Bigot? Racist? Or just a child?

I have mixed reactions to this piece by Hugo Muir of the Guardian. I understand that the author is saying that the ‘logging’ of ‘incidents’ really reflects on the views the children are exposed to at home, and so should not be a cause for concern about the child itself. But this is where I become worried.

A few years ago I had two ‘incidents’ happen in the classes I was teaching in two different schools. They were handled in two very different ways.

Both of these ‘incidents’ could be seen as discrimination, and therefore bigotry. Both, in fact, were reported as such. But from where I stood, I didn’t see that at all.

Firstly, some background. One was classified as ‘racist’, the other as ‘homophobic’. Both incidents involved children of 5 or 6 years old.

In the first incident, the ‘racist’ one, a small white boy had asked his equally small classmate why he was ‘so dark’. The black boy called him a racist and ran off to find the member of staff on duty that breaktime. As I had been teaching the class that morning, I was asked to write a report about whether there was an underlying current of racism in the class. There wasn’t. At least, none that had been apparant to me in the short time I had been at the school. The black boy was the only one in the class, because apart from 3 white chilren, the rest were all of asian descent.

The head made the decison that this wasn’t a racist incident, and explained to the black boy that racism meant being nasty to someone because of their skin colour, but it did not stop someone asking questions, so long as they were polite. To the white boy, he explained that some questions are considered rude, and that we don’t ask them. Now, I don’t entirely agree with his explanations to the boys, but it produced a harmonious result and the two spent the rest of the day working and playing together.

The parents of both children were informed, and, as far as I know, no further action was taken.

In the second incident, one girl (A) asked another (B) what it was like having two mothers. Unfortunately she then said ‘because it’s normal to have a mum and a dad not two mums.’ The child with two mothers ran off to find a member of staff and complained that girl A had been homophobic.

As in the first incident, both children were taken off to see the head. However, the reaction in this school was quite different. The parents were called in, and child A was sent home. I was called into the head’s office and told that the class I was covering would recive ‘diversity intervention’ the following day.

One of the mothers of child B came in armed with volumes of literature, photocopied for each child, a PowerPoint on homophobic bullying and a lecture on the legal ramifications of persisting in this behaviour. The class were 6 years old. Child A was back in class, and sat there looking terrified throughout. The head, who had been present for the entire ‘intervention’, sat beaming at the parent and gave a resounding endorsement of everything she had said at the end. The pupils just looked stunned.

Later on, one of the TAs said that a third child had come up to her sheepishly and asked if it was ok to still speak to child A because she was homophobic and he didn’t want to get into trouble too. He was also worried about speaking to child B as he had both a mother and a father and was scared that would get him into trouble because he wasn’t ‘diverse’.

Now personally, I do not think either of these incidents was an example of intolerance. Rather, of a child’s natural curioisity about the world around them. If you don’t understand about inheritance and skin pigments, you may well wonder why people are different colours. If you’ve just learnt that a baby only comes into this world as a result of a contribution from male and female gametes, then it’s perfectly understandable that someone who seems to come from only female gametes may well be a puzzle.

I can’t see any malice in either comment – I do see genuine curiosity.

If both of these incients were reported as ‘intolerance’, then the parents of these chilren would be considered to be at fault for exposing them to undesirable thoughts, expressions and influences.

But would this in fact be the case? Can anyone really be sure from such incidents?

I despair at the reaction of the second head. Excluding a child, even for half a day, for such an event is appalling. Wouldn’t it have been better to explain why such a question can be misunderstood, and to have offered a explanation as to why? Instead, she chose to punish and submitted a report to the LA of a homophobic incident.

Racism and homophobia exist. But they exist where the intention is to cause hurt. If you’re in KS1 and still learning how to use the language, it seems more likely that any percived ‘hurt’ is the result of youth and inexperience.

I don’t advocate ignoring such incidents, but explanation, not instilling fear, is a far better way to deal with them.

I worry, because in some instances, the adults who should be guiding the children seem to have very little understanding of the world through a child’s eyes. Is the reporting of such incidents merely highlighting our own ignorance of their understanding of the world?

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