Holding up a mirror

In one of my first blog posts: ‘the liberating rollercoaster, I wrote about how I found “the innocent questions” [from children] “why is your skin brown?” or the rubbing of their little fingers on my brown ones to see the effect, cathartic. My love for them, and theirs for me was a healthy tangible nail in the coffin of difference and division.” A recent Twitter post made me think of this again. During an interview Jennifer Eberhardt, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, described how she was on an aeroplane with her 5 year old son when he suddenly declared “that man looks like daddy”. She explains that she looked around noticing there was only one black man on the plane and before she could explain to her son that not all black people look the same he said, “I hope he doesn’t rob the plane.” When she asked him why he’d said that as his father wouldn’t rob the plane, he looked upset and declared that he didn’t know why he said, or even thought that. When Professor Eberhardt was asked why she thought her son had made that statement she explained that he was “out in the world” just “absorbing” the social cues and clues around him, trying to make sense of his social world. Off my squiggling thoughts went on their merry way as I listened and tried to make sense of this (and my resulting conclusions), by drawing connections to my own experiences…I am not sure if this will make sense to others as it does to me, but here goes…

I remember when I worked in a small pack-away setting many years ago, sitting at the play dough table with a 3 year old boy leaning against me. As small children are wont to do, he sought a connection with me, a secure adult, not just through our talk but by physical contact. I always think my cuddly nature, is transmitted to children through my warm laughing eyes, and soft podgy body. I love that feeling as a child leans in to you, or you suddenly notice a small hand in yours. It is such an honour to have that trust placed in you. Anyway there we were, enjoying our connection and our play. I was rolling the pink dough on the table into a long thin sausage, and then poking my fingers in. It was scented with lavender, and as I pushed my fingers into that soft dough, the smell wafted towards me. Next to me the boy was watching my hands and I remember wondering if this was in order to copy my movements. Suddenly he put his finger in his mouth; I thought to taste the salty home-made playdough taste, but instead he rubbed his wetted fingers on the back of my hand and started rubbing vigourously. I laughed, “what are you doing?” and next came the question that was repeated often by small children over the years, “Why is your skin brown?” There was an audible gasp from behind me. A colleague had overheard the question: “you mustn’t say that ‘x’, it’s rude.” I smiled and put his hand on top of mine “No, that’s a good question. My skin is this colour, and your skin is that colour. Let’s go and look in the mirror at our faces too.” So we spent some time talking about, and comparing the colour of our face, our eyes, our hair, our teeth, and our tongues whilst looking together at our reflections. We were joined by other curious children and it soon descended into laughter; sticking out tongues and making funny faces. However, what had happened was magical as during that play we explored big ideas about outward identity and colour.

My colleague was I am sure worried about my feelings and that I might find the boy’s comments hurtful. However, closing down his curiosity would also have closed down the possibilities of exploring not just our difference, but our similarities. Our playful exploration formed important early foundations for him, and one that I hope stayed with him as he grew into the adult he must now be. I hope it adjusted his understanding of blackness, to think not about the difference assigned to colour, but sameness in being human. I wonder now if my colleague’s reaction was also partly about her own embarrassment, because he was drawing attention to the unspoken difference between me and them, and this discomfort was an example of the white fragility absorbed through her adult lens and life experience.

Scrolling forward 10 years from this event, I found myself supporting a child with special educational needs as he transitioned into a mainstream Reception Class. I spent afternoons with the class supporting the child to engage with the activities, and the teacher to understand his needs. It sometimes reminded me of a meeting of people who didn’t speak each other’s language and I was the interpreter. On occasions, like TV comedy programmes, I watched the antagonists attempting the other’s language by speaking very slowly and very loudly in the hope that the other would understand. One afternoon the child and I were outside, playing in the sandpit when I noticed a little boy staring at me, standing a little distance away. His body language, and knitted brows showed me he was wary. I have been used to this over the years: if young children have had no experience of black people they stare, trying to make sense and working out “is this stranger safe or not”. Usually a friendly smile wins them over, however on this occasion with my smile the boy instead stepped backwards and frowned, mistrust clouding his eyes, “My mum says black people aren’t very nice.” I can remember feeling absolute shock, and sadness at this comment from such a young child. I didn’t know what to say – I didn’t want to say “well your mum is wrong”. For all I knew she may have told him that one particular black person in their life wasn’t nice, so instead I said “Ok. Well I tell you what. I am going to be in your classroom for a little while. You make your mind up about whether I am nice or not.” As only young children can do, he seemed to look right through me, thinking for what seemed like an age before saying simply “Yes.”

During the next few weeks that boy seemed to follow me everywhere – I can imagine him now as if with a clipboard and tick-list like some ‘elf on the shelf’: judging good or bad. He took his job very seriously and I would often have the sense of being watched, and I would turn to see his face and a look I couldn’t interpret.

One day I was sat next to the child I was supporting as he worked on the computer, deeply engaged in his favourite programme, when I suddenly found a pair of arms around my neck and felt a small head next to mine. I turned my head slightly to see which of those lovely Reception children needed a moment of connection, to discover it was my young watcher, “I love you Annie.” I have been lucky that there have been many wonderful moments in my career, but this has to be one of the greats. There is always much debate about how a practitioner should respond, but for me there has never been any question: “I love you too”. I like to hope that he had made his own mind up and that this experience stayed with him, adjusting his opinion of black people from the one he had previously held.

Fast forward again to the time I was working with a group of part-time students on a module on working in partnership with families. When asked they provided great examples of working in partnership with parents within their workplace and could ‘talk the talk’ in terms of good practice and in promoting opportunities for all families. They described the wonderful ways that they encouraged parents into their settings: ‘stay and play mornings’, ‘understanding the EYFS evening’, ‘cooking-made-easy sessions’, ‘resource sharing scheme’. Then I asked them to talk about the challenges in working with parents and here the cracks began to show and their ability to ‘walk the walk’ by putting into practice a true commitment to partnership with all families. The language moved towards ‘othering’ and homogenising particular parents – “they don’t… they won’t…” and I was saddened to hear this voiced towards families from particular minority groups. I tried to challenge some of their ideas, asking them to reflect on the possibilities of why particular groups may find it challenging to engage in a setting where they don’t see themselves represented. I do not think I managed it very well. The group clammed up and I felt instead I ended up lecturing them on the bravery of reflection to examine deeply held but invisible values and beliefs which impact on the ways we see and treat others. It was an unsatisfactory one-sided exchange. My position of power in the student-lecturer dynamic was a barrier, but importantly perhaps my black face was too – they were uncomfortable at me holding up a mirror asking them to view the message behind their language and associated assumptions.

Unusually, rather than my usual flurry of writing, this blog took a while to unfold and to write my conclusion. A twitter post recommending a radio programme inspired me to finish. The wonderful Michael Rosen interviewed Jeffrey Boakye on black-related words and how they are used culturally and personally. At the start of the interview Jeffrey problematises the idea of the label ‘Black’- suggesting that as soon as you examine the word it automatically becomes the opposite of white. Being black is therefore defined by ‘that’ which it is not; ‘that’ being not white, which is too often equated to not good, not trustable, and not the norm. Later Boakye explores the word mixed-race. An easily assigned label but when examined, again infers that if there is a mixed-race then there must also be an ‘un-mixed race’ one that is pure. Again mixed-race is a commonly used term which is used in one way without examining the unspoken connotations that such a term provokes. This resonated with me because it hints of something not explored or examined, and as I look back that is what the experiences I describe demonstrate to me. So often what is influential in a situation is what is not said, or something which is side-stepped and avoided as it sits within the swampy lowland of uncertainty and unknowing (as Schön, 1983, describes): an uncomfortable place to be with an uncertain result. To approach that place means examining the hidden part of ourselves – the assumptions and biases we hold…all of us, of every colour.

The experiences that we offer children, and the language that we use in our engagement with them and their families, informs their views of themselves and others. Just as important is the language we use to describe and assign them because this has a more pervasive, insidious effect. As I discuss at the start of this post, Professor Eberhardt highlights that children absorb messages from their environment. However it is not just what we say aloud, but also what we avoid saying, or refuse to examine that also effects them. As I held a mirror up to a small child to explore our similarities and differences, perhaps so too should we as adults.