Friday, 14 December 2012

The Origins of Prejudice

A fairly small thing happened this week. Plus another one the week before. Now as the snow has knitted a thick coat over the fields out the window and I read that 76-year-old Silvio Berlusconi has a new 27-year-old squeeze (founder of the Silvio, We Miss You group, as in Silvio, Buy Me A Rack and Put Me in the Newspapers!), I have been thinking it over.

I remember reading in a junk magazine that Heidi Klum, mother of mixed-race kids, hated her family being called something like a rainbow tribe. I can feel that. What is so intimate - your family life, your squabbles at the table, queues for the bathroom - being labelled in such external and political terms. It's something that feels so invasive, it smacks of tokenism, and I don't like it. Kids don't need that type of baggage and the thinking that goes with it.

That's not exactly what this post is meant to be about. But it is about baggage. My mixed-race fourth child has always been as cute as they come but now is becoming gangly and pimply and adolescent. As a kid, he hated people touching his crimped hair (why do people think they can reach across and touch a child's head? Is that not a type of violation?) and this has been shaped by a couple of incidents (comments by kids who perhaps hear this type of talk at the kitchen table??) into a form of acute awareness, a sixth sense that sometimes verges on anger. He gets pissed off. A kid who joked 'Shut up, you're black' was almost punched. My view has always been to sit him down and tell him to be above it. Not to lash out - and yet I understand lashing out too as I have a temper. But this level of discrimination. Needing to lash out once a week, once a day. What does that make one become?

While the PC way of thinking has toned down or removed many innately racist expressions and helped to make people think about the words that come out of their mouths, in Italy you can still call a black person 'negro' and not be shaken down. It's amazing. While 'negro' is close to the word for black 'nero' it is still a jolt to hear.

In Italy migration from Africa is quite recent and has been happening in a haphazard way, Italy providing a softer border than many other European countries. I had to sit my driving exam in our village with a bunch of Senegalese and Chinese who took the piss out of each other's accents. Mind Your Language, Veneto-style. While we are not immigrants as such (though I have met guys who have survived that atrocious boat trip across the Mediterranean), people's views are conditioned by seeing the poor black guys huddled in plastic sheets on those vessels, by the guys begging outside supermarkets, by the petty theft that goes on. And of course by the xenophobic parties that whip up the fervour.

Immigrants take our jobs, our women, our houses.
Immigrants are all drug dealers.
Immigrants are dirty.

This brings me back to my original point, about the baggage we all carry. My kid. You. Me. We hardly even know it's there, soft and pressing against our views. This is where my kid's baggage starts:

It's easy being black on the bus, he said the other day. Nobody wants to sit next to you.

Or, Today an old lady sat next to me. Then as soon as there was another seat, she moved away.

Both throwaway comments spoken with a half-laugh in the car on the way home. So maddening, such a burden for this young man to carry ahead.




  1. That is the unasked question, isn't it? Unexamined in most corners of the world. What does that kind of baggage do to the one weighted down with it?

    I want to romanticize it by thinking that it makes people stronger, but does it? I suppose it's what we as their parents can do to help equip them to mold the baggage into something resembling positive rather than negative.

    And yet, it remains a burden. The behavior of other people is a burden on your son. It's not about him at all. It's about their reaction to him.

    Maddening is right.

    1. I think it makes you more fragile, more reactionary, and even more prejudiced in a way. It is hard to even things out because things aren't really even, as much as we as mums feel they are or should be. I used to think it makes you stronger, but perhaps a better word is tougher. Not quite the same.

      A glum day today after such sad news from Connecticut.

  2. Provacative post. I often feel terribly for those whose skin color screams 'foreigner' in this country, having experienced enough coldness as a white, non-third-world foreigner myself. All I can say is that your son is lucky he has you as a mother--you're a firecracker! :-)

    1. Yes I had a mate from Ghana who always went ticketless on the trains. 'We're invisible!' he said. 'Nobody even sees us!' Not sure that this is always the case but he claimed it worked for him.

      Yes firecracker mum here doesn't get told everything because he knows I'll go apeshit.

  3. Oh Cat, your son's comments, off-hand though he's making them, are heartbreaking. Thank you for this post.

    1. Thanks Teri. It does make me feel rather helpless. I was so hurt for him. And to think I have a blonde daughter everyone wants to be near. And yet they are just my kids, my disobedient, lazy, extremely normal kids.

      Hope your festive season is good and that 2013 is a winner.

  4. Phew. What a post. I had a hard time hearing your son's words because I recognize that light, glib style boys use (I have sons) that doesn't really mask the hurt. Mothers can always sense it. I think that being sensitive to his experience and being willing to let him verbally vent seem the most positive actions you can take, besides wanting to yell at someone. I'm the worst when it comes to racism. I hate when I see it or hear it. Here in the US it's shocking how many insidious comments I hear about President Obama. It's actually incredible how deep racism runs and how much insensitivity is still out there. I'm so sorry your son has to deal with it. So glad he has you for his Mama.
    Leslie (aka Gwen Moss)

    1. I once had a friend try and tell me that it was the same as being taunted about being fat, or having a big nose. But I can't agree. I also have friends who are strong who have lived through worse times and have survived to become beautiful people. And others who are scarred. The important thing is - and this sounds melodramatic - is sharing the love. A kid who knows the love is there, at home, or in the car on the way home, or at the end of the day, this is the kid who will be the strongest and most complete adult. I used to wonder about Barack Obama's mother - beyond the race thing - who must have given that man some good, strong loving.

    2. I don't think it's melodramatic in the least. I think it's absolutely true. Love really does heal.

  5. Reading your post really makes my blood boil!
    It is incredible this behavior. Racism is ignorance, tell your son that. People who judge others on skin colour are ignorant.
    And they are very scared of everything that is different.
    Tell your son that too. People who do not want to sit next to him on the bus are scared and insecure. We should really pity these people ... think what a horrible and locked in life they must be having!
    Good luck with it! I really hope your son will be able to cope and come our strong.

    1. Have you ever heard the Italian saying, often said by grannies to little kids, 'Watch out or the Uomo Nero/Black Man will come and get you!'

      It's something that makes my skin crawl but it's still used quite commonly by the older generation in Veneto. No wonder people have views based on irrational fears! A lot of the time I think we have to reexamine our idioms and see what/who they really represent. And I will be glad when it happens in Italy - as it happened in English over the past few decades (don't know about Dutch?). Some of our old nursery rhymes were inherently racist and you would never teach them to a kid these days.

      Thanks for your good wishes. I think he'll be fine. Hopefully!

    2. No I did not hear that saying ever ... at least I did not notice it.
      Have to say I am not often in the company of old grannies!
      I have not been living in The Netherlands for a long time now, so really difficult to judge wat is going on there, but can not imagine people get away with racist language. However, we (expats) tend to idealise our country of origin?
      We do still have Sinterklaas (a kinf of Father Christmas). He is a white man and has black helpers. However, we always wanted to be the balck helpers because they are very funny and young, where the white guy is severe and old and stiff. However, I believe there are discussion about this custom as well.
      Again good luck with it all! We are still, everywhere in the world, a long way from equality ... unfortunately.

    3. Thanks Willemijn. I agree. We might have equality in our households and in our intentions, socially and economically it is a long way off. And I do agree it is easy to idealise one's home country. I'm pretty sure I do.

      Have a peaceful Christmas and I hope things are good for you.

  6. My daughter went through play group and the first year of primary with one best friend. They played at each other's houses and shared baths and food, headlice, colds, and laughter.

    When we moved to NZ, my daughter was asked to make a photo board of her friends and family. She brought that board home after one day because of what her classmates had said about her friend.

    It is a vile abuse of a child to fill them with prejudice.

    Strength to your son.

    1. So sad this one! So unfair and dastardly and typical of children. Once mine was told his skin 'was the colour of poop' ! Charming. And yes it does come from kitchen table talk, this is scary. And so wrong.

      Thanks Rae have a warm southern Christmas for me. Good wishes to you and yours xxcat

  7. Oh, I'm sorry to hear this, Catherine. As you point out, immigration is pretty new to Italy. I do think it's easier in the cities, but you probably have to have a lot of patience for things to change outside of the major urban areas. Your son sounds incredibly mature for his age.

    1. I think he's had to deal with these comments since we came here (he doesn't tell me always) so it's never a shock. I just don't want him to become resentful and sink to their level. Surely that's possible.

      Going home for Christmas? What a tricky time in the US!
      I hope you have a lovely one. Best wishes, xxcat

  8. Oh, your son and all he is now facing and will face. I bet he's already so strong, but it's not fair this is part of what will make him strong.

  9. Your article gives me useful information
    one night