A new picture book has been launched in Cork by local author, Constantina O’Sullivan. Aimed at 2-to-6-year-olds, it features a group of children — Emily, Darek, Sophia, Sanjay and Katy — playing separately in the park, when another child arrives with a bubble wand. This brings the children together to play — the book’s title is Everyone Loves Bubbles, and, according to its publishers, it “aims to support young children’s understanding of ‘difference’”.
Once upon a time in the quite recent past, Ireland was a monocultural, monotheistic place where pretty much everyone was a white Irish Catholic, with cultural diversity comprised of a small scattering of white Irish Protestants. A line in Ulysses notes how Ireland “never persecuted the Jews”, because “she never let them in”, and a person of colour was so rare in Ireland that the Irish language could not quite describe black people other than as a ‘fearr gorm’ — a ‘blue man’. It would not be an overstatement to say that racist attitudes were ingrained, despite there being almost no racial or cultural diversity.
These days, we have the youngest population in the EU, which now includes Polish, English, Lithuanian, Latvian, Nigerian, Romanian, Indian, Philippine, German, American, Chinese, Slovakian, French, Brazilian, Hungarian, Italian, Pakistani, Spanish, Czech, and South African communities. While the numbers are not huge — Ireland’s biggest ethnic minority is Polish (122,000) followed by English (112,000) and the smallest is Czech and South African, (around 5,000 each), the demographic continues to broaden.
For the first time in our history, we have Irish black children, Irish Asian children, Irish Chinese children, and Irish children from various communities of differing culture, all mudd-ling along with native Irish children.
So how is that working out? Are small kids racist? The short answer is no. Not even slightly. “The basic attitude of children is not racist,” says Larry Fleming of the Irish Primary Principals Network. “Racism is learned behaviour. Views are formed by parental influences — this is what dictates attitudes. The actions of children are modelled on adults.”
I am the Irish parent of two kids whose ethnicity is a mouthful — they are Irish/British South African Asian and identify primarily as English. Growing up in multicultural Britain, whose diversity is well established, their ethnicity has always been as unremarkable as my own.
Until, that is, two years ago, when my daughter, then 13, was assaulted and racially abused by a school girl her own age in a public place in England. “Go back to your country, Paki,” shouted her violent assailant.
My daughter took the girl to court, where it emerged that she was from a deeply troubled background of known racists; the girl was mirroring what she had learned at home, and acting it out.
My daughter spoke of her surprise that anyone these days should come out with such dated hatred. She and her friends were shocked and upset; she pressed charges in the hope of preventing the girl from doing the same thing to anyone else. It was an isolated incident.
“Children are not inherently racist,” says Peter Mullan of the Irish National Teachers Organisation. “They get it from parents, older siblings, communities. Two decades ago racism was not an issue in our schools because we had the whitest population in Europe, but today 12% of our school population is made up of nationalities that are not [native] Irish.
“One of Ireland’s success stories is how schools responded to this — the Department of Education originally provided resources to help newcomer children. While these resources were at the frontline of the austerity cuts, by then the children had been integrated and established. There have been isolated incidents, but overall schools welcomed new kids. We can’t take it for granted, however — we still need resources. Like that new book, for instance.”
Mr Fleming believes Ireland’s attitudes towards race and diversity have changed since the days of the Celtic Tiger. “There are still levels of racism. But we are increasingly open and diverse. The UK is 50 years ahead of us in terms of multiculturalism, and we are following suit.”
He says we may be assimilating more successfully than the UK. We have bypassed the ‘No Blacks No Irish No Dogs’ era of early British multiculturalism. But racism does still exist in Ireland. “Travellers, our native minority, encounter the greatest racism,” he says.
The most crucial place for a successfully diverse society is preschool. Small kids of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds who grow up together, play together, hang out together in each other’s houses after school, will never be racist; why would they? They will include or exclude peers on the basis of whether they like them or not, rather than what colour or culture they are. Providing, of course, that we adults don’t mess up their natural inclusiveness; in this instance, it is we adults who could learn from our children.