Submerged by the sea of white faces

7th April 2000 at 01:00
GOOD parents, considering it their duty to provide the best education they can for their children, will do virtually everything in their power to achieve it. They will move house, move country, move mountains, in effect, to ensure it.

So when news breaks about some controversial decision a parent or parents have made regarding their offspring's education we can often relate to the painful choices that forced them to it.

Anita and Richard Smith found themselves the focus of media attention recently when they refused to send their 11-year-old son who is white to a 94 per cent Asian school in Luton. Mr Smith was suspended from his teaching post at that same school after explaining his reasons on television. But I understood their dilemma. I had to make a similar decision myself.

Our son, who is mixed-race, attended the village school, which is all white, from the age of four. My husband and I foresaw the probability that we might have to reconsider our decision to send him there. Since it has a good reputation locally, we deferred any question of moving him until the need arose. It arose sooner than we anticipated.

The first sign that his peers were responding negatively to our son's darker hue came when he told us, apropos of nothing one day, that pink skin was better than brown. It transpired that some boys in his class had told him so. He was not yet four-and-a-half years old.

My husband is white, I am black. We had taken great care to introduce him to the differences between our three colours. At home it was the natural state of affairs, one he had seen echoed in our wider family.

On each of the following three occasions that he mentioned the pinkbrown question we assured him that his colour is lovely and special; that black is special too and so is pink. It seemed to work.

Then we found he was being called the "brown boy" frequently enough for him to report it back to us. It wasn't going over his head nor was it going to go away.

"It's a statement of fact," the headteacher said by way of explanation when I took the matter to him. True. And though he took appropriate action, children as we know can be very cruel. It wasn't long before that cruelty manifested itself in less innoent name-calling - "chimpanzee" was the one he next brought home to us.

He is heir to a lexicon of racially derogatory names with which he will be acquainted soon enough. Who can blame us for seeking to delay the arrival of that day?

Not long after, he enquired while walking home from school: "Why am I the only brown boy in school, Mum?" I knew it was time to make that move.

I, too, was the only black child at three of the schools I attended, among them a senior school where my fellow pupils, and there were nearly 2,000 of them, were all white. My time there was, as you might imagine, tough. It's the reason I had foreseen the potential problems of an all-white educational environment for our son.

The local school would not have provided a culturally diverse environment in which his nascent sense of self-esteem could grow unhindered by negativity about his colour. He will be better prepared for the ethnicity of the real world and his place in it through more interaction with people like him and not just unlike him.

Which is why the quandary the Smiths faced struck a chord. They believe a predominantly Asian school would not suit their son ".either mentally, physically, emotionally." We arrived at a similar conclusion about our own child, albeit from a reverse standpoint.

One wonders, however, whether their decision was, like ours, free from conscious or sub-conscious racist reasoning.

If it was, one then questions the wisdom of airing those reasons at all, let alone on a television programme when they were always open to being misconstrued. It cannot be good for their son (to have parents branded racists) and it certainly wasn't good for Mr Smith.

Our son, like theirs, now goes to a school further from home. It is high-achieving and 93 per cent white and is the best we can do for him. That all important 7 per cent is made up of children who, like him, are of mixed-race heritage, and of Asians of whom there are two in his class.

We know it's good for him to have others around like himself. His difference is no longer a possible source of his feeling alienated, because his colour isn't an issue. At least not yet.

Charmaine Spencer is a freelance


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