I originally wrote this post during the Summer of 2016, but held onto it. I am publishing it today as I feel the time is now right. It’s a long one, so you may want to grab a cuppa… x
In the UK, September is the month during which kids either return to school or start school for the first time. It is a month of massive transition for many children, some of whom may never have spent any time away from their parents or carers. New adults, new kids, new friends, new environments, new challenges. The classroom is the place where our kids spend around half of their waking day from age 4 or 5 upwards. As such, it has the potential to have a massive impact on their lives.
My husband and I have tried to do the best by our kids. Judge us if you want, but, we moved to an affluent (read as mainly white) area before having them and made sure that we got them into a good school that, we are reliably informed, has produced good results. We wanted them to be able to mix with other children from families with similar values to ours and to keep them away from the trouble that is now so common in the areas that we both grew up in, those parts of London that are either in the process of, or scheduled for, gentrification (read as mainly non-white).
I remember going to the first ‘meet the Head teacher’ event for parents of children going into the Reception class (year 0) last year. Kid 1 was already in the school, so we knew the score. But, I was still keen to make new friends, for the sake of Kid 1+1, aka the one who always gets neglected. We were told that it was a ‘Strictly No Kids’ event. Parents and carers only. As we Black folk, in mainly white areas, tend to do, I scanned the room for the other Black parents.
Upon initial inspection, I spied two Black Mothers: one who was trying to placate her older child, who was probably tired and just wanted to leave at the earliest possible convenience, at the same time as trying to get her baby to just stop crying so that everyone else could hear what the Head teacher was saying, and the other who was trying desperately to avoid eye contact with anyone. My heart sank. I couldn’t be besties with someone with a newborn. She obviously had way too much going on to want to cultivate a new friendship with me and my way-beyond-the-newborn-stage Kid 1+1. And, the other Black Mother was clearly not looking to widen her friendship group right now. Just then, as quickly as all hope was lost, it was regained. I spotted them. The Other Black Couple. They looked relatively together and I could feel that their kid, whoever he/she was, would get on swimmingly with Kid 1+1.
I causally approached The Other Black Couple and kicked off a conversation with The Black Female. Lovely? Tick. Down to earth? Tick. Good sense of humour? Tick. I knew we would get on. Her partner was cool too. Tick! The future suddenly seemed so much brighter.
My kids’ school is two-form entry, which simply means that there are only two classes in every year group. I immediately asked the Black couple which class their kid was in. He was in the other class (read not the same class as Kid 1+1). My heart sank for the second time that night. No Black-school-parent-friends for me this year.
Moving forward a couple of weeks, and my kid started school. It materialised that not only was Kid 1+1 not in the same class as the child of The Other Black Couple, she was also the only Black child in her class and the only female, Black child in her year group. A group of sixty children and only one Black, female child? Apparently, this was the sacrifice that I had to make to get my children a good start in life. Affluent area = majority white area = majority white school = majority white classrooms = majority white teaching staff = no Black representation. For the third time in as many weeks, my heart sank. At that point, I seriously considered taking my kid out of the school and placing her in another setting with a more diverse mix of students, but my older kid was at the same school and she was thriving. I decided, on her behalf, to stick it out.
However, I started noticing things. She would flick her head to get the hair (that was nowhere near her eyes, btw) out of her eyes. She would talk about wanting her hair to ‘shake’. I spied her tucking her braids behind her ear. What the f*ck?! I began to wonder if I had made a mistake by keeping her in that school.
This brought to mind a conversation that I had had with a friend of mine. She too had been the only black girl in her class. Reminiscing on school days, she had once told me that her primary school years were the worst years of her life. One particular memory she recalled involved playing Kiss Chase with the (all white) boys in her class. If you are unfamiliar with this game, it is basically hide and seek, girls against boys, with the aim of finding the hidden players and kissing them (usually a simple peck on the cheek). It is a pretty innocent game, or at least it was back then. But, no girl wanted to be the girl that the boys weren’t running after. My friend soon realised that there was no point in her partaking in this game as none of the boys ever chased her, let alone gave her that all-important peck. She was actually told by her classmates that she should sit out as she was too ugly to play. She ended up sitting on her own, while the rest of her class enjoyed their games. It must have been devastating for her, especially during those formative years. To think that it is still something that she can recall so vividly today breaks my heart. This was, however, back in the early 1980s. Times were different then. London was less multicultural than it is now. I hope that things have improved since then.
So, anyway, back to my story. Life carried on very nicely for a long while. However, I still found myself bracing myself, waiting for that day when she would come home with tales of some kid calling her a Gollywog or something equally offensive, but that didn’t happen. I pray to God that it never happens. But, then, some months later, my child came home and asked me, “Mummy, why is there no one else like me in my class?” I asked her what she meant, and she explained that there were no other Black girls in her class. No-one had said anything, but she wasn’t stupid and she wasn’t blind. My mouth went dry, I felt a lead weight in the pit of my stomach and my mind went blank. But, then, I guess, protective mother mode kicked in, and I responded that she was the only Black girl in her class because she was special and unique. She asked me, “What’s unique, Mummy?” I responded, “Unique means that there is no-one else in the world like you. You are very precious, darling. Like a pirate’s treasure.” She replied, “Oh, ok”.
I have since wondered if I made the right decision, keeping my daughter in that school. She has done so well in her first year of big school – she is reading and writing well and has definitely matured significantly. She has lots of lovely friends. And, most importantly, she is happy. But, none of her school friends are Black. All of her teachers are white. The only non-white people she sees at school are the kitchen staff and the cleaners. And, not that there’s anything wrong with being kitchen staff or a cleaner, but it’s kind of irritating that this is the limited representation my kid sees at school. She literally has no-one in her class who looks like her, who she can bond with over chats about hair and skincare regimes; who she can share common experiences outside of the generic with; who she can truly identify with.
And this isn’t about white-bashing or race baiting. It’s about my child’s experience as a black female growing up in what is, some would have us believe, a multi-cultural London.
So, The Photographer and I reinforce her beauty every day. We tell her that her hair is amazing and explain why it is as curly as it is. We tell her that her eyes are not black, they are brown. We agree when she points out that her skin isn’t actually black either. We tell her how smart she is, but also that she must continue to work hard at school if she wants to be able to earn enough money to be able to continue to buy all the magazines that she loves so much. We arrange play dates with the children of our non-white friends, so that she knows that other non-white children exist and understands that they are just like her. We expose her to her heritage, so that she understands where her family comes from and can tell others. We find Black shows on YouTube and Netflix and we watch them together, as a family. She gets it. Both of our girls get it.
I titled this post a “How To” guide. Why? I’m not exactly sure as I certainly don’t have all of the answers. But, I guess I just want to let any parents of the only non-white child in their class know that you are not alone and it doesn’t have to become a problem. But, it does leave the onus on you to ensure that your child doesn’t feel either totally isolated or constantly under the spotlight. As we know, all kids are different – mine seem pretty resilient at the moment , but I will continue to monitor them closely. I would never want any child to feel like my Kiss Chase friend did when she was at school. To be fair, I wouldn’t want any adult to have to go through that either. We must do all we can to ensure that our kids understand their intrinsic value, regardless of what they see or hear at school.
P.S. I am actually quite friendly with both Black Mothers and The Other Black Couple mentioned above.