I know it’s a common saying that children are less innocent than we often suppose, but I think there’s an addendum to that saying. It should really be, no children are truly innocent, and certainly, no child is innocent of the role of power in their lives. After all, a child’s first real memories and experiences are often centred around the intersection of their own desire and a parent saying no. I mention this because I want to write about two occasions that occurred recently that made me consider how quickly we learn behaviours – and how those behaviours continue to shape us
I was speaking to a child while we were waiting for him to get his vaccinations. His parents had chosen not to vaccinate him – a decision which, personally, I think is foolish, but of course I didn’t mention that. I like to talk to the students about the vaccinations – how the idea of vaccination works, a little bit about the history, and what they are getting vaccinated against, and why vaccinations are such an important thing in society at this time. Of course, most of the students knew a little bit about vaccinations, and were aware of the current arguments that non-vaccinated children should be refused entry to schools and child care centres.
Anyway, I asked this child – let’s call him Xavier – why his parents didn’t want him vaccinated. Before he could reply, another child jumped in and wanted to know why the government needed to know about Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander status – isn’t that racist? Cue a discussion about the life expectancy of Australian Aborigines and the poor health outcomes, linked to lifestyle, rural living and poverty. All good, and an important discussion to have with our children, but what struck me was the presupposition that anything to do with gathering information about identity is inherently racist. On many levels, racism is a phenomenally complex situation, but I was a little bit surprised – and disappointed that the first thing we teach children to do is to jump up and down the moment we hear the term race. It negates the possibility of important discussions about race – something that I think Australia needs to engage in, and soon.
The second conversation was, if anything, more disturbing. Speaking with some of my high achieving, highly educated colleagues, I was horrified at the casual racism that came from them. Without needing to go into too much detail about who said it and what was said, the basic gist of their discussion was that people of a particular race simply can’t be trusted to do a good job – in essence, you were shifty, lying and lazy.
Now, don’t forget, some of these people are responsible for the education of our young. The values that they hold up will be communicated to our children. That worries me…