Media hysteria around new book

July 24, 2008 — Comment

Written by Liz Fekete

A recent guide on how to deal with race equality issues with pre-school age children has been mercilessly distorted by sections of the media.

Two of the UK’s experts, one Black, one White, one in the Lords, one a ‘commoner’ and both seasoned practitioners, helped produce a three hundred-plus page book on one of the most pressing topics in the UK today. It should be met with serious consideration, instead it has met little but derision in the popular press.

Reason? The book is about racism. Worse, it is about racism in children. Worse still, it is written by two people – primarily by Jane Lane, but a foreword is provided by Lord Ouseley, associated with ‘the race industry’ – who were already mauled in the press for an article on the same subject in 2006.

The one issue guaranteed to send the rightwing press into apoplexy over the last twenty years is that racist behaviour in the young should be challenged. Anything from getting rid of gollywogs to promoting integrated casting for advertising directed at children is castigated. The Right reads all such efforts as forms of Stalinism – a thought policing unbecoming of tolerant Britishness.

On 24 June, the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) published Young Children and Racial Justice taking action for racial equality in the early years which was described as a comprehensive guide for policymakers, practitioners and trainers. There are ten sections in the book covering definition of terms, manifestations of racism, how children imbibe attitudes, child development theories, how behaviour and attitudes can best be influenced, race equality policy, dealing with racist incidents, race legislation, government requirements and race equality in early years settings.

Before the book had even had its official launch, the Daily Mail was poring over a pre-publication issue. On 7 July, Steve Doughty had his story ready. The headline read ‘Children as young as three should be reported for “racism”, Government-funded group claims’. The story went on to say that nursery teachers should inform on youngsters, toddlers should be taught about racism, racist incidents involving children as young as three were to be recorded and reported and these could include saying ‘yuk’ to unfamiliar food. The NCB was described as receiving £12 million of taxpayer’s money. Attached to this was a reminder to readers about a story in 2006 when a judge threw out a case brought by the CPS against a boy of 10 for calling another child ‘Paki’ and ‘Bin Laden’.

The Daily Mail had its story – and it was to be found repeated again and again in the press and on blogs. The Telegraph led the next day with ‘Toddlers who dislike spicy food “racist”‘ carrying the same canards about the NCB getting £12 million a year from the government and children saying ‘yuk’ to be reported to a higher authority. BBC News was there too with ‘Nursery alert for racist toddlers’ and the fact this was a government-sponsored agency report mentioning name-calling such as ‘yuk’ to new culinary traditions. The British National Party put the Telegraph story on its website, illustrated with a cartoon lampooning the idea that a child, who cannot even say the word racist, could be portrayed as some sort of devil. The Telegraph invited readers to comment on whether ‘disliking spicy food is a sign of racism’ and over one thousand comments can be found on its comment page, all but twelve of them negative. Responses to the story have not just stopped in the confines of blogs. Lane and the staff at the NCB have received a series of abusive, sexist, racist and obscene emails.

Leave aside the fact that racism in children is a really important issue and that Lane is one of the very few who address it, so many of the ‘facts’ in what became the story are myth and distortion. The NCB does not get £12 million from the government and anyway Jane Lane was paid nothing to write the book. The author does not suggest reporting children to a local council, nor does she use the term ‘toddler’ which already suggests someone too young to be reasoned with. The book is extremely careful about cautioning staff as to how to ‘read’ racism and challenge rather than castigate behaviour.

The example about children turning their nose up at food actually reads as follows:

‘Indications of racial prejudice may not always be perceived as such. Indeed it is important always to pursue such indications with a view to ascertaining the reasons for them. For example, a child may react negatively to a culinary tradition other than her own by saying “yuk” – this may mean a lack of familiarity with any food not seen or eaten before or, more seriously, a reaction to food associated with people from a particular ethnic or cultural community. Care is always needed in following up such reactions to differentiate very clearly between a child’s natural apprehension and racial prejudice.’

Related links

National Children’s Bureau (NCB)

Buy a copy of Young Children and Racial Justice taking action for racial equality in the early years.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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