When do you tell your kids about racism?

By Siddy Shivdasani

I was always going to have a mixed race child because I am mixed race.

My daughter is nearly nine years old and I’d always thought shielding my child from the concept of racism should be for as long as possible. But I’m starting to question that.

I have a complicated relationship with my racial make-up because, although I’m half Indian and half English, most think I look white.

It’s caused all sorts of identity problems, some of my own making, now I look back aged 48. My daughter’s mother — my now ex-partner — is a second generation Indian immigrant.

She has identity issues of her own and I’m not sure at what point she became aware of racism and in what sense.

I first became aware of the issue when I was seven. It was a warm summer’s day in Kennington Park, south London.

This is an extract from my book, Melting Pothead:

“I was playing with a white friend my age when a white boy a few years older approached us and started telling us that “black people are bad”. I tried to persuade him that there are good people and bad people, full stop. My friend got the heebie-jeebies and promptly left after trying to persuade me to come with him. I stayed to argue the case. I told him “I’m half Indian” and [for the purposes of this discussion] “I’m black”.

He said: “Come with me.”

I followed him to a secluded skateboard area in the park. As soon as I entered, I was surrounded by a group of maybe 20 black boys aged between about nine to 12. One, who was clearly the leader, emerged from the crowd and the white kid who’d brought me told him: “He says he’s black!”

The leader asked me: “Are you black?”

It seemed like a Catch 22 situation but I got the feeling I needed to make a quick decision so I piped up: “Yeah.”

The leader said: “Let him go.”

The white kid was luring racists into a trap. I wonder what happened to those who took the bait. Quite sophisticated in its own way.

Police in east London used similar tactics decades later to snare violent racists. Presumably, the offenders just got arrested and prosecuted.

I grew up on The Frontline in the black capital of Europe, Brixton, south London. I rarely had problems out on the streets, probably because people — of all colours — in the area saw me grow up there.

But I had a fatal falling out with a white friend a few years ago because, despite my upbringing and him being my flatmate on The Frontline, he told me that “just because you’ve listened to a bit of Dr. Dre doesn’t mean you know about racism”.

I also went to Pimlico School, Westminster, when it was the most multi-racial school at the country. I think the 1,500 kids there had links to something like 36 countries in total.

Race was an issue but most of it within my tutor group was banter, which did admittedly get out of hand from time to time. Unfortunately, across the year, many other boys started affiliating themselves along racial lines aged around 13.

To be honest, there was no getting away from the issue. The sad thing, though, is that there was a lot more racial mixing with young boys then than I see now. The human race likes to think that things are always progressing but that’s not always the case.

Look at the latest rise of the far-right in Britain and beyond since…maybe 9/11. It’s a war of ideas. This brings me back to my daughter…

Black Lives Matter protestors clashed with far-right counter-demonstrators in central London on June 13 and more than 100 arrests were made.

But the shocking moment for me later that day was when I was coming home from the high street on foot with my daughter in West Norwood, which is as multi-racial as Brixton.

Around 150 or so white men on their way back from the central London clashes had gathered with England flags, Millwall flags and cooler boxes full of lager in a grassy patch in a largely black council estate.

With a white appearance, I didn’t feel directly threatened but it suddenly hit me that my young daughter does look pretty much full Indian. For a moment, I lost sight of her but was relieved seconds later when I saw her a step behind me, oblivious to the sinister pissing in corners going on around us.

I mean, south London-based Millwall Football Club play in blue but these yobs had black flags with “Millwall FC” emblazoned on them in Nazi-style fonts. I overheard some of them comparing war wounds from the demo.

It shook me up as I grasped my daughter’s hand.

That was a pretty extreme example of a sense of immediate danger but it gets a lot more subtle than that.

My white, English mum brought me up pretty much singlehandedly but I was having a heart to heart with her a few years ago and I wanted to know how I’d got to my mid-40s without ever having a discussion with her about being mixed race.

The funny thing is that my daughter’s best friend at school is mixed race. I don’t know if that’s a coincidence or if something is going on at an unconscious level.

So I decided to ask my daughter how she felt about being a person of colour. She said she doesn’t think about it, which is great. But I told her that she can always talk to me about being mixed race whenever she wants.

I don’t want her to be unprepared for it and I don’t want to rob her of her innocence. The thing is, though, my first exposure to the concept of racism came when I was two years younger than she is now.

I’d prefer to be available and for her to have a slight awareness rather than be left bewildered, perhaps burying stuff the way I did.