‘Waking Up’ to why Diversity Matters
It was a hot day in Bristol, England when I became conscious that my family wouldn’t always ‘fit in’.
Our eldest was only a year old and we were playing in our local playground, a predominantly white area but one that was upwardly mobile and perhaps considered ‘middle class’.
One years old and oblivious to the world around her. What race would eventually mean for her and her family- the struggles, opportunities, cultures or conflicts she might have to experience were far beyond her little imagination.
A child nearby, perhaps 4 or 5 years, commented on how he didn’t want to get too close, she was ‘dirty’.
It was said so flippantly. He was off to the monkey bars in the next moment. While I was left stood there, my heart bleeding for the pain my daughter might face in her later years.
Soon after, and with another daughter in tow, we made the decision to leave Bristol in search of what would be the perfect setting for our multiracial family.
Even within the black community, we hadn’t found our perfect rainbow, colourism became the new enemy…
We chose Nigeria not only because it is my partner’s childhood home but also because we knew that colour would never be an issue for them. Our daughters are all mixed race, a combination of Nigerian, English and Iranian ethnic makeups.
It was refreshing for me and for them to see and experience race in such a safe context. Racism didn’t exist. But instead, another ugly -ism reared its head again granting my daughters’ privilege based on their lighter skin colour and class.
We were granted passage where others weren’t, food, assistance, even compliments were dolled out exaggeratedly, almost as if my daughters’ hair and skin colour was something they’d achieved, and needed to be applauded rather than just part of who they were.
Class and colourism permeated much of our lifestyle and experience. Strangers would comment on the difference between my daughters’ shades of brown, suggesting (and not too subtlety) that lighter was better. In a society where skin bleaching is still a thing, I didn’t want my daughters growing up thinking their lives were worth more based on the colour of their skin.
I couldn’t help feeling we hadn’t quite found our perfect rainbow community.
Realising equity, diversity, inclusion are real and make a difference…
So it was off to London, England we went. Searching out the perfect setting for where our family could call home.
London has never been perfect- far from it. But a recent experience on holiday in Spain, revealed to me just how much diversity, class and equality are important to how comfortable we feel in a given place.
For a multiracial family, diversity is not just a ‘nice’ thing to do but influences the very essence of who and how our family lives, where we go, who we meet, where we work… the list goes on.
In Spain, we struggled to hail taxis, people did double takes when my husband approached, having no contextual understanding of a criminal who happens to be black and a black footballer. Race was synonymous with class and therefore a very delicate balance to navigate.
Another friend of mine in an unnamed European country suggested quite flippantly that getting stopped at the police checkpoint because of her husband who is black is routine for them. The anger and frustration her partner must have to deal with on a daily basis is mind boggling.
I write this not to lecture anyone but to emphasise the very essence of why diversity matters. Why representation is important. And why the place we choose to call ‘home’ is inevitably the place we will feel the most comfortable. The place where we can relax into thinking we are safe, we are accepted.
Not everywhere can reflect a rainbow of people and colours…
This doesn’t mean that you can’t and won’t go places where you’re in the minority. My daughter recently commented on the fact I was “the only Mummy without brown skin” at a Nigerian party. I told her that didn’t bother me, I didn’t feel out of place.
But if it was the norm, everyday? After all, my husband lives that reality everyday.
As humans, it’s in our DNA to seek out inclusion, to feel part of a group. That doesn’t have to be based on skin colour, but our chosen ‘group’ is often a reflection of our experience. I choose to have people around me who enjoy travel, who are exposed to different cultures and identities because it is so much a part of who I am and my children’s lives.
Having some role models, some form of reflection of ourselves in the groups we choose to associate with is so important for us to call it home.
Why does it matter so much?
Our children notice colour. They notice difference. I often hear the argument quoted back to me, ‘we’re all just part of the human race’. I wish it were that simple.
And I get it. If we lived in a perfect world where social norms, power, and privilege wasn’t structured so much around race (and if you disagree please do more research), then I’d be right there with you.
But our children do notice these things. My daughter, whose 8 wrote down that she wants to be a teacher when she grows up. A few days later, she came to me, having thought about this further, wanting to know why there aren’t any teachers at her school with brown skin?
The thought process that must have gone through her mind… Is this even possible for me? Why aren’t there more people who look like me? In the same way boys rule out teaching and nursing jobs from an early age and girls don’t often see science and mechanical careers as accessible to them, it works the same way with race.
Without an early intervention where parents intentionally seek out places and books, films and communities that look like them and their families, our children will only be exposed to a one-dimensional view of the world.
Inevitably this goes for both white and brown children. All of our children need diversity in their lives. So their story becomes more complicated… so they understand that there is more than just the single story. That’s why I love Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s talk about “The Danger of a Single Story”.
Growing up she was exposed to a single story- to books written only by American and English authors. Thus, her belief was that stories needed to reflect foreign characters who ate apples, who played in snow and who talked about the weather. She had no understanding or exposure of African authors or that she, a girl with curly Afro hair with brown skin could write about her own existence. She summarises it perfectly when she says we, as humans, and particularly as children are so impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story.
What does representation mean and why does it matter?
Things changed when she discovered African books. And so did the experience of my own three daughters. When my daughter came home, at 4 years old, crying because she wanted straight hair like me and lighter colour skin, I knew that she was drowning in the single story. Her teachers were white, the books she read, the shows that she watched and her mother, her biggest role model didn’t reflect what she looked like.
I couldn’t do anything about my white skin but I did know I needed to change something about the story she is exposed to. I went and ordered 20 books off Amazon, I deliberately pointed out shows, movie stars, actors, athletes and scientists who reflect who she is.
My daughter now knows that tennis, gymnastics, singing and acting is within reach because of the multitude of black and brown skinned women who have come before her such as Serena Williams, Simone Biles, Nicole Sherzinger and Yara Shahidi. She knows that she can be a doctor because the doctors we visit often tend to be Asian females. She knows that women can be fire officers, not because there are a lot of them in our neighborhood but because we make a point of highlighting the ones that we see. The list goes on.
Exposing children to a diverse community takes effort. At any given point, I know that my daughters could lose their belief in who they can be because they are surrounded by images and media that show them a different perspective. Men in suits, women at home in cleaning ads, brown skinned cleaners and waiters and scientists who are almost always white male.
Unashamedly, I am that annoying Mum in school who goes on about diversity in everything my children get exposed to. And it’s not because it’s a nice thing to do. But because it’s essential to their belief in themselves. And we chose London top call home because it offers us that privilege.