If you get asked this question regularly, like me, you begin to develop a sense of uncertainty about yourself. In my experience, often people will say that they asked me within the local context/area of where I was born/raised. What unfolds when I answer where I come from within the local area and within the UK, a further question unfolds: Where are you ‘from-from’? I’m so tired of this question now I just say, ‘guess where I’m from’? I’ve had all manner of guesses: Brazilian, New Zealand –Maori and Cuban to name but a few. My children are experiencing the same interactions and I am helping them to understand why they are continually asked this question. It’s because they are not white and they are mixed white/Afro-Caribbean. That’s the reality. Can you imagine being asked that question on a regular basis for your entire life?
Did I see myself in books growing up? Not really. Did it matter? It didn’t seem to matter as I was surrounded by children from a range of ethnicities and blended families within my community and at school. Where were we all from? We were from ‘there’ and that’s all that mattered.
On reflection, this had to be one of the biggest benefits of growing up in West London. My ethnicity wasn’t a big deal and I socialised with a myriad of children and families similar to mine. So when did my ethnicity begin to get called into question? Well, the turning point came from the age of sixteen when I started to seek greater independence in the world outside of my community and particularly when I moved out of London into Hertfordshire. It seemed that my ethnicity always seemed to surface as a topic of conversation socially and professionally. It seemed to matter to others in a big way.
So let us consider more questions. Is it important that children can identify with characters within the books that we read to them and offer them? Why is it important that the books that we offer our children at school are representative of them and reflect their realities?
I ask these questions to myself and to you because, as already stated, I am truly tired of being asked where I am from. Why does it matter to others so much? Does it define who I am, what I am and my lived experience? I would say… certainly not! Who would know that my mum was Irish and that my step-father was Asian and my birth father was Jamaican? Who would know that as a White//Afro-Caribbean person, I spent my childhood and youth learning how to cook Asian cuisine, attend my step-father’s friends and family weddings and learn how to value Sikh customs and traditions?
I wonder if things might have been different for me growing into adulthood if through education and the books offered at school, the constant need to justify my existence to others would be irrelevant today. However, I am extremely aware of how the world’s woes can often be placed upon the education sector to sort out and, like you, realise that we can’t ‘fix’ everything but we can initiate the seeds of change. I have never come across an educational professional who disagrees with the fact that representation in children’s books/literature is right and important. I wonder if I had been better represented in the texts on offer at school, I may have avoided comments been casually thrown my way such as ‘bounty bar’, ‘coconut’, half-caste and indeed…‘half-breed’. This is a sad but true fact and that is why I feel that it is important that we try to answer questions openly and honestly in order to encourage change, without fear of judgement.
What I have actually discovered about myself as an adult is that I have adopted the qualities of a chameleon over the years. I have adapted according to expectations of me within both white and black communities and this has been a challenge that perhaps I shouldn’t be facing. However, this is what children of mixed heritage experience and this is what my children are continuing to experience. I have decided to eliminate all confusion for them in responding to questioning. This is what I encourage them to say….. ‘Your mum is black (never mind the fact that I’m mixed race as this will encourage more questions) and your dad is white’. People will always ask you where you are ‘from from’ because you are not white and not black and this can arouse curiosity as well as make people feel uncomfortable sometimes’.
On another note, my daughter and I have experienced a whole new level of questioning as I am black (that’s what I describe myself as) and she presents as white in colour. She has been asked if I’m her mother and when she was a baby, I often got long stares and unusual looks by strangers as they were bemused as to how I could have given birth to a white child with blue eyes and non-afro hair. I have even been questioned as to whether or not my children have the same father. Can you imagine being asked this question? How does this impact on a mixed race child growing up? I would say that it impacts massively on their self-esteem, confidence and sense of acceptance. You may find the report, article and blog (linked below) of interest. The report and article recount a similar set of experiences that help us to understand why representation in books is of importance. The blog takes a deeper look into the terms we have used and currently use to describe individuals from multiple backgrounds.
For me, and I can only speak from experience, improved representation of BAME and mixed race children (just to say that I am comfortable with these terms although I appreciate that some people may not be) within the stories and texts that they encounter, will surely lead to a gradual ‘chipping away’ of micro-aggressions, unconscious bias and ultimately racist behaviour in our schools and communities.
To conclude, I’d love to recommend ‘I am Whole’ by Shola Oz, illustrated by Shifa Annisa. The main character happily celebrates her mixed heritage in a way that young children can relate to, ponder over and ask relevant questions. It will enable them to confidently share their lived experiences and truly see themselves represented: ‘With a sprinkle of Mummy and a dash of Daddy, I’m happy that they created our lovely family’.
18th January 2022
Diversity is the theme of the Herts for Learning spring Primary English conference 2022; specifically focusing on ensuring that all pupils are given adequate opportunities to make a deep connection with reading through enhancing teacher’s commitment to providing books that reflect a wide range of realities.
The conference will feature input from experienced teachers, academics and political campaigners and will ensure that delegates leave with an understanding of how they can work to improve diverse representation through the English curriculum in their schools and classrooms, and why this work matters so much.
The conference will end with a contribution from The Right Honourable Stuart Lawrence, younger brother of Stephen Lawrence. Stuart is a motivational public speaker with over 20 years’ experience as a youth engagement specialist.
The conference will also feature key notes from Farrah Serrouk, author of CLPE’s Reflecting Realities Survey of Ethnic Representation within UK Children’s Literature, and Darren Chetty, writer, teacher and researcher who has published academic work on philosophy, education, racism, children’s literature and hip-hop culture.
Sophie Driver from Highover School in Hertfordshire will join us to explain how she is working alongside her colleagues to raise awareness of unconscious bias and gender stereotyping in children’s literature.
Explore our conference site to find our more and to book a place at this important event. Please note that this event will be delivered remotely.