I’ve never had a conversation about race with my children. Simply because I never quite found it necessary to bring attention to the colour of their skin. At least, not yet.
I am a strong believer that children are born colour blind, oblivious to the tone of their skin and in turn, the concept of race. In raising my three Arab-Malay children aged eight, five and one, I find that it is in their best interest to remain so, for as long as they can.
Let me explain why.
Without being hyper-aware of the colour of their skin, I find that they see themselves and everyone around them to be of similar standing. Their approach to people is pragmatic and free of preconceived notions. To date, I’ve not detected self-doubt that might have arisen because they are a minority. And this is something that I’m happy about.
When my eldest was about three and still an only child, we would often take her to indoor playgrounds. She would befriend other kids, and from what I’ve noticed, her decision on who to approach depended on factors such as friendliness, level of boisterousness, age, and not if the other kid is a Malay, Indian, Chinese or European. She has, at different points, approached kids of all backgrounds depending on the aforementioned factors.
Then you have my second child, an energetic, cheeky, patience-zapping boy who is quite a people person. For two consecutive years, his kindergarten teachers tell me that he is friendly, gets along with everyone, and is one of the rare few (their observation, not mine) who is not picky with friends. Apparently, he befriends everyone, and the teachers love that about him.
I would like to think that my approach is reaping the effects that I want. My children are making judgments on people as to how they rightfully should – character, actions, behaviour and not by how they look. And on the reverse, they also understand that rightfully, this is how others should see them too.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case. I know that we are judged by a host of other factors in reality, and not to worry; parenthood has made sure that my head is not in the clouds. My point here is, let’s not have our children easily think that race is one of them.
As much as I would like to, I cannot be by the children’s side 24/7 (erm, mother of three here!) and shield them from unfair treatment or opinions that may come about based on the colour of their skin.
As a parent, I can prepare them for such situations and attempt to explain the logic and reasoning behind an unfortunate behaviour. More importantly, I want to be sure that they are not individuals who perpetuate this thinking.
So yes, this conversation about race needs to be had.
One particular Instagram post accelerated this need. After a spate of events involving racial-related incidents (MRT lady, Nanyang Poly lecturer, the People’s Association saga), @wakeupsingapore, an Instagram account with 100K followers, has been collating and sharing stories related to race.
There are several stories posted but one, particularly bothered me. It was submitted by a private tutor who shared that a girl from a minority race was having a hard time with the other students in the class.
According to the post, the other tutees refused to sit next to her, would speak in their common mother tongue to exclude her and made unkind remarks on the colour of her skin, among many things.
When the tutor called out the behavior as racist, one child nonchalantly said to his tutor: “So what if I am racist? My father is racist too.”
This very line took me right back to the time when I was a part-time tutor during my junior college days. I had a smart 9-year-old student who, probably out of frustration one day, blurted out that there was a bully in school who kept making fun of the scent of oil that was applied to his hair each morning.
“Teacher, what can I do? My mother doesn’t know and might make it worse,” he lamented. We devised a clapback which involved straight talk and I remember up to this day how pleased he was that he managed to stand up to that particular bully.
And here we are, 22 years later, and kids are still having similar experiences.
Children can be mean and become even meaner when enabled by authority figures, that is us, the parents. To harbour disdain for someone and treat them badly due to the colour of their skin is not right. No ifs and no buts.
To pass down these thoughts to our children is an even bigger wrong and doing them a disservice. What are we striving for by doing this? Is there a ‘Mean Kid’ award that I don’t know about?
These personal and private feelings may have developed as we ourselves were growing up, based on the prejudices and stereotypes that the generation before us had harbored. If it’s not that, it could be the environment we were exposed to, may it be the home, school or office that conditioned us to be privy to such a school of thought.
It is already 2021, don’t you think it is high time to dismantle them?
After all, we have become more educated, well-travelled, and ultra-connected thanks to social media. To take a step forward towards a racially conscious community, we first need to unlearn such prejudices and start with a clean slate.
Growing up, my parents were fairly neutral and for as much as I remember, barely raised racial prejudices, stereotypes or any kind of racist theories with me. They have, however, repeatedly reminded me to be hardworking, to always be punctual and forbade me to take MC, unless I could not physically get out of bed.
Looking back, I have a suspicion that it was their way of developing very specific traits for me to fight the Malay stereotype. This is what is defined as internalised racism, which I too wish to unlearn.
Even with their seemingly tame stand, I still developed preconceived notions and prejudices in my formative years. Then into my early working years, I started to question these illogical beliefs, rationalise them, and form new opinions of my own. This is what some would say, is a work in progress.
Once we start to dismantle long standing beliefs, we start over. Personally, this bit of starting over is what I see as a journey to take with my three kids. Both they and I start on a clean slate. Only mine is forced clean while theirs were in that state to begin with.
And I do not wish to taint it.
In my bid to raise racially conscious children, I’ve made every reasonable effort to expose them to people of different races. This goes beyond hello and goodbye interactions.
I’ve found that hosting lunches and dinners in our home serves this purpose rather well. When other kids come over, it is a riot. It is a fantastic opportunity to share our food, culture and show others that we are, despite our skin colour, are quite the same – human.
I also like that it creates opportunities to clarify certain misconceptions or explain certain beliefs to guests. An ex-colleague turned good friend once said at my dinner table, “Arabs and Malays are the same right?”
For the record, we are not. I took the opportunity to explain. He was ignorant, but I was glad that I could nip that misconception in the bud. He now knows the difference.
Then there are my Chinese neighbours whose kids play with mine almost every other day. They get along like a house on fire. My daughter declares the 11-year-old girl as her best friend.
A few days ago, they bought my kids a packet of sweets. However, it contained pork gelatin, which we, as Muslims are not able to consume. Was I offended? Not at all.
I know that my neighbour had no ill intentions, and it was an honest case of forgetting to read the ingredient list. I could have thrown it out to avoid what could be an uncomfortable conversation but I thought it would be good opportunity to raise awareness so that they would know better. Education is key to breaking down barriers. They were apologetic and sent us fruits the next day.
We relish invitations to our friends’ homes to celebrate their festivals. This creates opportunities for us to expose our children to other cultures and, often, a platform to learn. My kids have asked questions such as: “Why do we bring oranges to Auntie Sharon’s house?” or “What does the Christmas tree mean?”
Living in a multicultural society such as Singapore’s, I feel it is necessary to inculcate this interest in our children, to want to know about others who live among them. Immersing them in such environments does help.
It is important to stress the importance of celebrating and respecting differences. I like to tell the kids that it keeps things exciting and gives us each a unique identity to share with each other. Differences are to be celebrated and not hated.
So perhaps, unknowingly, I have been having that conversation after all. Maybe not a sit-down, serious one but in a way such that it is palatable to young children such as mine.
With the inevitable influence of social media, it is now about making this conversation, this education process, clearer than ever before.
Raising racially conscious children starts with us, it starts at home. And when in doubt on how to, you can always ask Google.
Suhana Ab is a mother of three and loves having friends over for lunch. She was an editor at a luxury lifestyle magazine for ten years and left to run her own business. Occasionally, she emerges from editorial retirement and writes on topics close to her heart.