Nobody likes it when I talk about race. We live in virtual apartheid – that’s not putting it too strongly – and yet are all under social obligation to affect complete colour-blindness. And to claim the same is true of our children. Yet nothing could be a bigger lie – especially when it comes to our children.
Here in inner London schools are divided according to skin colour. Ok, ostensibly it’s about class; if you can afford the fees, as many homeowners round here can, you send your children to all-white private schools, of which there are plenty. This may include, for all I know, a sprinkling of brown families, but you can be confident the numbers won’t get out of hand.
Your alternative is the state schools. Now, many of the primaries are absolutely lovely, teachers professional and committed, classrooms colourful and inviting, activities various and imaginative – and the children, or their parents, or grandparents, almost without exception, heralding from distant corners of the globe.
My son’s 30-strong reception class has a sprinkling of all-white children – four or five. Of the rest, at least half speak English as a second language.
Outside, the mothers group themselves accordingly; the three white-middle-class mums, the 4 or 5 black Muslim ones, then pairs of Hispanics, Chinese and others, often standing singly. Oh and the dads; the white one looks wistfully at the group of white mums, the black ones striding in late, often, not pausing to check the rest of us out at all.
I find all this awkward. I wasn’t much good at group dynamics as a schoolgirl, so perhaps I would under any circumstances. But I feel we are setting a bad example, for all our kids, but especially for my mixed race son.
He’s not colour blind, I know that. He first drew attention to the difference in our skin tones months ago. But that’s all it is to him, a skin colour. However I am certain he’s working on it, as is every other child in that class.
And every other child in London, if not the world.
Watch a genuinely mixed group play and you’ll see how often they group themselves according to race. Oh, their parents will argue, it’s not about colour, but about things-in-common, starting with language. Right?
Well. I have first-hand evidence that children shun those who “look different” for no other reason than that they, er, look different. Anecdotally, this seems especially prevalent in mono-cultured white groups with just one or two “different” kids. Looking round at the sprinkling of white kids in our school’s overwhelmingly brown playground, I can’t say I have spotted any signs of exclusion, but their parents might correct me. My brown-skinned boy won’t look out of place, here, but he may feel it. His best friends at present are his white-skinned neighbours, all (guess what) privately educated. He has most to lose by London’s failure to integrate its children, and I worry that he may end up falling between groups.