Published on Mamamia 24 September 2013 

The tale I’m about to tell you, dear reader, is a true story.  It happened some time ago but I have never forgotten it and every now and then it returns to both gladden my heart and trouble me deeply.  I can’t quite work out what to make of it and what lesson we should learn from it.  Perhaps you can help me.

When my children were small I took them to a playgroup, where the mums would chat while helping the little ones play or craft things out of popsicle sticks, paper plates and glue.  Many of the mums also had older kids and would talk of their latest adventures at school.  One  had a daughter, Emma, in grade 1 at a local suburban primary school.  The previous week, Emma had come home from school very excited.  There was a new girl in her class.  Her name was Sarah, and she was already one of Emma’s ‘very best friends’.  Emma wanted to invite her to her birthday party that weekend.  She had already handed out invitations a few days before, but she pleaded with her Mum that she just  ‘had to have’ Sarah at the party, too.

Emma’s mum was quite happy to have another little person at the party and was intrigued about the new girl.  Tell me about Sara; she said to Emma.  Sarah loves puzzles, she’s good at drawing, she loves the sandpit, swings and slide.  No surprises there!  She comes from ‘somewhere else’.  Here in Tasmania that would usually mean anything from the next suburb to – gasp! –  the Mainland  (i.e. the rest of Australia).  Hoping to catch a glimpse of Sarah at that afternoon’s school pick-up,  Mum asks what she looks like.  Oh, taller than me, Mum!  And… ummmm…  I don’t know…  oh yes!  She always has two red ribbons in her hair!  Can I have red ribbons,  too,  Mum?  Please?  Plleeeaaasssee???

That afternoon, as Emma’s mum picked her up from school, she looked around the milling crowd of excited little kids, eagerly showing off their latest writing.  Yep, there was a little girl, taller than the rest,  with unmistakeable bright red ribbons in her hair.  She was also the first African refugee student at the school,  where nearly every other family hailed from the U.K. (probably mostly as colonial-era convicts), a few from the rest of Europe and a sprinkling from Asia.

Why is it that the first thing Emma’s mum noticed about Sarah was not her red ribbons, but her black skin?  According to the teacher, not one of the children had made a comment about it.  They were interested in what the new student liked to do and her skin colour was simply irrelevant, so it appears they just didn’t see it. To them, it was unimportant.  After a few weeks, the teacher reported that there had been an episode of giggling in the schoolyard at morning break, with the kids comparing the skin on their arms – one white, one black, one with freckles.  She had had to step in and explain that calling someone “spotty-dots” wasn’t nice and that the other kids needed to apologise to Blake, who didn’t enjoy his new name…

This story raises many questions.  Can we only be truly without prejudice if we don’t notice anything different about the other person?   What assumptions do we make about someone based on their looks or even the way they speak?  How many of them are subconscious?  How often are they wrong or unfair?   Where do they come from?  How do children grow into the kinds of adults who are so full of hate for anyone ‘different’ that they abuse strangers on a bus because of their skin colour?  Most importantly, what can we do, as parents, family members, teachers, role-models and as a community, do to prevent our young people from becoming racist and intolerant?


  1. Hi Heidi, thank you for another thought-provoking post. A lesson from your story is that prejudice is something we learn, we are not born with it. I live in a town called Boksburg, previously a bastion of racism. As recently as 1989 this town was run by the Conservative Party which is now no more. This Party was to the right of the then governing party, The National Party, which meant they thought apartheid was mild, they wanted a more vicious system. Where the National Party said this park bench is reserved for whites and this substandard one for Blacks, the Conservative Party said “whites only”, no space for Blacks. Since politics were then a whites-only affair, the situation meant those who voted for the Conservative Party then were those who considered Blacks as subhuman, other races impure. My point? Today, about 25 years later, those people have learnt to live with their “subhuman” fellow humans. My kids, 3 and 5, also do not “see” colour, they go to a racially mixed preschool and their friends are described by their actions, good or bad, never colour. A part of me wishes I never have to take away this God-given innocence but since those that voted for the Conservative Party are still alive and have children, some of whom are unfortunately taking after their racist parents, I will be forced one day to explain to them why some kid or adult called him a funny name, or was nasty to them. The only pleasure I will take from the explanation will be teaching them that those that think others are subhuman or impure are only projecting their ‘sub humanity’ , they are the bottom feeders in the food chain of enlightenment. The majority of the white population is ‘unlearning’ their prejudice. Sadly though, the worst effects of segregation is that it will probably take centuries for most South Africans to see the person before their skin colour.


  2. I got an email that you are following me, so thought I’d check out your blog as well. This post…I talk about this a lot with friends. Why do these things matter? Because we are taught that they do. There’s a song in ‘South Pacific’ that says just that,

    You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,

    You’ve got to be taught from year to year,

    It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear,

    You’ve got to be carefully taught.

    You’ve got to be taught to be afraid

    Of people whose eyes are oddly made,

    And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,

    You’ve got to be carefully taught.

    You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,

    Before you are six or seven or eight,

    To hate all the people your relatives hate,

    You’ve got to be carefully taught!

    That’s one thing I like about the internet. You can get to know people without being biased by their looks, color, accent, whatever. None of that comes into it. I’ve been very discouraged by the way things seem to be going everywhere, but it helps to know there are people out there who don’t seem to follow the current fashion of hating everyone who isn’t exactly like them. Good blog, sorry about your stomach issues. I have a friend who has a similar problem and it isn’t fun. Thanks for following me, and I look forward to reading more of your posts, too. Jean


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