Last week my daughter started primary school. Barely four years old, it seems far too soon for her to be already enrolled in formal education. She thinks otherwise: every day she’s practically run to school, delighted by her classroom, her wonderful playground, her teacher and her classmates. 60% of whom, by the way, don’t have English as their first language. Data on ethnicity isn’t made publicly available as far as I can see, but drop off and pick up make it clear that there are not many white faces in the crowd.
This is nothing new for our daughter, who previously attended a wonderful nursery led by the indefatigable Liz Kerr, where currently 87% of the registered children are black. Managing a nursery established by her mother, Liz has been tireless in making a space that not only welcomes but really celebrates BME heritages. As she blogs:
It is not good enough to dismiss the importance of intersectionality because you are a well meaning Nursery Manager who says things like “We don’t see colour here! All of our children are the same to us” or “Why does it matter so much, all the children are happy and we’re not racist!” We must examine how to be actively anti-discriminatory in our practice and we must work to ensure that necessary training is not just delivered within the area of intersectional theory but is embedded within the practices of our settings.
For me that means that the children who attend must not only see themselves reflected in the practitioners but must also see how the importance of collaborative partnerships amongst people who all look different, speak with different accents and who express their religions, gender identities and abilities can all share commonalities as well as feel confident and unashamed to express their differences.
Liz’s nursery is a nurturing space that has also provided excellent preparation for primary school in terms of social and physical development as well as early numeracy and literacy skills. It is rated Outstanding by Ofsted. It’s unsurprising that many black parents in Birmingham are willing to drive past closer nurseries to bring their children to Edgbaston Park.
What I have found striking – though not surprising – is how few white parents have done the same. For those of you not familiar with the UK system – nurseries are primarily privately owned, and so you can register your child wherever you like and there’s space; it’s a bit different from the state school system where you will tend to send your kid to one of the schools closest to home because that’s how the catchments work! So really, any of the white parents in our area could choose to register their child at Edgbaston Park, which let me reiterate is graded as Outstanding, has good facilities, and has fees in line with other nurseries in the area. But white parents do not send their kids there. When our daughter started, there were a couple of other white kids on the roll; at the time she left she was the only white child there. When I’ve mentioned this to other white people, I can see they’ve been made uncomfortable by it. Aren’t I worried my daughter will stand out? Wouldn’t it be nicer if there were more kids like her?
But my daughter sees herself reflected everywhere. On TV, in picture books, and across the city. At nursery there was never any sign that she felt picked on or left out for her skin colour. Like all small children, she notices differences but doesn’t see them as a reason for hatred or fear. Instead she has happily asked to be Vaselined and Nivea-creamed alongside her friends, cheerfully munched on plantain (I have envied her nursery lunches!!) and as part of activities intended to celebrate natural hair came home with beads in her own red locks. Our daughter’s racial identity has not required uplifting – it is uplifted every day by society. But her friends at nursery will see their own ethnic identities denigrated in daily British life, and so early years teaching that celebrates their identities will hopefully give them pride and resilience as they grow up.
Our daughter has left Edgbaston Park as a child so ready for school she’s hurried us out of the door each day for the past week. Her new classmates are from a different demographic again – our nearest neighbours are primarily of Asian and Asian British origin, and our school’s small catchment means that the school population reflects that. Just like when we chose Edgbaston Park, we picked it because of its atmosphere, the energy and care shown by the teachers we met, and the facilities. As white parents, my husband and I have found the ethnic make up of both nursery and school to be a bonus, not a bug.
I see a lot of well-meaning social media posts from white parents handwringing over racism and wondering how to bring up non-racist kids. There are lots of picture books earnestly recommended, and activities recommended for cultural enrichment. These are good things to do! But if there are no people of colour in your child’s life, BME people will continue to just be illustrations in books. They will default to thinking of “people” as “people like me”. 87% of the UK population is white. It’s an easy position to default to. But the absolute best way for children to learn about people of different ethnicities, religions and races is to socialise with them. Maybe you live in a part of the country where nearly everyone is white. Talk about that with your kids. Make sure you are visiting places and doing activities that are not just filled with other white people. If you have no friends of your own who are BME, have a long think about why that is. My husband and I work in very white-dominated industries (law and academia respectively). It’s one reason I’m really glad we live in a white-minority area of Birmingham, which happened by accident ( due to needing to relocate quickly we bought our house in a big hurry, with fairly cursory research on the area) but which has been beneficial for us in lots of ways.
I don’t want or expect any kudos for these decisions. Being on twitter a lot has made me keenly aware of how white people are really great at taking over conversations about race and getting lots of kudos for talking about racism. But I thought it was worth setting down a few thoughts about low key, practical, yet still potentially radical things we can do as white parents to bring up kids who are – let’s be completely frank – less racist than us. We are all carrying around so much cultural baggage that no matter how woke we are, we’ve all internalised racist rhetoric it will take a lifetime to unpack. With our kids, let’s try to find ways to give them less to unpack in the first place. And that will hopefully mean that they will not unwittingly – or knowingly – make their classmates of colour’s lives harder at the same time. It should be a win for everyone, right? So next time you and your kid are in a space where you are the only white people, embrace it. If you feel uncomfortable, own it. It might, after all, give you a little insight into how your BME neighbours feel in most spaces in Britain. Kids, I’ve found, are really good at being naturally empathetic. Some of us grown ups could use a refresher course. This might be a good place to start.