Thursday, 24 July 2008

Young children and racial justice

I feel considerable sympathy for Janet Lane, whose important new book Young children and racial justice has been ferociously attacked by the Mail on Sunday and Sunday Telegraph.

A discussion in the book about young children’s reactions to difference has been taken completely out of context to suggest that if a three year old says “yuk” in response to a spicy snack, he will be reprimanded for racism and reported to the local authority. This debate has quickly moved on from spicy bhajis to an over-heated discussion on the web resulting in the books’ publishers, the National Children’s Bureau, receiving more than fifty abusive letters and emails.

The book seems to have provoked a fear that the thought police are after our babies and toddlers, with the Sunday Telegraph claiming the book argues that “even babies cannot be ignored in the drive to root out prejudice”. This is a line of argument which treats all of us who work in the early years as if we are absolutely stupid and helpless. Janet Lane’s book is exciting, provocative and argumentative. Herman Ouseley, former executive chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, finds it “challenging, sometimes arguably contestable, always interesting”. It engages with its readers as people with minds of their own. It does not claim to be an instruction manual for staff to follow. Nor does it advocate what the Mail on Sunday calls the “regulation of private speech and thought”. But it does, powerfully, claim that children continue to suffer in British society because of racist attitudes, and that everyone who works with children needs to reflect on this and consider what needs to be done about it. The implication in the media that people who work with young children are simply putty in the hands of Ms Lane does a disservice to both her, and to us.

Having said that, I think we ought to notice times when problems which belong to the adult world are introduced to children who lack both the level of development to understand them or the agency to deal with them. The serious issues around racism are connected to housing, policing, international trade policy and employment practices. By focussing on interactions between young children we can mislead ourselves into thinking we are doing something of use, whilst missing the main point. I am reminded of the teachers who drive to work everyday and then deliver hair-raising lessons to children about the dangers of pollution and global warming, or nursery staff who are shocked by the child who stamps on a couple of ants and then go home and casually kill a thousand with a can of spray. We shouldn’t be surprised that children have exactly the same difficulties with differences between people, with cruelty and selfishness, that we all have; and as adults we need to take responsibility for making the world fairer, and bringing children up in that spirit. We need to make sure that we do not dump our own difficulties and moral uncertainties on the nursery.