My daughter and I watched a Newsround report where British-Chinese children talked about some of the racist name-calling they have suffered because some people say that the coronavirus started in Wuhan, a city in China (I deliberately made that sentence sound like a Newsround report – in the hope they’ll hire me as a scriptwriter).
It’s a hard watch, seeing adorable little kids talking about being called names and told to, “get back to China” – and totally baffling to my daughter, who is seven. Racism is an alien concept to her: she has only heard about it, never experienced it. I have no doubt she will eventually, because we all come across idiots in our lifetimes.
Still, my girl once told me off when I couldn’t place the friend she was talking about. I said, “Sara? Is that the little Chinese girl?” My daughter was shocked: “Mummy! She’s English!”
I apologised and said: “Of course she’s English”, and giggled a bit to myself – because it’s the very values she has picked up from me which made her pretty much accuse me of being a big, fat bigot.
There will be parents, though, who are even bigger racists than me – and who will have said vile things which their children will skip into a playground and boldly repeat. Teaching children empathy is hard when their parents don’t do the same. It’s very annoying when other people don’t raise their children to be nice. It’s not that hard to remind them: “Chew with your mouth closed”, say “please” and “thank you”, “don’t be a hateful moron” (my children might say the first one is the most important one to me, but all three are vital).
One little boy in the video described something which happened to him which took me right back to my own childhood. He said, “I was with my mum and these teenagers in a car started shouting racist things to us”. It’s very hard to understand why anyone would want him – or any child – to have anything other than a lovely day.
There is a spot on Hanger Lane in west London, just before the parade of shops on the gyratory, when exactly the same thing happened to me, when I was five. A carload of young people – men and women – wound the window down as my mum and I walked hand-in-hand and shouted, “Go Home” and “P*kis” at us.
The effect of receiving that kind of hostility when you are a kid, particularly from people old enough to drive, is pretty powerful. For a start, you are scared. Properly scared – because these people behave like monsters, and children are famously terrified of monsters. Monsters are generally fixated with doing you harm.
But beyond visceral terror, which passes, your outlook cracks; the world becomes a different shape, your trust in it breaks and that’s the part that stays with you. Anyone who has been bullied by an adult as a child can attest to this. Children live in a world where, all being well, adults are there to be kind to be nice to them and look after them. It is utterly baffling and terrifying when they are hateful, or try to humiliate them.
The positive side is that at least we talk about it, now – and this particular group of children were on TV talking about it, which would’ve been unthinkable to us 80s kids.
I remember when a Lebanese girl joined my primary school – she was running an errand for her teacher, and came into our classroom without knocking. Our teacher said to her, “I suppose where you’re from you don’t knock, you blow doors open” – and we all laughed, as she stood blinking back tears.
When, after the Iran hostage crisis, the American embassy in Tehran was stormed by Pro-Ayatollah activists who held American hostages there for 444 days, things got tough for Iranian kids like me who had once fled Iran. I was six when the attack on the embassy happened. I had nothing to do with it. I wasn’t even in Iran – I was in London minding my own business, but for the entirety of my childhood (and beyond) I endured comments like, “You gonna take us hostage, then?”
It wasn’t just from other kids – but by adults, too. We couldn’t talk to anyone about how it made us feel, because we were ashamed of it. So many Iranians, especially boys (who got the worst of the abuse) would happily allow people to think they were Italian if their skin colour allowed it. One Iranian kid I grew up with is still known as “Carlos” to many. Even I lied to people, mostly taxi drivers and drunk men in bars, that I was Spanish – which I got away with if I shook my long curly dark hair across my face. All in an effort to bypass the inevitable “terrorist” and “Ayatollah” quips.
Sad that it is that Newsround had to make an item highlighting the abuse children have been suffering, it’s still bloody marvellous that we have moved forward enough to acknowledge in the mainstream what is going on – giving kids a voice to express how they feel when it happens.
Also, on the positive side, being made to feel like an outsider hugely fuels the desire to be a comedian – and to get a second chance in the playground. I know that personally, and look forward to the five-star Edinburgh Fringe shows of some of the British-Chinese children, talking about what they have been through this last year.Column, The Independent, Writing