, ‘Are you sure?’ Life can become more fraught and difficult; more choices have to be made, costs and benefits need to be taken into account. Do you recognise and challenge racism? Do you let it go?

At this time of increasing intolerance these are questions we all need to think about.

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