How do you make sense of diversity when all around you is prejudice?

Just 22% of UK children and young people in Dubit’s recent research believe authority figures such as the Government treats everyone fairly, with figures rising only slightly with regards to the Police (30%) and teachers (36%). Additionally, the data seems to mirror contemporary discussion around white privilege and how this is entrenched in power structures including education. In relation to these key findings, this blog post seeks to ask the reader to think about how children and young people make sense of diversity when all around them is prejudice.

This is the third in a series of posts that discusses the findings of a study undertaken to discover young people’s views on their lives and the world. To recap, more than 500 twelve to fifteen-year-olds from across the UK shared views in a two-stage methodology that included 32 one-to-one interviews with young people in London, Bournemouth, Gateshead and Newcastle, and an additional 514 survey responses from across the UK. The aim was to understand what young people care and worry about and where they gain knowledge that informs their opinions.

In relation to diversity the young people in our study talked about this in relation to race, gender and sexuality, but of course diversity spans the full spectrum of elements that make up the endless possible combinations of human backgrounds, including our up-bringing, accents, health (or lack of) and belief systems- in other words it’s a complex topic! Despite this, I wanted to write about the findings on diversity, specifically race, for two reasons. Firstly, because it closely links to the topic of education which I wrote about in my first post. Secondly, because having spent a long time living outside the culture in which I was born and raising a bi-racial white and Asian child, I found myself contextualising the findings in relation to my own experiences.

Majority and Minority

When I think about diversity in its broadest sense, I imagine a sliding scale in which in given contexts we might find ourselves to be either in a majority or minority background in relation to the other humans around us. If we are in the majority for most or our time, the harder I believe it is to understand other perspectives, because what is happening around us mirrors more or less our own lifestyle and values. This can be thought of in relation to gender, sexuality, class and a whole host of other things that make us who we are.

Specifically, with regards to race, as a white women growing up in Cornwall and later Devon, I was very much part of the racial majority. Then, when I was 21 I moved to Japan where my white background was representative of only a very small fraction of the largely homogenous racial make up of the country at that time. This was the first time I had been defined as different based on my race. Within the decade that followed I married a Japanese citizen and then several years later we had a child. Needless to say in these different spaces, and at various times, I have felt either an insider or an outsider, knowledgeable or ignorant, empowered or disempowered. These lived experiences have also taught me a lot about myself and why I hold certain beliefs. In short, our lived experiences are powerful. However, even with these relatively diverse experiences I am increasingly aware of my white privilege and of my formative years growing up in the majority race and its accompanying structures. Not to mention that these are the most powerful and privileged structures in the world. Relatedly, it is unsurprising that when I first moved to Japan I encountered Japanese people who wanted to touch the shape of my face or my hair because of its difference. I had no problem with this. However, my Black American friend did. Being white and experiencing people respond to my racial difference was a novelty that came with no real negative repercussions; but it was not novel to my friend who had already experienced decades of discrimination.

By the nature of children’s young age their lived experiences are shorter than mine. They are also heavily entrenched in the structures of formal education. As an adult I have the agency to choose what I want to learn and when, something that children do not have when they are at school. This is just one reason why we should be mindful of what is taught and who it represented in our children’s education.

Education and Representation

Our collective awareness that formal education and authoritarian structures are created by and for the white majority is stronger than ever, but substantial changes to address this have yet to be made. As a result, issues around diversity and race are at best superficial and at worst contradictory and confusing in school education.

At my son’s school they have a zero tolerance approach to physical attacks and bullying between pupils. Yet, in a recent history class they also taught my son that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in the Second World War was justified- ironic! As others have said before, we should question whose history is being taught and why. This links strongly to ideas around representation in curricula.

In 2005, Jackie Marsh edited a seminal text about popular culture and education:

“Many young children have extensive experience of film, television, print media, computer games , mobile phones and the internet from birth, yet their engagement with media texts is rarely acknowledged in the national curricular of any country.” (Marsh 2005)

This framing of what constituted suitable reading material in early childhood education at that time ignored the types of texts engaged with by many children in their out-of-school lives. Simply put, the omission of popular culture by formal early years education was classist. Thankfully, many early years settings now include popular culture. However, racial diversity in terms of reading material attached to curricula is only just beginning to be questioned in many parts of formal education.

A short while back, in my role as a University Lecturer I was asked to evaluate the reading lists to ensure there were diverse representation of authors in terms of race. The tokenistic nature of this request was highlighted by the fact that the entire teaching team and my manager were white. In other words, we were being asked to apply a sticking plaster over a bigger systemic problem. This example of how literature is included in formal education highlights how children, and later young adults enter our formal education settings either surrounded by representations of themselves and their lives or not.

With this in mind it is maybe unsurprising, but nevertheless sad, that our research found that the majority of white children engaged with the topic of race in exactly the way Eddo-Lodge describes in his book ‘Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race’.

Firstly, when presented with a range of topics to discuss in the interviews, the wealthiest white children chose to ignore the prompts on racial diversity. It simply wasn’t on their radar.

For white children of other economic backgrounds, some played down the extent to which racism is problematic:

“I see people in America arguing about white police officers shooting black people and I do understand it but at the same time you see them grouping all white police officers … but it’s not all of them.” (White British boy, 14, London)

The quote above relates closely to what Eddo-Lodge describes as white denial:

“Watching the Color of Fear by Lee Mun Wah, I saw people of colour break down in tears as they struggled to convince a defiant white man that his words were enforcing and perpetuating a white racist standard on them….white denial.” (Eddo-Lodge, 2017, p. x)

For children and young people of colour this was noticeably different to the responses they gave based on their lived experiences:

“Because of my race it will be harder for me to get a job. My mum told me that if you are a person from a different race, it will be harder because of racism…I feel a bit unsafe because of racism and I have strong opinions about it but I can’t really talk to my friends. Sometimes it can be scary.” (Black British girl, 13, London)

This white denial is not unlike my own experiences. After discussing the atomic bombing of Hiroshima with my son, I contacted the school with some questions about what was being taught, and although they replied to my email they chose to let me know how my son was doing at school and ignored my questions about the history class. The point I am making here is not to shame a teacher or one particular school but to show that the topic of racial diversity requires a level of critical thinking that for whatever reason the current national curriculum in England does not contain.

Critical Thinking and Education

When teaching Higher Education students, especially those at MA-level, the terms critical reading, critical writing and critical thinking arise regularly, and students are encouraged to question what they are reading and writing and why they hold certain beliefs. In the specific disciplines in which I teach, University students are encouraged to achieve this by reflecting on their own experiences in relation to a wide range of literature. This is defined as understanding your ‘positionality’ in relation to what is being taught.

In the UK, secondary school aged children learn about topics to do with race in Personal, Citizenship, Health and Economic (PCHE) classes but our findings provided some direct examples of how children were discouraged from thinking critically in relation to the curriculum:

“ We were doing a PSHE lesson about terrorist groups and someone mentioned the KKK and the teacher said that is not a terrorist group. And we were like a terrorist group means attacking someone because of your values and what you believe in so you harm other people but the teacher was like no, that’s not a terrorist group. We were debating why it is a terrorist group but she didn’t budge.” (Black British Girl, 15, London)

They also noted how fights over racist remarks were reduced to issues of behaviour:

“ One time this girl, who was my friend just said something horrible to him in front of everyone and then he reacted back and called her something but it wasn’t even that bad, I think it was just like an idiot or something like that, and he got really told off and she didn’t even get told off and I get quite angry when I see stuff like that happen and no one really does anything about it (White British girl, 13, Newcastle)

Examples such as this make it easier to understand why only 36% of the children in our study believed teachers were fair. The examples, I have drawn from our research above illustrate how the education system and many of those teaching within it demonstrate indifference to the systemic racism that exists. As a result I can understand Eddo-Lodge when he writes:

“I am not longer engaging with white people on the topic of race. Not all white people, just the vast majority who refuse to accept the legitimacy of structural racism and its symptoms. I can no longer engage with the guilt of an emotional disconnect that white people display when a person of colour articulates their experience.” (Eddo-Lodge, 2017,p. ix)

For this is now my response to any issues to do with race at my child’s school.

Critical expression

One manifestation of critical thinking is critical expression in the form of protests. In relation to this, the Black Lives Matters protests following the death of George Floyd were mentioned often by the participants in our study:

“ I felt quite upset and angry. It was police that did it and police are supposed to protect us and I just don’t understand why someone would do something like that…There is a lot of social injustice and many people don’t feel safe. You can’t even go out in the nighttime.” (Black British girl, 15, London)

As our Government seeks to clamp down on our rights to protest it is worth considering the following interpretation of what this means for children specifically:

“In particular, it must be emphasised that for children, who cannot vote, assembling, demonstrating and picketing are integral to their involvement in the political process. By virtue of their unique station in life the importance of the … right to protest has special significance for children who have no other realistic means of expressing their frustrations.” (Malawana, 2019, p.610)

What does this mean for kids media?

Given everything I have written, I am not sure if my optimism is naive but one of the most positive findings from this part of our study seemed to be the general desire that most children and young people expressed to embrace diversity in all its guises. Also, their hope to end the prejudices minorities experience:

“It’s 2021, you’d hope that some change would have happened but the world is backwards still.” (White British girl, 14, Bournemouth )

“I think it is important to have a wide range of religions and races because there are still quite a lot of prejudice and racist people out there and we kind of have to show them that it is ok to not be white or something like that. People are different and we have to accept that.” (Asian and white boy, 13, London)

“There is a lot of people who don’t accept diversity in the world, and that frustrates me because people can’t change who they are.” (White British girl, 15 Gateshead)

As with the conclusion to my post on education, I would like to suggest there are opportunities for media to address the areas that are not being tackled quickly enough by formal education. Firstly, a simple point would be to properly consider issues of diversity and representation across kids media. Only this week I noticed how the BBC art history series ‘Art on the BBC’ now has two complete TV series where not a single episode is focused on an artist who is not white and male. Finally, a more complex issue would be for kids media producers to consider how they can encourage children’s critical thinking.

References

Eddo-Lodge, R. (2017) Why I am no longer talking to white people about Race. Bloomsbury Circus.

Malawana, T. (2019) Closing- children as social justice activists. Sabinet African Journals. Vol.52(1). Accessed online: https://journals.co.za/doi/abs/10.17159/2225-7160/2019/v52a35

Marsh, J. (ed) (2005) Popular Culture, New Media and Digital Literacy in Early Childhood. RoutledgeFalmer

Acknowledgement: The data collection and initial analysis of this study were undertaken by Dr Rachel Ramsey, Associate Director, Research.

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Dylan Yamada-Rice

Senior Tutor in Information Experience Design, Royal College of Art & Senior Research Manager, Dubit. www.dylanyamadarice.com