My eight-year-old daughter did something a few weeks ago that surprised me. She asked me what “Asian” meant. In Britain, Asian is usually taken to describe people of South Asian origin—Pakistani, Bengali, Indian and Sri Lankan, unlike America where Asian generally denotes East Asians. People my age and older have been grouped into one of a few broad categories: white, black or Asian, with little ambiguity about this. It surprised me that my daughter did not identify herself with this label.
I am lucky to live in a very mixed area. The schools here have had strong anti-racism policies in place since I was a child. People from every religion and almost every country in the world are represented and my children’s school celebrates that diversity. I have always tried to be mindful around my children of how prejudices and stereotypes can creep into our words and actions unknowingly.
The way my children have always described people physically is not by their race as we always did, but by their physical, apparent characteristics. So for my kids, a person is either brown like us, dark brown (which could mean Sri Lankan or Ghanaian) or yellow haired. It struck me as strange that white children were not described by their skin colour, but by their hair colour, until I realised a small child wouldn’t have a word for the range of colours that can constitute what we call white. Perhaps a child wouldn’t think of calling that skin colour white, because it isn’t literally white.
Children don’t identify and divide themselves into groups by race, I observed, until we start offering them labels to apply. So how do they identify themselves? My children have a strong religious identity because of the tight-knit Muslim community to which we belong. They also identify with their country of birth. I grew up very confused about my identity—Pakistani? Punjabi? English? British? I would have liked to say I was British but never felt accepted as such.
My children don’t seem to have that confusion. They don’t automatically associate British with “white.” In a recent discussion with his dad, my four-year-old son firmly declared, “No Dad, you and Gran are Pakistani, all us kids and Mum are English.” I’m not sure what the conversation was about, but his statement had me in stitches. No ambiguity there at all, and certainly none of the worry that was instilled in my generation by our elders about losing our culture and language if we tried to assimilate too much. (I always knew my children were English anyway—the boys wear socks with their sandals, an old English tradition evident at any English seaside).
The way our children’s thinking about race and identity has changed from ours, doesn’t mean that all of our troubles are over and that the monster of racism will now be laid to rest. There is always someone else to take over the mantle of “other” in any society. Sometimes it’s not the most obvious candidate. I have had to speak to my children a few times about comments they have made about the Roma. A number of Roma families have recently moved into our community and I have become aware of vocal criticism and prejudices against the Roma from people from ethnic minorities. It makes me wonder why they cannot see the parallels between their treatment of this new community and their own experiences of coming to this country.
These prejudices are being picked up by children and shared in the school playground. The school has taken the matter seriously and threatened to suspend anyone saying racist things to Roma children. On hearing my daughter make an unkind comment, “Phew, good thing those smelly gypsies are left behind,” I was tempted to start telling her off. Instead, I explained to my daughter that when her grandparents came to this country, they had to endure people telling them that their clothes were funny, their food smelled strange and that they should go home. I tried to give her an idea of how they were paid less for doing the same jobs as others, how they often had to do the worst kinds of jobs and how they lived in cramped, substandard homes. The Roma are now in a similar position. I explained this to my daughter so that she could consider whether she wants to become like the people who were unkind to her grandparents.
As a family we need to be clear that this does not mean people who identify themselves differently from us are any less valuable or deserve less respect. This incident with the Roma made me realise that I can’t be complacent about racism. While I am happy that my children are comfortable in their identity, it doesn’t mean that racism is no longer an issue just because race has not figured as prominently in my children’s lives as it did in ours.