As I was driving the children home the other day, we saw a man of African ethnicity sweating profusely as he performed his job of using a large hooked stick to manually dredge a pond to remove dense amounts of algae and pond weed. “What a horrible job!” I exclaimed. It was a statement not a question, so I did not expect any response, but to my surprise after a pause a small voice shouted back “He should go back to his own country”.
I nearly crashed the car in horror. I am sure that those words sear into the flesh of any ethnic minority person in this country and many others. When I was growing up, “Go back to your own country” was almost as popular a schoolyard taunt as “Ching Chong Chinaman”. In fact “Go back to where you came from Ching Chong Chinaman” was probably a favourite. How in heaven had I, who prided myself in liberal leanings managed to raise a child sprouting mantra more akin to UKIP (right wing political party in the U.K.) manifesto than Hampstead socialism?
“What do you mean? Why did you say that?” I asked Big Sis tentatively. Mental images of the sanctimonious telling off I was going to give to her friend, friend’s parents, teachers, babysitters, and anyone else who she might have had contact with that might have contaminated her with this right wing view.
“Because of what you said.”
“What? When?” I demanded, having never held such views in all my life.
“Two weeks ago when we were doing maths homework”
The blood drained from my face in realisation. This was the conversation that we had had two weeks prior:
Big Sis: “Why do I have to do this anyway?”
Me: “Because it’s your homework.”
Big Sis: “Yes but it’s so boring, why do we need to do maths.”
Me: “Because if you don’t learn to do maths or to read, then you won’t be able to get a good job. You’ll have to clean toilets or other people’s houses.”
Big Sis: “Does that mean Terri can’t read or do maths?”
Terri was our lovely cleaner who came on an ad hoc basis and also helped with babysitting, I certainly did not want Big Sis lording it up over her. Ferocious back pedalling required.
Me: “No Terri is very clever but she didn’t grow up in this country. So she can read and write and do maths very well, but only in her own language. Because she decided to move to this country, she can’t read or write or do maths so well in English, which is why she has to clean our house.”
Big Sis seemed to accept this explanation, so with relief she finished her homework.
From this innocent conversation, Big Sis had decided that people who had moved here from another country should go back to their own countries in order to have better jobs. Seeing the African man doing a back-breaking job, she figured that he could read, write and do maths and therefore had better job prospects in his “own country”.
From this, I concluded: IT IS SO HARD TO EXPLAIN SOCIAL PROBLEMS TO CHILDREN!
Give me scientific questions like “What’s a rainbow?” (white light split into its composite colours by prism shaped raindrops) and “Why is grass green?” (chlorophyll) any day. How to explain social inequality, poverty, racism? Tricky! Given relief that at least Big Sis was not a bigoted racist, I wimped out of explaining the other difficult questions (e.g. why should she assume that someone with brown skin was not from this country?) and issues that might arise that would require explanation of the world’s skewed distribution of wealth, immigration, asylum seeking, social class and racism. It’s so hard – I’m imagining something like this:
Me: People can’t always go back to their own countries, because there is probably a good reason why they left.
Big Sis: Why?
Me: Maybe the government want to put them in prison.
Big Sis: What’s government?
Me: Umm, the people that decide the rules in a country.
Big Sis: You mean the police?
Me: Something like that, the police make sure people do what the rules say.
Big Sis: Is he a baddie then? Did he steal something?
Me: No he is a good person. OK, that’s not the reason he left his country. Maybe he can’t get a good job in his country.
Big Sis: He can’t read?
Me resorting to head banging.
Anyone who has read “Nurture shock” [by Po Branson & Ashley Merryman] will know that children do not just soak up politically correct ideas from society without explanations. Often they can come to their own conclusions (often warped) if not explicitly explained, so it needs to be done. As I carried on the journey home, I wondered if Big Sis had made such comments at school or elsewhere, telling the school cleaners to “Go back to their own country” or something. Mortificado! Clearly this talking to children business needs more thought. I will definitely explain it properly to the children. Just need to think how…
Anyone with good ideas, please help!