On the leafy South London streets where I live, the should we, shouldn’t we conversation about moving out of London is nearly as common as beards and coffee shops in Shoreditch, (or rain in Manchester, if you’re reading this from somewhere outside of The Centre Of The Universe).
Aside from the fact that we clearly need to get better chat, there is something else that irks me about this conversation. Almost without fail, the largely white and middle-class participants will say that they like living in London because of its diversity. It’s not uncommon to hear people say how pleased they are that their child’s school is ethnically, linguistically and religiously mixed, and I’ve even heard parents say how proud they are of their child’s diverse group of friends.
At my most critical, I resent the implication that the children from minority backgrounds are somehow there for the benefit of white children. There seems to be an unconscious assumption that it is the brown children’s role, their presence, that will teach our children not to be racist. I feel frustrated by the apparent attitude that proximity to difference is the path to a post-racial society by some undefined gradual process of osmosis: no effort required – just add melanin!
Seconds later though, I feel the tug of my own white privilege and I reason with the intention behind this thinking. We want our kids to be accepting of difference and we believe that being around people from different backgrounds is fundamental to this. The problem with this assumption is that its reductive counter-point suggests that children born white and raised in a majority (sometimes wholly) white area are destined for EDL membership and an “opinionated” Facebook presence.
In my heart of hearts I can’t help thinking that this obsession with the appearance of diversity may be well-intentioned but it is nothing but an veneer. It glosses over the deeper work all white people need to do to tackle the foundations of racist structures. It salves our consciences while we retreat into insulated passivity and fail to be serious about our anti-racism.
Even in multi-cultural London schools, teachers are mainly white; the history curriculum erases black British history from its pages for all but one month of the year; and Gove’s 2010 attack on the English curriculum has resulted in a focus on white, male and stale (mostly dead in fact) writers. So it does not really matter who your kid sits next to in class, who you walk past in the street, or who your neighbours are.
In all aspects of our wider society, value is placed on whiteness and it is this, not the ethnic breakdown of our children’s classrooms, that we should be agonising over.
In whispers from the world around them our children are told daily who is important and who is not, a fact made acutely apparent in a recent study by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE). The study found that of 9115 children’s books published in the UK last year, just 1% had a main character from a BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) background. 4% featured any characters from BAME backgrounds at all, while “a quarter of the books submitted featured diversity only in their background casts.”
These figures become even more shocking when we’re told that almost a third of children in our primary school classrooms last year were identified by the Department for Education as being from minority ethnic backgrounds. Essentially, the books our children are reading do not reflect the world in which they are living.
In an article in the Guardian, the director of the project for the CLPE, Farrah Serroukh, carefully identifies the impact this lack of representation will have on the psyches of the black and brown children reading those stories:
“When you’re figuring out the world, being able to see yourself in books, as well as people who don’t look like you, is really important. It means you see your story as valid, and it can contribute to who you imagine yourself to be – and a kid should be able to imagine themselves as anyone in the world. These mirrors are so important.”
As a mother to mixed-race children the importance of this is something I have become acutely aware of. We work hard in our house to make sure our children see faces that look like their’s because we want them to believe that they deserve to take up space. We want them to feel like they belong. But the fact that my arrival at awareness was only triggered by the births of my own brown children makes me confident that amongst the many white, middle-class left-leaning Guardian readers there would have been few who would have read that article and seen its relevance to their own households.
Perhaps I’m being unfair but my suspicion is that there will be plenty of white parents of white children who will have read that article and thought, “What a shame… for them…”
We will fail to see the disconnect between our own hopes to raise decent human beings and the absence of black and brown characters in the books in our homes. We will fail to see that an over-riding emphasis on white faces and white stories reinforces attitudes that whiteness is somehow more accomplished, more interesting, more important and more valuable. We will fail to see that we are upholding the values of white supremacy.
If white people are serious about confronting and dismantling systemic, institutional and societal racism; if we are serious about raising our children to accept and more importantly appreciate difference, then we won’t see that statement as over-sensitive or dramatic. We will understand the power of implicit messages, of internalised narratives and unconscious bias, and we will commit to doing better.
We will show our children that we don’t just accept people that do not look like us, we value them and we can start to do this by bringing their faces, voices and stories into our homes.
Because when it comes to combatting negative messages with positive narratives, it actually doesn’t matter where we live because we can all buy books.