Racism for us happened long before Brexit
So this happened during transfer day. In my girl’s form group at high school the new kids did a bingo game that consisted of answering questions/inputting info and to answer those questions/find the info they had to find stuff or ask the current high schoolers questions. One of the tasks was to find someone who was born outside the UK. They all thought my girl was born outside the UK! They all asked her. Every one of them. She was born in the UK and they were surprised when she told them. Turns out there was one person born outside the UK, a student born in Poland, but nobody asked her if she was born outside the UK. Typical. And I knew exactly how my daughter felt. It’s an odd feeling, a mix between humiliation, confusion, amusement and betrayal.
Humiliation at being asked (feels like accused) of something that is untrue.
Confusion over why people would assume this.
Amusement at how blatantly racist this is (knowing that they are probably not racists at all).
Betrayal because fellow countrymen questioned your birthright.
I have a vivid memory of my high school history teacher assuming I was from China during a geography lesson and how humiliated I was when he asked me to confirm something about Chinese borders. One kid asked a question that was not answered in our text book and the teacher (the football coach) asked me to enlighten the class. I just shrugged, then hid crying in the bathroom. That was back in the 1980s and I’m sure no teacher would be that stupid nowadays. Although, my son’s French teacher did assume I was from Indonesia (??) just last year. But at least I wasn’t a student and said teacher is no longer at their school.
We talked about what happened and she said she felt OK about it and we laughed and joked. But we also reflected on how people don’t understand some things and probably never will and because of this, act in a prejudiced way that is hurtful to others without meaning to be. I don’t mind people asking me questions and wanting to know about my background, my racial make-up. But it does annoy the hell out of me when people just assume. The worst is when people are arrogant, ignorant and disrespectful about it. When they shout out “ni hao” or “ching chong chang” when I walk past them (yes, this still happens!) I feel it’s something I’ve passed down to my children and can’t help feeling sad for them because of it. There is nothing I can do to prevent anything like this or worse happening to them at any given point in time during their lives as kids or as adults. So what do I do?
My ethnic background has always been a private thing for me and I don’t generally talk about it very much because it’s difficult to describe the emotions surrounding it. But I do know that it’s inherent in my children and is a part of their lives too, and as children, they need help, guidance and to be able to share their experiences whether seeking comfort, answers or simply to talk about it with someone who understands.
My daughter is strong-willed, confident and sure of herself. She’s talented, intelligent and thoughtful. Perhaps I was more upset by what happened than she was. Perhaps she understands all this better than I do. Perhaps not. Perhaps it’s because of Brexit that the teachers included that question on the Bingo game. But racism for us, no matter how unintentional, existed long before Brexit. And now I have no idea how to end this blog post because it is one of those things that is never resolved!
Meghan Peterson Fenn is the author of Bringing Up Brits, co-author of Inspiring Global Entrepreneurs, co-founder and Director of Design and Web at Shake It Up Creative. And, she is an award winning expat blogger and mother of three.