I’m writing an article for Your Baby magazine on how and when children become aware of race, and more specifically when and how they start categorising people by race and ascribing differences in them to race.
Felix started me off thinking about this topic because he was telling me about how his friends who are black are old. He noticed skin colour and reasoned that you grow darker as you grow older.
But it’s Richie that’s really got me stewing over the topic, because along with gender and sexual orientation, disability, like race, is one of the ways we di- (or tri-, or whatever) chotomise people into groups. And we live in a society that is deeply uncomfortable with the fact that we do just that. Even though we do. Obviously.
People like Richie have moved from being called crippled, handicapped, challenged, disabled, now it’s special needs, soon it will become “unusual needs” or “extraordinary needs” but likely we will then decide that this still stigmatises the disabled person into being somehow blamed for taking up extra resources, so we will rebrand them “people in interesting situations” and we’ll be right back to being as coy about disability as 18th century people were about pregnancy.
It is easy to understand where the fear comes in. People do not wish to offend and clearly the name you call someone can say much about your attitude towards them. But I do believe that we have become (too?) afraid of difference. Once again, it’s easy to see why. You lump a group of people together by race and decide they are collectively stupid and not worth educating or treating as equals, that is going to leave very deep scars and the damage needs generations, and a global mind-shift, to repair. Same for disabled people.
But I find it restrictive in my daily life. Difference need not have an undertone of moral judgement. If you are white, chances are a conspiratorial co-whitey has once said to you, “I’ve arranged my child’s birthday party but I have no idea who is coming because you know the black parents don’t RSVP.” Or insert whichever generalisation.
Now I understand this is a generalisation. But is it A) true and B) a moral judgement?
A – of course the statement is not true in every instance.
B – hey, imagine this? Maybe the statement doesn’t need to be condemning.
I would love to live in a country where the black moms can gossip to each other at the school gate: “Are you going to so-and-so’s party?” “Yes.” “Me too, just remember to arrive at 9.50, the party starts at ten and these whites are so anal about time, they tick your name off at the door and cancel your party pack if you’ve not collected it by 10.05! HAHAHAHAHAHA!”
It’s not true in every instance, but it need not be condemning. If we accept that different cultural groups can tend to, for a variety of reasons, have different approaches to the rules of socialising, or time-keeping, or whatever, we might feel less awkward about speaking about our differences.
Because the fact is we notice and react to those differences anyway, and our children definitely pick up on our attitidues.
Pretending there are no differences is not going to work. Our kids are too clever, plus it’s dishonest. Some differences are less loaded with judgement, of course: differences in foods eaten or languages spoken. But we can’t in all honesty teach our children that people differ only in the languages they speak and the food they eat, and that there are no subtler sociocultural cues to indicate to which group you belong. The rules pertaining to visiting people in Soweto, Sandton or Stanger are still different.
Ja, but so you “allow” people to speak about difference and they inevitably start speaking shit. The sentiment that “blind people make accommodations that allow them to navigate the world. Some of these look remarkably similar and have even been called blindisms” leads too easily to the hokey-pokey, stigmatising and mysterising (is that a word?) “blind people have this amazing sixth sense that only they have, and that’s how they manage in the world”. Which is a dangerous statement because it’s uneducated unscientific bullshit, and minimises the fact that blindness is both a deep loss and a gigantic daily pain in the arse.
Can I just say at this point how truly delighted I am that Richie is at the school he is at? An acknowledgement to the place is way overdue. Of course they might and should use Richie as a carrot to draw other “special needs” kids to the school (because they are able to accommodate them and wish to be inclusive). But Richie himself never feels like he’s there as a freak or an oddity or singled out.
It’s taking us a while to figure out how to be comfortable talking to people about Richie and spina bifida. Richie’s every step takes him about four times as much effort as any other kid. He falls down all the time. It’s okay to feel sorry for him about that. Not being able to dictate when you piss or shit is, yes, both a fundamental loss plus a gigantic daily pain in the arse. But I wouldn’t like it if people ascribed characteristics to Richie’s condition that have nothing to do with his condition. And that’s a slippery slope – is Richie brave because of spina bifida or because he’s a plucky little guy? Did he talk early because he had to walk late?
Is Tshepo late to the party because his mom keeps “African time”? Or is he in fact not “late” at all, only forced into this description by the dominant (white) discourse? Is John’s mom inhospitable by insisting on specific arrival and departure times? Are we all locked into our cultural expectations, or can we sometimes peek out of our enclosed room, around the corner, and see a somewhat wider world? And lastly, are we ready to stop taking some of it so damn seriously?
In the middle of this monumental muddle, how DO we talk to our children about race?
(I will be extremely grateful for comments, please, advise, anecdotes about your children, funny stories, own experiences with this. However, I will probably ask at least some of you if I may include your stories.)