What I Know About Racism
As per usual, all views and experiences are my own. If your views and experiences are different from mine, it’s okay.
So, what do I know about racism? The short answer would be, 'Bugger all'. Alternatively, pull up a chair, grab your preferred beverage and have a listen to the longer answer.
I am blessed and privileged. I am white. I can blend with ease. You might have noticed, I have a name that sounds a bit German.
When I was at primary school I was called Herman the German. Not such a big deal. In adulthood, a friend from primary school reflected that this might not have been very kind and apologised. I was touched that she reflected on it at felt the need to apologise. It was several hundred years ago. I was over it.
At secondary school in year 7 French class we were learning those essential basics: 'My name is...' And, 'I was born in...' I was born in Germany. A hilariously witty child called me a nazi for the remainder of my time at school. And encouraged others to do so - admittedly, with little success. Boo hoo, poor me. My biggest regret was that I didn't just lie. In my 11 year old defence, I just hadn't anticipated it would be a big deal.
What was especially problematic with being called a nazi for the entirety of my time at secondary school is that I am of Ukrainian Jewish heritage.
Fast forward a few years and aged 20 I'm working in Germany and whilst I don't look 'different' my German language skills certainly give me away in shops, etc... So I had people mutter 'bloody foreigner' at me a few times. Again, boo hoo. Then I worked in France for an insanely racist and illogical woman who used to chunter on to me at length about 'bloody foreigners'. One day I felt compelled to tell her I was in fact foreign. She said, 'Ah but you're white'. I kept quite about the Ukrainian Jewish bit. I didn't stay in the job long since she was batshit crazy, racist and dysfunctional. Deep joy.
How privileged am I?! I was able to leave a shitty job.
Fast forward quite a few years more and I'm a mum. Those of you familiar with my tendency to over share will know I have an amazing daughter who I cooked in my very own lady oven. I also have an amazing son who was cooked in his tummy mummy’s lady oven. We talk about tummy mummy’s a lot in our house.
When our fabulous son joined our family I was shocked at how strangers responded to him. I have never had reason to be shocked at the response of strangers around my daughter.
One possible factor might be that his neurodiversity is more obvious than my daughter’s. She is highly accomplished at masking. I’d go so far as to say overachieving.
The other factor is that he is of dual heritage. Tummy mummy is white and British. Tummy daddy - yes, that’s a thing, is Nigerian and *gasp* not white.
When he first joined us we were living in an area with a diverse population. It wasn’t diverse. We lived in a ‘nice’ part of the city and the ‘diverse’ population lived in the crappy part of town.
A woman working on a check out in a supermarket felt like it was okay to ask me if both of my kids were mine. She might have been just plain nosey or a teeny tiny bit racist. I suggested the following options in explanation for my non matching children, I’m A) a bit slutty, B) an adopter/foster carer, or C) both. She had the decency to look a bit embarrassed, opted for B) and recovered with an, ‘Oooo aren’t you marvellous’. It was quite the transformation from slutty to marvellous.
Then, there was the dreadful old baggage at the theatre. Our little man is something of a culture vulture. We went to watch the Nutcracker ballet. When I booked the tickets I checked the access statement with the theatre, I explained that our young man can be excitable, impulsive, exuberant and could we have seats on the end of a row near an exit in case we found it all a bit much. The lady who took my booking could not have been more helpful. We did a lot of preparation about what we could expect and what the behaviour expectation was - good sitting, good listening, etc...
Our little man sat like a model citizen. At the interval an older woman sitting behind us felt compelled to inform me that I shouldn’t have taken him to watch the ballet. I asked her if her concern was that he has learning disabilities or that he isn’t white. I went on to quote a bunch of laws at her for good measure.
When people behave inappropriately towards our little man I am pathologically unable to let it go unchallenged. At the very least I feel I need to call it out and name it for what it is. Sometimes people feel so secure in their opinions that they never consider there may be another version of reality. For this reason I try to be kind in my confrontation. In my experience, most people do not mean to be an arsehole. They just didn’t ever think about or question their position.
Once we were on holiday in Paris with a wonderful and long suffering friend. A couple of times people got a bit of a surprise because they were speaking negatively about my son in French and I called them out on it. In French. On one of these occasions our friend (possibly a little exasperated) said, ‘Did you have to? Tyler didn’t care’. This was a really great point. Why do I go round getting in fights on Tyler’s behalf if he actually doesn’t care? And I suppose the answer for me is that I never want Tyler to feel like this is normal or acceptable or something that he should ever be expected to just put up with. I absolutely, believe in choosing my battles carefully or I will either burn myself out or become that person who is so constantly primed for confrontation that I can pick a fight in an empty room. Neither of those will be of benefit to Tyler.
We now live in a small town in Wales. It’s very white. Everyone knows Tyler. He stands out. There aren’t many dual heritage kids in our town. He is also a bit of a character. Since we have lived here we have had 0 racist incidents. Although, I did have a very surreal conversation with his psychiatrist about Tyler’s immigration status. I explained that Tyler is more British than I am.
What I have noticed about living in Wales is that when Tyler hears people speaking Welsh in shops or cafes and he joins in, in Welsh, people are so thrilled they don’t seem to notice what colour his skin is. Welshness doesn’t seem to rely much on skin colour - it seems to be more about cultural identity - in my limited experience.
So, what is the best way to protect and prepare our little man for the challenges he is likely to face. In our house, no conversations are off limit. If I feel uncomfortable about a subject, that’s for me to deal with. Same goes for their dad. The Horrible Histories TV series and books are excellent. They cover empire, slavery and colonialism. If we feel uncomfortable about discussing the less pleasant eras of history, and there are so many, let Horrible Histories do it for you. Watch or read with your kids so you are on hand to field any questions. If you don’t know the answers that’s okay too. We’re all learning together.
Acknowledging that people have been and still are treated appallingly is really important. Acknowledging the ongoing damage to communities is really important. What we know about trauma and intergenerational trauma is really important. When we talk about breaking cycles of abuse, dysfunction, deprivation we don’t often include racism.
People get very touchy and defensive about institutional and systemic racism. If we are part of institutions and systems that are racist in nature or practice does this mean we ourselves are racist? No. So, let’s try to put our own defensiveness to one side whilst we get a good look at the centuries of history that have lead us to where we are now.
Is there anything we can do to improve the situation? Is there any way we can support our families, friends, colleagues in a way that doesn’t make it all about us? Oh, poor us, we might feel uncomfortable thinking about the fact that our ancestors undoubtedly benefited from the enslavement of others. Can we simply say we see you. We care. What you are experiencing is not okay. It’s not your fault. We need to work on this.
You know how my lovely friend from primary school remembered that at school she used to call me Herman the German and with the benefit of hindsight and being an adult and a parent thought maybe it wasn't kind and said sorry even though several hundred years had passed and I was actually okay with it. Yes, that. Only, you know, with regard to slavery, empire, colonialism and all the generations of trauma intrinsically entailed.
Sadly, it is unlikely that I am immortal, I will not always be around to call out racism on Tyler’s behalf. When I feel powerless, when I feel like a situation is just to big or too old, or too entrenched for me to make a difference I do my best to educate myself and to bear witness. When people behave inappropriately towards Tyler I want him to understand that their response is the product of hundreds of years of dysfunctional society and is not his fault nor his responsibility.