Embarrassing, really

OK – maybe I was wrong. It’s not just the white parents who avoid schools with too many black kids who are problematic when it comes to building a culture of tolerance in inner-city schools. It’s also the white parents whose kids to congregate in clusters of other-white-kids, in very mixed environments, while too embarrassed to raise the issue of race as a discussion point, when it’s there for all to see.

Riveting Midweek this morning on Radio 4 addressed the issue, if only in passing. Lancashire cab driver turned playwright Ishy Din lamented the virtually 100% racial/cultural segregation of northern state schools, when in his day he was one of a small group of Muslims in the classroom. This, he said, forced them to integrate. Ex Tory minister Lord Kenneth Baker fell off his chair in enthusiasm and promptly booked the entire House of Lords in to see Din’s new play.

However, I have bad news for conservative and liberal liberals who think mixing up the school classrooms is all it takes (though it is a start, of course). Whatever wishful-thinking white parents say, kids notice racial difference as soon as they can express themselves, and probably before. My kid was talking about it at three. If they don’t talk about it, it’s because they’ve recognised that grown-ups think it’s not nice to, for some weird reason, like talking about poo. And from that point onwards, if you’re not careful, they will segregate themselves (still not talking about it, at  least not to you) into groups of kids who look just like them. It doesn’t matter who else is nearby; differentiation leading to prejudice will flourish.

OK, that proves it, those with conservative guts will say. Integration is a waste of time; let them all learn and socialise separately according to their separate destinies and be done with it.

But hold on a minute. Apart from the fact that segregation is not an option for those of us with mixed race/culture families, what has been missing so far is a frankness on the part of the majority culture – that means the white-middle-class. Generalisations to their children such as “It’s wrong not to play with so-and-so, dear, just because he/she is black; we are all equal really,” are worse than useless. (White) children learn by doing; and if (white) parents don’t integrate, socialise or even engage with the cultures of any but their own, then nor will their children; what’s more, their children will start drawing their own conclusions why not, without applying their parents’ polite inhibitions. The time to start talking about racial difference and what it means is the moment your child notices it – yes, at three. And if you are stumped as to what to say to them about it, then wise up fast. A little global history is a good place to start. Read some great novels. Watch some great films. Don’t worry if it feels like playing constant catch-up; you’re not alone. That’s the nature of modern parenting, isn’t it?


The wonderful Michele Hanson also caught my ear on Midweek this morning, talking about her father. Apparently he pretended to be an arch-conservative whenever she showed up round the family home, just to aggravate her youthful left-wing self. He used to stick pin-ups of Margaret Thatcher on the toilet walls. She only found out on his deathbed that actually he had been a lifelong socialist.

My dad (Jewish, like hers) did the same. In my presence he affected a devotion for Margaret Thatcher, just when my own contrary radical fervour was at its most outspoken. The Guardian newspaper (for which Hanson has done a column for decades) was a particular source of his odium. I had every justification for believing him a gut conservative, starting with his anti-communism, via anti-feminism, pro-grammar-schools anti-relativism (all the same thing, in his view), and immigrant’s pro-British social hierarchy, up to and until the day he died.

But apparently (family members tell me) he too was a youthful radical and remained a Labour Party voter throughout our childhood; his flirtation with Thatcher, round about the miners’ strike, was but brief. Well, he certainly kept it the deepest of secrets at the time.

Nuture Shock, by Bronson and Merryman, NB ch 3, “Why White Families Don’t Talk About Race”.  Have only read summaries like this one (should buy book, obviously) but like this blogger the summary tallies with own experience.


About marytuda

An accidental first time mum in her fifties reflects on all things maternal from position of perpetual outsider and prolonged state of shock. An urban odessy through parenthood plus from one who thought she'd never go there.
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