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?