'Why are all the street cleaners black?' and other awkward race-related kid-questions
My husband was walking down the street with our eldest (for tis he, the GREAT ASKER OF QUESTIONS) and they passed a man of African origin picking up litter for the council.
“Why are all street sweepers black?”, our boy said, quite reasonably. Certainly around our neighbourhood, this would be a fair observation.
“I hope you gave him the full history of slavery, migration, inequality and the immutability of the social status quo” I told my husband, who himself is black and descended from slaves and indentured workers. “Did you give a heartfelt speech about your people’s struggle”?
“No,” he said, “I told him there were one or two Polish ones too”.
My husband chose not to go into detail with our boy, who, as a mixed race chap from a middle class background, has spent the last eight years working out where he “fits in”. Maybe my husband didn't want to confuse the lad, who is still grappling with what his skin tone might mean for him.
I, on the other hand would have given the boy the full speech about how it came to be, in 21st century East London, a child could still get the impression that white people are in charge, Asians drive fast cars and black people sweep the floor.
If he had listened long enough, I would have explained how four decades of women’s lib has resulted in white men being in charge of pretty much everything and his mother washing nappies in a housework tabard (yep, must try harder).
Despite huge advancements, many youngsters are still unlikely to see black or mixed race people in positions of power, such as headteachers and civic leaders. Even within my son's school, there are more black cleaners than there are black teachers. Children might be lucky enough to have an inspiring black football coach, but it’s tough if you’re not into football.
I can see why this degree of apparent segregation is confusing to a boy who has friends from across the racial spectrum. Pupils are all equal in his primary classroom and skin colour does not influence their allegiances. Friendships are far more likely to be determined by interests than anything else.
However, the fact that he has already absorbed the idea that there are certain roles for certain races shows what a long way we still have to go.