It was the moment I dreaded. Today my daughter came home recounting her day with the casual tone she adopts when talking about homework.
“Mummy, I made a secret club today! Brown skin and blonde girls only”.
At the mention of skin colour, my head turned. But instead of the usual defensive lioness I’ve become so used to at the mention of anyone excluding her for being brown, I had to do a double take.
“What??? Why would you?… Who??….”, my voice tailed off. Realising she’d included blonde girls, I calculated that most of her friends were actually probably included- even with this strange entry requirement.
All except one. “Were all your friends allowed to join then?”, I asked carefully. “Yes”, she said. “Except N…”
My heart dropped. Just as I feared. One of her friends who didn’t play with her that often but who was often on the periphery of her little group was unfortunate to have brown hair.
My daughter was obviously oblivious to her error. In fact, she looked at me curiously to see why I might be so concerned.
What do you do and how do you say it? My automatic anti-racist, discrimination-hating, scary-Mum instinct was about to be unleashed where I lecture my daughter about everything that’s wrong with excluding someone because of their skin colour.
And yet I knew that if I scared my daughter with my reaction, what would be the impact on any future conversations about race?
Would she want to bring up any more moments where race and skin colour come up and would she feel comfortable to know that she can ask anything- even if it is offensive?
Because keeping that conversational door open is one of the most important things to me. That she knows that she can ask anything of us- her parents- even if she suspects it’s not a comfortable subject for many.
We talk about race and heritage and colour because it’s there. Not because we want to make a big deal of it but because it’s there. And we don’t have a choice.
Fortunately, the people who make up my daughter’s entire world are all different colours so I didn’t have to travel far to get her to understand.
“You do know that your rules mean that I couldn’t join your secret club”.
Armed with this new revelation, she seemed to pause and agreed quickly to change the rules so that blonde, brown and black hair, white skin and brown skin could be included.
In Shakil Choudhury’s recent ground-breaking book on diversity, he spells it out for us that our human brain is predisposed to be empathetic to those who are most like us. But as her immediate circle is made up of multiple skin colours and features, I knew that her concept of ‘us’ was unlikely to be limited.
So I didn’t harp on about the colour aspect. The incident that happened today could have happened to any kid, of any colour. For my daughter, it could well have been glasses, no glasses, brown hair, blonde hair or black hair, as long as her chosen friends were included.
In those next few moments, I chose to talk about exclusion as it happens to us all, not about colour specifically.
“Why would you want to exclude N***?”, I asked her.
“Is she mean?”
She didn’t really have an answer. Perhaps because it was easy to exclude N***. And because her best friends were all blonde-haired or brown-skinned.
I continued. Today, you’re in control of the club but tomorrow, it may be those very same kids who exclude you because of your curly hair or your nose or your shirt or… your skin colour.
“How would you feel if…”
Pausing, she said she understood. And she felt bad, I could tell. She’s not a mean kid and I know she’s been known to stand up to bullies and other kids who turn on others. But what happened today, she was reminded of who she is and what she stands for.
So proud was she of her ‘secret’ club and the fact that she’d come up with rules to make it even more exclusive (probably inspired by the recent episode of Peppa Pig), she’d forgotten how it felt to be left out.
Tomorrow she’ll go in and apologise to her friend. She’s done with secret clubs for now, she says. And she’s got a renewed incentive to be kinder and to ensure everyone gets included in her circle. Because when encouraged to imagine themselves in the others’ shoes, children don’t need much encouragement to change their behaviour.
I hope that my daughter got the lesson. I certainly did not think I’d be having this conversation with her, especially at 5 years old. But, then again, I’m glad it happened and I can understand better when young children do make judgements and decisions based on skin colour.
Later, it may become more sinister and I’m ready for those conversations. But it’s a reminder that in this racialised world, none of us are perfect and we’re learning along the way. Talking about race is not taboo, nor should we scare our children or run away from such conversations. Even when they surprise us with the most unimaginable.