There are things about this article I find a little disingenuous. The fact that a child told the author’s daughter that her skin was the wrong colour to attend her birthday party, in an apparently mixed-ethnicity primary school class . . . So had the birthday girl really just picked out the handful of white girls (7 or 8 at most in a 30-strong class, assuming half boys, and at least half non-white) to attend her party?
What about the other girls omitted from the list, for presumably identical reasons? Or is the author’s daughter the only non-white child in the class to even presume a friendship with the white girls?
And another thing – did the author’s daughter’s awareness of her own skin colour really only strike her when first drawn to her attention by another classmate at aged 5?
I ask these horribly insensitive-seeming questions from the point of view of my own experience of my son’s very mixed-ethnic primary school class, and his own questioning of his and my skin colour, which happened, really, as soon as he could speak. He had the incentive of our difference – I’m white, he’s brown, and Daddy is – well, very dark brown. Naturally he had questions about why.
To me the questions proved that children actually notice very early on, possibly before they can speak. Indeed I remember my all-white infant nephew’s explosive reaction the moment my partner bent his smiling face too close to the pram for the first time . . . The baby got over it rapidly, of course, and his dark-skinned uncle subsequently became a favourite – but at eight months, he’d never seen a black face before and he noticed the difference all right.
To move on to our primary school classroom, with which as a regular parent volunteer I am pretty familiar – yes, it’s inevitable perhaps; the handful of white kids group together, inside and outside of school, and form a kind of alpha-in-group, in a class where huge cultural differences make other close friendships slow to get off the ground, largely because many non-English-speaking parents find negotiating playdate culture pretty challenging. You can make a case, as defensive white liberals do, I notice, about it being more about class than race; these white kids are just middle class types mixing with other organic-food and theatre consumers, that’s all. But my child is middle-class (yeah, organic food and theatre), but he’s not really one of them, despite my very middle class presence all over the place, at school and with their parents. A sweet, shy, definitely working class British girl is, though a little peripherally; but she gets invited to the alpha-girls’ parties. So does a gorgeous blonde Polish girl.
Definitely excluded, and sometimes even border-line bullied (I’ve had to step in once), are the younger, quieter, foreign-language speaking ones – all jet-black haired and mostly brown-skinned. Cue the blackest-skinned girl of them all, a tall, capable, athletic young lady, with flawless, slightly African English. She has friends, I believe, and certainly nobody messes with her. But if only she were blonde, she’d be the most popular pupil of all.
Boys are different; perhaps the lesser emphasis on appearance makes things more flexible between them. But the class’s sole white boy often seems to prefer the company of the (white middle class) alpha girls over the other boys, despite being a very “boy” sort of boy himself. He and my son get on well enough, we’ve had a couple of outings together, but they’re not close friends, and it’s not my son who is keeping his distance. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if my boy is tacitly (absolutely not explicitly, heaven forbid, the parents would die!) considered “the wrong colour.” Increasingly our playdate invites come from other mixed-race boys, of which our lovely class has several, including my son’s best friend. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.