Kids & Parenting

A “How To” Guide: When yours is the only non-white child in the classroom…

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.

Cee x

 

P.S. I am actually quite friendly with both Black Mothers and The Other Black Couple mentioned above.

 

17 thoughts on “A “How To” Guide: When yours is the only non-white child in the classroom…

  1. Thanks so much for sharing your blog post with me. There are so many things we must consider when we place our children in school. I am going through something similar as I think of where I want my oldest to go for middle school next year. I want her to go to an academically challenging and rigerous school with a good reputation but I cringe just thinking of her being the only kid of color, or one of the very few kids of color at her school. Maybe it’s because I’m so sensitive but I just see that is so spirit crushing. I’ve even started thinking of home-schooling, even thought I work outside the home. Her current school is pleasant yet mediocre. It’s about 85% white (eye-roll) which is about as ‘diverse’ as you can get around here without being in a school that has no white children at all. What a world we live in, yes?

    1. No, thank you for sharing your story and prompting me to post! It’s bonkers that in 2017 this has to even be a consideration. Much love and wishing you strength for your decision-making 💛

  2. Read this earlier but didn’t know what to say, still don’t but I feel very sad about it. I hope that in time it turns out you made the right decision. Choosing for your children is so hard and I’m not sure as a parent you ever feel 100% with your decisions. Kid 1 + 1 is an awesome kid and u sound like a truly amazing mum xx

    1. You don’t need to say anything hun, but thank you for ‘feeling’ something. Like I keep saying, people like you restore my faith xx

  3. I feel teary because I recall the kiss chase, sadly it wasn’t just the white boys it was the black too because colourism is real and my features are not reminiscent of Europe. I am heartened by your approach and the fact that you have shared this post. Parents of all races need to actively encourage the idea of inclusivity, that difference should be celebrated and before anything, ANYTHING we are humans first. It it not enough to say “I love everyone” because of the situation the world has been in since it was decided that humans that don’t originate from Europe are less valuable. Because the notion of non white being less than and black being even more less than we all have to assertively promote a genuine push for equality and this push may mean that some people need more and some people need to take less so that equality is truly equal. Tell 1 and 1+1 that I would catch them ALL the time if we played kiss chase… although I wouldn’t kiss… that would be weird! <3

  4. This is such a a hard decision to make. I grew up in an affluent area, there were four non white kids in my school the whole time I was there – me, Ronke, Satvinder and Ravinder. Sadly Sat died and we were down to three. I loved school and my friends were fab, it wasn’t until I was much older that I felt I missed out on so much. I came to London hungry for people who looked like me. Now with 23 year old and a 10 year old I know for us being within walking distance of a barber shop and a ghetto nail salon are what makes me happy. You are probably braver than me and my mother was a totally useless one and there was no heritage or culture in our house. My cultural needs could easily been met, you’re doing what my mother didn’t. As for kiss chace – the boys in my school were rank and they never looked at me and I never at them. It was school, 8 hours a day – that does not shape your entire world – your mother does that and it sounds like your doing a wonderful job.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Denise. I’m not braver than you at all. Sounds like you’re doing what your mother didn’t too xx

  5. I went having only one white girl in my class at primary school to being the only black in my class at secondary school. My parents tried to prepare us in the way they knew how. I didn’t feel pretty at all, but not because of the other kids at school but because of the carribean kids calling me an African boo boo in primary school. I agree we need to tell our children how wonderful and unique they are so they believe it and anyone else can sod off!

    1. So sad…that Caribbean/African rivalry also occurred in my school. I’m hoping it doesn’t happen as much nowadays. There’s enough ignorance without us compounding it! Thank you for your comment xx

  6. Thanks for sharing this Cee….it makes me feel sad that we are still even having to talk about this as I had thought that these kind of issues were a thing of the past, and they’re just not. I went from a mixed race central London primary school to a mono-ethnic secondary school and i immediately felt weird and wondered what was going on. Then I went to edinburgh uni and realised that London is a very different story to the rest of the country. My ex-boyfriend was from a very white part of Yorkshire and went to a very white grammar school, and he always maintained that people are conditioned to see the “other” and notice someone’s skin colour first above anything else. I always fought bitterly with him over this point as I totally didn’t agree, and think it was mainly due to my primary school experience where we were all just the same, and I guess lack of “exposure” made him keenly aware of difference – however intellectually he proclaimed that he wasn’t racist.
    I have an interesting flipside experience with Maurice, which I am really glad about – in the part of Peckham where I am, the demographic is mainly African, with growing Hispanic and Polish communities. Maurice was one of only two white kids in a group of 30 in his pre-school, and that ratio is fairly common for primary schools in the area (although with _eye roll – gentrification, this will no doubt change in my immediate area in the next few years). What I found interesting about it was that, apart from when I lived in Japan and I definitely experienced racism due to being “other”, where someone would sit down next to me on the train, look and realise I was a foreigner then get up and walk away as if it was catching, was that it was the first time I had ever been in a position of not being in the majority, and therefore I hadn’t ever understood my “privilege” in that respect. I say “I”, because Maurice was aware but totally unaware of any difference. He knew he was white and his classmates were black, but didn’t feel anything particularly odd/amiss with the situation. As it should be.
    I don’t know what the story will be for his next school but for now his current primary school is healthily balanced. What for him will be interesting is when he goes to different parts of the country and notices that this isn’t representative of everywhere. We have friends who moved to Tunbridge Wells and it makes me feel uneasy thinking of the lack of diversity that they’re around.
    I’m not being very articulate sorry, my brain is a bit fried after book writing. I just wanted to send a message and a hug.
    God…I had forgotten about kiss chase!? xxx

    1. Thank you so much for responding Anya! I don’t know what happened, but I have only just seen this. So sorry! You must have thought I was ignoring you. I wasn’t!! A friend of mine in HK at the moment, shared similar experience about being the other and feeling similarly to me about her child being the only white child in the classroom! I wish so badly that we had a healthy balance at the girls’ school. Might have to consider moving to Peckham, eh? Well, at least until the gentrification turns it into Brixton *side eyes* Lots of love and hope your book writing brain is a bit less frazzled xxx

  7. I can understand that is must be a worry for you. But it sounds like you are doing a brilliant job of introducing your girls to your own culture as well as helping them to adapt to the culture around them. I grew up in an area where white people were in the minority and by the time my brother went through the school, he was the only white boy in his class. It’s tough to be different. But I think (and hope) that people are becoming more and more used to seeing people who are different and just seeing them as people. We’re still a long way from being perfected, but times are changing and there is hope.

    Also, congratulations because someone loved this post so much, they added it to the #blogcrush linky! Feel free to collect your “I’ve been featured” blog badge! #blogcrush

  8. Cee!! Omg this is the same situation that I am in. We live in Dulwich so it is mainly non black children. Ahaziah is the only fully black boy in his class, there are 2 black girls and one mixed race boy who he is really good friends with. When I was in school it was similar there wasn’t much black children but I remember looking up to sister sister wanting my hair to be like theirs so lucky for me I didn’t want straight hair like the friends I have. I remember when I started working in a school locally, similar situation not many black children. During the holiday’s the children came back saying they were riding elephants in Thailand and nursery children going to Japan. Thats when I decided that my child is no different to his white counterparts and he is able to live the same life and travel and explore the world. I have a lot of friends and family which we see often so he is able to relate to them culturally.

    1. Thanks for sharing this, Nahdia. I’m so glad the kids at your school have you as a role model too. There are no black members of teaching staff at the girls’ school, which is a massive shame. I love that you take your boys travelling. It is so important that they see and experience other cultures. I’m so proud of all that you do x

  9. Such an enlightening post as I can relate to everything on here. To be fair, I feel black people should come out more. We should be more active and involve ourselves in activities. Our race is still a minority race in this country so being the only black kid in an all white background is going to be uncomfortable and common. Like for instance, were you live is predominantly white populated. Most black people don’t live there so it’s going to be a sensitive issue for you and your kids. I’m equally going through that issue now as where I live is predominantly white and my daughter’s nursery has a few blacks but all in different classes. So my game plan is to take her to a preschool when she turns 4 that is multicultural. A catholic preschool to be precise because another issue I’m having is the lack of Christianity or love of God in what is supposed to be a Christian country (I’m not being religious) but coming from Nigeria my views about God are evergreen and I want my kids to be involved in that life path. So my dear, I know some people are racist but some are good and just need more diversity

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