I had a brief brush with one of those ‘equal opportunities monitoring’ forms this week. They’re usually decorated with a line to the effect of the giving of such information as ‘ethnic origins’ being voluntary, and I usually volunteer no such information. This week though, on the form proffered to me before seeing the dental consultant, I decided I’d keep to my oft-vented tub thumping that ‘I was born in England, that makes me White English not White British’. I amended the box and handed it in.
Later I realised that what I should have written, rather than ‘White English’, was more accurately: ‘White ish, also nominally English, of various extraction via the possibility of Spain, Scotland, Ireland — maybe — Morocco or Algeria, depending on the accuracy of my late Grandmother’s stories, and then, four or five generations back, or more, it’s anyone’s guess really, though if Stephen Fry is to be believed (via that font of all reliable modern trivia, QI), descended, as we all are by the principle of mathematical certainty, from King Charlemagne of France ish; also maybe Mongol via Genghis Khan’. That is, in summary, member of the human race. That, or something quite like it, is what I should have written. Maybe next time.
The point here is that I have always abhorred tokenism. These ‘equal opportunities monitoring’ forms have always seemed somewhat tokenistic to me. What does it matter how many people of Caribbean, Bangladeshi or Chinese origin (whatever that turns out to be) are pumped through the sausage machine of any given service? It may be possible that I’m entirely of the persuasion that amounts to ‘missing the point’. However, in the real world (by which, here, I mean the diverse children’s playground), in my experience, children are generally oblivious to the overtures of tokenistic adult agendas.
Sure, there are tensions between children in such playgrounds, and some of these tensions can then dissolve into a focus of ‘difference’ in appearance or beliefs or ways of being, but in the more diverse community of west London I’ve not yet come across racial tension. It may be that I’ve not yet heard any comments between children, or directed at children by other children; however, from what I see, the children treat each other as just other children, irrespective of their skin colour, family language or country of origin, and why shouldn’t they?
It’s in the play settings of, say, 95% white communities where the true scale of token effort and affect come into play. I’ve never heard a child in west London revert to the ‘race card’ that is: ‘Is it because I’m black?’ In contrast, I’ve heard this a fair few times more from children in settings where they’re the only non-white child in attendance or on the roll. Children suck up the sensibilities of the adults around them: so, when they’re fed a diet of ‘you’re different to the majority here and we’re going to highlight that’ (albeit under the banner of ‘equal opportunities’), it isn’t any wonder that they start subverting that message via a persecution complex.
The message is out there constantly. The other day I was reading the Metro newspaper on the train. On the sports pages there was an article about how Clarence Seedorf, a Dutch footballer, had been appointed manager of AC Milan in the Italian top division. When I first heard that news the day before on the TV, I thought ‘OK, I remember his playing days’ and thought no more on it. The Metro chose to highlight that Seedorf was only the second black manager in the league’s history.
It’s a general statement on professional football and a specific one on the Italian league, sure, but the reinforcement of such statements only helps to perpetuate the potential for feelings of persecution. There are racial issues in sport, communities, society, yes; however, this approach of the media and institutions (who want their equal opportunities forms filled in to tick some boxes, no doubt), is counterproductive.
Allow me a moment of facetious indulgence: does the same box ticking happen in New Delhi; in Kingston, Jamaica; in Abuja, Accra or Addis Ababa? Is there a concerted effort in those places to monitor and ‘help’ the isolated white community members in some token gesture of equal opportunities?
The other day I was at an after school club setting, just visiting. The main room was jam packed with children; it was getting hot in there; the children went about their play in genteel manner. Something, however, was odd. I couldn’t put my finger on it for a while. I looked around the room, at the children playing, at their play, but it wasn’t necessarily the calmness of it all that was the oddness. Then it hit me: there were forty white faces in one room. That’s not the fault of the setting — if the make-up of the community is like this, then this is what it is.
What this observation did do though was spark the thinking, later, on how quite a few settings I’ve seen ‘address’ the 95% or 100% white face scenario with a token play resource (very much the singular): a black baby doll, a sari, or suchlike. They’ll have a watered down nod towards Diwali or the Chinese New Year, or invariably a poster saying ‘Welcome’ in 32 different languages like Urdu, Swahili and Welsh. That’s it — job done. Box ticked. It drives me mad and has done for quite a while. I’m pretty sure the Diwali Festival of Lights amounts to more than a few paper lanterns and pretty patterns sprinkled on the floor, as I’m pretty sure Chinese New Year (and, by extension, Chinese culture) is about more than a blank colouring-in sheet of a dragon.
Token gestures and misplaced media focus can’t be helping the matter that is the equality of opportunity for all individuals. Let’s not ‘treat everyone the same’; let’s treat each other as individuals. When I’m out and about interacting in London, when I watch the football on TV, or when I observe and listen to the children on the playground, I’m thinking of those people of my focus as those people of my focus. I’m not thinking black, white, Chinese, Bangladeshi, and so on. In the tokenistic world where there are white majorities, however, messages are distributed and absorbed. Children, as we know, can be like sponges.