A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of writing for one of my favourite editorials: gal-dem! As many of you know, I’m British and have been based in the Netherlands for several years. Never one to shy away from critical analysis of any given socio-political situation, I’ve been keeping a close eye on the discussions around Brexit, not only because it effects me and my family personally, but also because of the oh-so-predictable white entitlement sprinkled throughout both sides of the debate.
Someone asked me if I was my son’s nanny today. We were at our local Little Gym and were being signed in. I said “I’m here with Julian”, and she replied “Are you his nanny?” It was heartbreaking and humiliating. The only other black person in the room (also a mother to a mixed son) simply looked at me with a pained expression. I did my best to compose myself by relaxing my face and steadying my voice to reply: “I’m his mother.” But I could feel my eyes narrowing as I uttered those last two syllables.
To be fair, the asker claimed she had us confused with another family, but the question stung all the same, partly because I had to spend the next hour being polite to her during the class. On the way home, I gave it some more thought. Her explanation was plausible enough given her line of work, so why couldn’t I just give her the benefit of the doubt? Why did I feel like someone had just punched me in the gut? We hadn’t even reached the house before I had a clear answer.
Sitting on the tram, after Julian had fallen asleep, a woman sat down next to me. During the ride, she turned her whole head in order to take a good look at my face. Then, she leaned forward and looked into the buggy at my sleeping baby. She repeated this a few more times before we could get off of the tram, to my great annoyance, but I didn’t want to make a scene and so, for the second time that day, I let it go. The Hague might well be a diverse city with plenty of families with children who look like Julian, but to some, we’re still a spectacle.
The lady on the tram is not the first – and she will definitely not be the last – to wonder wordlessly what I am doing with my son. Sometimes people wonder aloud, either in the grocery store, at a café or on public transport. Once, a stranger who had been cooing over Julian asked my husband and I if we had “made” him together. We were too shocked to say anything other than “Yes”, to which she nodded her head approvingly. To a certain extent you just get used to these kinds of comments, the same way you might get used to being the only black person in a room, or having that one white friend who will always say something offensive about your music, films and clothes. White privilege means that people of colour can be gawked at and interrogated, asked the most personal and upsetting questions, in public, and it is always our responsibility to make the white person – who is just curious afterall – feel at ease. These social dynamics create an environment where black and brown people cannot defend themselves in public without running the risk of violent backlashes, which make them out to the the aggressor, rather than the person who harassed them in the first place. Think: Miss Millie from The Color Purple.
However, being used to something doesn’t mean you’re comfortable with it. Today proved to me just how hard it is – and will always be – to be the mother of child a who shares my eyes and smile, but not my skin colour. The hardest day will not be when Julian understands the question, but when he understands the implications behind it.
It’s been a while since I published a proper blog post. There’s been a number reasons for this, the main one being becoming a mummy last summer! Settling into motherhood has been a wonderful experience and I’m learning everyday, but it’s also meant a complete reorganisation of my life and priorities. Still, going out and engaging educationally has remained important to me and my partner in the way we are raising our son.
I regularly take him to the library’s Baby Café groups so that he can meet and play with other children of a similar age and also to pass on my love of books. While there recently I noticed a particular book series because of the name of the lead character: Jules. We use this as a shortened version of Julian’s name from time to time, so the books (authored by Belgian writer Annemie Berenbrouchx) caught my eye. I became very interested in one book in the series featuring a black woman character as a neighbour of Jules. Like so many parents of colour, I am always on the look out for various forms of media that depict society as diverse and accepting of people of all backgrounds. Although the primary character of Jules seems to be a white child, I was encouraged by the apparent normalisation of multiculturalism in the book and I decided to take the book out and read it to Julian at home. However, the second I began looking further through the book I noticed a real problem with its narrative and decided I wouldn’t read it to Julian after all.
The story* basically goes like this…
Jules has two female neighbours. They look completely different to one another. One has lived next door to Jules for a long time. She is white, has blonde hair and talks a lot. She loves soft colours such as pink and light blue. Jules notices that she always smells like flowers.
The other neighbour has not lived next door to Jules for a long time. She has dark skin, black hair and she listens well. She likes to listen to the blonde neighbour and also to music. The dark neighbour comes from another country. That country is far away from here. She loves warm colours such as yellow, orange and red. Jules thinks she’s very beautiful.
Sometimes one neighbour calls the other and invites her over for tea. They listen to the same music. They drink the same tea. The two female neighbours are completely different. But one thing is for sure: they completely love Jules!
At face value, the story seems to simply say that Jules has two very different neighbours, who come from different countries and cultures, but can still get along and find things in common, such as music, tea and Jules. Obviously, it’s great to tell our kids that we live in a diverse society alongside people from all over the world. We should teach them that everyone belongs and has an equal place and also teach our kids about the rest of the world too (which is why we are avid Bino & Fino fans, for instance). On the other hand, we should also teach our kids that it is not necessarily the case that every non-white person, or family with a different cultural background, is “foreign”. And being a critical discourse analysis researcher, I can’t help but delve deeper and ask more complicated questions, even when it comes to children’s literature.
For example, why does the black woman ‘like’ to listen to the white woman? Why does she need to be exoticised by the proximity of ‘warm’ colour and musical references? Her characterisation and juxtaposition with the other (white) neighbour upholds notions of white womanhood as well as supremacy.
It’s also not the most feminist representation of either of the neighbours, with them both liking talking over a cup of tea and children. We don’t learn anything else about them really, such as their work. Of course, the issue that struck me the hardest was the necessity for the character of colour to be portrayed as coming from ‘another country…far away from here’. Arguably, Berenbrouchx wanted to make a point about the neighbour’s ability to integrate despite her foreigness, hence the emphasis on her coming from another land. However, portraying Africa as a faraway, exotic landmass that all black people come directly from, to a certain degree, is erroneous and dehumanising. Telling a child which country in Africa a person might come from would already improve this narrative. Likewise, assuming that all white people in European countries are automatically “locals” is not always accurate and it strengthens xenophobic notions of identity and belonging – even in children. For instance, a friend’s 5 year old once said to me: “You must come from very far away, because you’re brown.” This is all she’s seen in storybooks and on TV, so it must be true, right?
“We need to change the narratives. We need to let it be known that black is British. That brown is British and we are not going away.” – Reni Eddo-Lodge
* This is a translation from the original text, which is Dutch.
Last week I had the honour of giving a short talk on the history of racist stereotypes and their material consequences for contemporary policymaking at the Media van Kleur public dialogue event, hosted by Pakhuis de Zwijger. Apart from myself, there were moving spoken word performances by Kevin Groen and an incredible panel of “media makers” who each gave an insight into how their own individuals efforts work towards a more inclusive and truly representative media landscape.
If you didn’t get the chance to attend in person, no worries! Check out the full event (including my talk) via Youtube below:
On April 17, I’ll be giving a short talk at the Pakhuis de Zwijger as part of their Wij vs Zij series. The title of the event is: Media van Kleur (roughly: media of colour, click here for more info) and will focus on contemporary, stereotypical media representations of people of colour. Furthermore, the event will amplify the work of several Dutch organisations working to promote better representations of people of colour, as well as featuring talks from other artists from across the world.
My talk – on behalf of ERIF – will provide an overview of the colonial origins of racist imagery, its political usage and its present-day legacy in policymaking. Hope to see you there!