By Gillian Shackleton
My mother has a vivid memory of me at 14 years old. I arrived home from school one day and announced to my parents that children have rights. I told them that they were wrong for having smacked me when I was younger. We must have been learning about children’s rights at school. I don’t remember the conversation, but it sounds like something I would have said.
Like most teenagers, I took pleasure in challenging my parents and testing out new ideas in the relative safety of my family. My sister and I initiated many polemics with our parents over the years, but I don’t remember discussing racism. My avoidance of the topic wasn’t due to ignorance. I am mixed race and was born in Australia only a few years after the end of the ‘White Australia Policy’. I was teased repeatedly and often in school for being Asian. It was made clear to me that being Asian was ‘bad’. I can’t remember a time in my childhood when I didn’t fear that someone might ask ‘Where are you from? Are you Asian?’ Those questions and the general anti-Asian sentiment in Australia of the 1980s made me feel I was lesser and didn’t belong in my home country. I suspect that experiencing racism as a child damages self-esteem and identity more profoundly than it does when experienced for the first time as an adult. As a child, I had no tools to defend myself. I had no sense of rage at the injustice of my treatment, nor any pride in my ethnicities. I just accepted my lower status and felt ashamed of my difference at an age when nothing was more important than belonging.
My Dad would proudly retell people what I would say when asked ‘What are you?’ I would say, ‘My mum’s Chinese, my Dad’s Hungarian-Scottish but I’m Australian’. He didn’t hear the defensiveness in my assertion that I belonged, even if my parents did not. He liked to believe that his daughters were growing up in a post-racial, post-feminist meritocracy. The world was our oyster and we could do or be whatever we wanted. It was what my teachers told us too. It was a nice idea, but that idealistic wish and a few generations of multicultural classrooms failed to result in an equal society free from racial discrimination. It’s time to address the elephant in the room. Let’s talk about race at school.
We need to consider how to present issues of racial inequality at school without demoralising those children who belong to marginalised groups. We also need to support those children who feel bad after realising they benefit from the legacy of people who became wealthy by gravely mistreating other people. We need to ensure that after informing children, we invite them to challenge the status quo, not inadvertently reinforce and reproduce existing ideas on racial hierarchy. It is a difficult balance to achieve. No wonder it has languished in the ‘too hard’ basket for so long.
My son is a student at Ecolint. He is a person with dwarfism. As much as I wish the world was a place where he would be treated just like people of average height, I would be doing him a disservice to lead him to expect that. I feel I have an obligation to tell him to expect to be treated differently and poorly by some people some of the time; but simply being honest with him does nothing to move us towards the world that I wish for him. Marginalised people can advocate for themselves but they can’t achieve societal shifts in attitude in a vacuum. Everyone needs to be at least aware and at best be striving towards a society that provides equal opportunity and fair treatment for all. Wishing and hoping are simply not enough.
Had the ideas of anti-racism, white privilege and their genesis been presented to me at school, they would have helped me better understand my racist experiences and would have provided me with language to discuss them. I think all children deserve to be presented with the truth of their relative disadvantage or privilege and to understand why it is so. With that knowledge they can conceive a world they prefer and consider how we might move towards it. I hope you will encourage our school to discuss race with our kids and let them take these challenging ideas home to discuss with you.