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Dealing With Racism: Lessons Learned From A Young Boy

Racism. It has become a high profile topic of recent years. We have been enlightened - or we have woken - to just how severe racism is in the world. Back in 2020 when the Black Lives Matter movement rose to global prominence, I learned how nasty people could be, somehow showing hate and disdain for other people. These issues rightly highlighted and drew attention to the injustices and sought to improve our world and the way we see each other in it. Many learned to be super careful about the way we speak to each other, treading on eggshells with every conversation, second guessing whether the terms we used were offensive or hurtful to others. We were forced to rethink, to reconsider and to renew our mindsets. Perhaps we took a small step towards humanity.

Racism has many forms. At worst it takes the form of segregation and murder - even genocide. Then there is profiling, racial bias and stereotyping - also unacceptable, but milder in its direct impact. Unfortunately, these things still contribute to a negative culture and feed into society’s stomach of division, shaming and hate. Ignorance is not bliss. But is ignorance excusable?

I used to teach at a government school (we called them state schools in the UK) on the outskirts of Norwich in the UK. It was considered a more deprived area of the UK. I had the privilege of teaching the whole school Music - starting at Nursery age all the way to the end of their primary education at age 11. The Nursery sessions were really fun. One morning, I collected my guitar and a selection of hand instruments from my classroom and walked along the corridors of the newly built school building to the far end where the Nursery classrooms were. The tambourines and shakers would rattle and shake as I walked along the hallways and the school caretaker and general dogsbody, Mr Rudd would give me a grin. His eyes always smiled with the rest of his face. I reached the Nursery and went to find my seat, next to a huge rug where the children would sit. There was a new boy at school that day. A small, 4 year old boy with blond hair. He took one look at me and burst into tears, running to his teacher while shouting, “his eyes! I don’t like them!”

For many weeks this child would point and cry in fear when I came in. We were at one point even concerned that he avoided school on Fridays because of music classes. So we put in some structures to help him: we sourced reading books with oriental Asians in them; we informed him in advance that I was arriving and and we didn’t put pressure on him to join our circle time, letting him know that he could join when he felt ready. It must have taken him ten weeks or more before he felt even slightly comfortable with me.

My guess is that right now, you are wondering about his external factors that made him react in such a way. You might be considering his totally white caucasian neighbourhood. You could factor in the potential of his family not having a television, with the school being in a deprived area. You may even wonder whether there were childhood traumas which contributed to this fear of my small eyes. These questions are fair and I wonder whether his age makes his ignorance acceptable. Perhaps this level of ignorance is passable because we see the boy at a point in life where he is not responsible for what information he has been fed, or the culture he has experienced. So we are more gentle with our approach. What if we were to have taken the boy to one side and told him off for being “racist”, would it have changed his mindset? Would it have changed the way he saw me with a lens of fear? I don’t think so. What he needed was time to process a new perspective. He needed to know consistently over ten or more weeks that I was kind - someone to trust, not someone to fear.

Often, adults are like that boy. We have different settings, reasons (not excuses) for our ignorance. We have lived, worked and grown up in environments that feed our ignorance. Sometimes we grow up in cultures that teach us untruths. These thoughts do not excuse the way people are treated, nor do they remove consequences for racism’s offenders, but perhaps we can pause before telling someone they’re wrong, before pointing the finger or before judging the person. We all sense the urgency in tackling race issues, particularly in parts of the world where racism is taking lives every day. But is there a more effective way of changing mindsets?

While I believe there is value in calling out racism, in identifying the injustices and calling for change, I also believe we need the same understanding, compassion and grace we showed the little boy. We’ve all seen humble humans accept responsibility for their actions, to apologise for the hurt they have caused but some of us have grown up in a culture that has taught us untruths about people of different races and backgrounds. These people often don’t accept, or cannot see where they are wrong. We are quick to jump at them, shame them, point the finger and blame them. But just like the little boy in that classroom, they need time to work it out. They need to build trust for the unfamiliar. Perhaps they need other voices in their lives, like the teachers and teaching assistants in the classroom who were letting him know “Mr Tan is a kind man”. There was a clear fear of me because of my physical features (typical of my race) - a divide between me and the young boy emerged. Every time I approached him to try to show him I was not scary, I only reinforced my scariness to him. The divide between some people is huge - because of race and as one defends their innocence, it reinforces the divide, widening the gap, causing fractures to become breakages.

It took a long time for the boy to begin to trust me. We had to change the voices around him to enforce the safety of me, his music teacher. Reading those books to him changed his culture - it familiarised the unfamiliar, making safe his initial fears. The teachers and teaching assistants around him worked hard to influence his thoughts, reminding him regularly that I was friendly and safe. Some people will take a long time to come around. They need to be retaught - not necessarily by telling them they're wrong, but by changing the culture around them. Intentional voices explaining the good in other races. The young boy had four years of influence and was in the formative years of his life. New things were his norm. Adults have sometimes been fed untruths, prejudices and even hate for decades - they have formalised these learnings and have created habits. It will likely take longer than ten weeks.

As the adult with whom the boy had a problem, I had a responsibility too. I needed to be consistent - kind, gentle. I didn’t ask him to join the circle, but there was always a space for him when he was ready. I chose to not take offence. I treated him with love and kindness. I made sure I was there, every week at the same time, so when his teachers told him “Mr Tan is coming to play some music with us in a few minutes - he’s a kind man”, I was there to play music and I was kind. This consistency, grace, love and openness allowed him to access my humanity. It gave him moments to trust me.

Later in the year I remember the smiles on the faces of the adults around the room - Sarah, Terry, Christine, Emma, Tina - as that little boy got up from his place in the class circle to come and stand next to me and have a go at playing an instrument. They were all beaming at the bravery of that boy, at his development as a person, accepting and embracing me as someone who was safe. Their consistency and intentionality resulted in a racial harmony (sorry for the musical term!) that afternoon.

Perhaps we can all learn from this situation. You might be the teachers in the room - choosing to see people as a child who needs to be taught. Be consistent, be intentional. It’ll take time but we will edge towards harmony. You may be the boy - afraid, prejudiced or unfamiliar of another race (or community of people in society). Allow yourself to be educated. Take on other people’s opinions, read and learn about the wonderful things other people do. Or maybe you are on the receiving end of racism, ignorance and discomfort. Be patient. Be consistently kind and gentle. Don’t point the finger, but always leave a space for reconciliation. Be ready for the long haul - this situation will not change overnight, we’re dealing with humans here, but stay committed. Remember the little boy in the classroom and how his preconceptions and fears changed for the better over time.

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