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Image design: Archi Banal
Image design: Archi Banal

PoliticsFebruary 25, 2022

Children don’t invent racism, they learn it

Image design: Archi Banal
Image design: Archi Banal

When discrimination goes unchecked, it’s picked up and carried on by young people, writes Anjum Rahman.

Children do not invent racism, they learn it from the adults around them.  They learn it from conversations and jokes, from media and social media.  They quickly pick up the concepts, and the acceptability of comments and actions they see, even if they have been told racism is wrong.

Racist violence in schools is not, by any means, a new problem.  The violence isn’t always physical, and it has lasting impact.  Growing up in 1970s Kirikiriroa (Hamilton), it played out in social exclusion, constant harassment, a curriculum that was heavily biased and teachers who enacted racism in the classroom.  For too many other people, physical violence has been part of the mix.

One would think that times have moved on, that we have come to a point after many decades, where schools are places of safety from violence for all students.  Many schools are, but in too many cases, they still are not.  Schools mirror wider society, and children have their own ways of exacting intolerance with a cruelty that adults might sometimes moderate.

We have an unsegregated school system in Aotearoa, at least by law.  But as this report indicates:

In general, as a region’s ethnic diversity increases, schools become less diverse compared to the overall diversity of the region’s school population. This would seem to indicate that in these regions ethnic groups are more clustered and not as dispersed across communities, compared with less diverse regions.

A practical example is Freeman’s Bay School which has a much more ethnically diverse population, compared to Ponsonby Primary School.  They are a 2.2km apart, which is minimal in Auckland terms, draw from similar neighbourhoods and yet have a significant disparity in diversity.

There is no doubt that people are choosing to segregate in many of our towns and cities, and again, this is not a new phenomenon.  That doesn’t speak well for these children being able to gain the experience of valuing and celebrating difference.  No doubt staff are doing their best, but it’s the choices parents make which ultimately determine the world view of many of these kids.

A recent news report (Screengrab: RNZ)

It’s not just the physical environment that has impact.  The online world has become one of intense hostility and anger, and we know it is deliberately designed to do so to drive traffic.  It’s a mirror of the talkback radio style of shock jocks being as controversial as possible to generate the emotion that would motivate a call in.  Generating anger and fear is an online political tool which is not always visible, with paid operatives using fake accounts and deliberately skewing trends.

Verbal violence has become widespread and normalised, so that death and rape threats, harassment and intimidation are an everyday experience for too many.  Our institutions struggle to keep up and respond, so that many women and people of colour are being silenced in precisely the way that was intended by deliberately designed campaigns.

We’re seeing the impact of this environment of hostility not just in an incident of school violence, but also in the events currently playing out next to parliament.  I’m no stranger to protests.  Unlike a certain yachtsman, there are many causes which have deserved my attention.  Whether it was against the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2002, the publication of cartoons in the Dominion Post, the women’s march, supporting people who experience violence overseas, protesting the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, in support of unions, or against child abuse.

I have pounded the streets with large numbers of others, I’ve spoken at these protests and in some cases have done media follow-up.  I’ve supported sit-ins, shouted slogans, watched shoes being thrown.  There are those that dismiss us with the label “rent-a-crowd” – I’m still waiting for that rental payment to come in.

In all the years I marched, advocated, or spoke publicly, I have yet to make a death threat or any other threat of harm to another person.  Even after the Christchurch mosques attacks, when I lost faith in the institutions that were supposed to serve and protect us, I called for people to be held accountable and removed from their positions.  But personal threats, intimidation and abuse are not, and should never be, a part of advocacy.

Many of those on parliament grounds would and do oppose that kind of abuse as well.  They are there for a cause they believe in, while for I believe it’s a dangerous cause that will bring harm to others, I support their right to be there, to stay and to raise their voice.

On the other hand, there is clearly documented evidence of the presence of white supremacists and other extremists not only in person but influencing the events from a distance.  If you aren’t following people like Te Rangikaiwhiria Kemara, Byron C Clark and others documenting their activities, you should be.

The harm to minority communities from these events cannot and should not be underestimated.  Standing alongside people who feel comfortable using pictures of a hanging claimed to be the Nuremberg trials (it’s not); antisemitic imagery and language; people who have denied the Christchurch mosque attacks happened and participated in clear and open Islamophobia? It legitimises those people.  It sends the signal that when you deem your particular cause to be more important than the safety of others, you will stay silent and take no action to prevent that harm.

The children are watching, they are soaking it in and learning what is acceptable to the adults around them.  They are then enacting that harm in our schools.  We cannot be OK with this.

Keep going!