Editorial: The personal panic is political

IssueSeptember 2013
Comment by Emily Johns

When I gave birth to my child, there he was, he was a boy! So different from me. If he had been a girl, I would have looked ahead at his childhood through the template of my own. I remember thinking: ‘Oh no, I don’t like football, I’ll need to get to grips with boys’ interests and needs’. I nevertheless gave him my dolls’ house furniture and found that he was his own person, didn’t like football anyway, and we did pretty well on gender, power and politics over the next 18 years.

But the other difference between me and my baby was race. He was born of me, so it was mystifying how we could be divided. And yet somewhere, in amongst all the joy in our difference, I had a mother’s anxiety about how his experience of the world would be different from mine because of the shade of his skin and a fold in his eyelids.

At three-days-old, an enormous bruise appeared covering his bottom and I panicked. ‘Ah, yes,’ said the health visitor, ‘Afro-Caribbean babies in the 1950s were all put on the “at risk” register, because it was thought their mothers all beat them’. ‘What,’ said his paternal grandfather, ‘do you mean to tell me that some babies don’t have blue bottoms?’ I was very happy that my own very distant Mongolian roots were romantically manifested in my child. But I met a woman in Iceland whose children were nearly given skin grafts because neither the doctors nor she had ever seen this ‘Mongolian Blue Spot’. Only a paediatrician returning from a sabbatical working with First Nations in Canada brought news of normalcy from the other side of the world.

At two-and-a-half, my little boy stood in a library looking at a frieze of photographs of children from around the world and he pointed to the child from South Asia, and said: ‘That’s me’. How early that self-identification with a racial type occurred for him I don’t know, but I do know that it was an important moment for me. I realised that he knew that he looked different from me. Did he at that point realise in some way that the people he looked most like were at a disadvantage in Britain compared to people who looked like me? I don’t know.

As a white mother of a child whose ancestry includes South Asians, my desire beyond anything was that my child would not experience the outward threats of racial abuse or the inward self-doubt caused by the knowledge of our world mired in racism. I have witnessed this child being racially abused and assaulted, but I can never know the effect of racism on his spirit, it is hidden from me like the Blue Spot.

Difference is a delight. The gorgeous, radiant diversity of human beauty. It is not racist to notice this difference. But we find ourselves born into a world in which our experience of these differences called race has been shaped for generations by systems of state, economic and cultural control to benefit those in power. To disentangle ourselves from this insidious mesh, that begins weaving itself into our lives in our infancy, takes more than just declaring our abhorrence.

In the ‘Power and Privilege’ workshop at PN Summer Camp we were asked to consider how we personally had contributed to the ‘fog of racism’. And I felt such deep relief that I was with a community that was brave enough to work together undoing the terrible template.

Topics: Radical living, Race
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