de-colonising the young mind

I often find that so much of modern day parenting is about managing the guilt of imperfect, impossible, and out-of-reach, liberal, privileged Western, media constructions of what it means to be a ‘good parent’. And yet in between these angst ridden moments (fortunately few for me, given my belligerent and firmly held belief  belief  – always expressed in the exaggerated Lancashire accent that emerges when there is cause for concern – that no bugger can tell me how to parent…), those temporal gems that can only be described as sheer labour of love, are as enduring and full of impact as they probably always have been. I’m referring to those moments when the simple acts, those ones that cost nothing (how often have we heard this phrase? it’s easy for middle class people to refer to these ‘free’  moments, as if every parent, regardless of status, education, money, privilege, heritage and material wealth was able to mobilise ‘quality’ time with their children…) yield nigh infinite satisfaction.

Simply sitting with my child and playing alongside them, not necessarily talking, or guiding, or instructing, but simply being with them in that moment, has always been something quite magical, in an almost Disney-like sense (more of this in a minute). It speaks volumes to the child who notices, is aware of every bodily gesture, movement, twitch, and can detect restlessness, impatience, pseudo-play, and any other form of adult-generated falsity, that you and they are together, in a moment of activity and engagement that often requires no words, rules, instructions, or guidelines. These moments afford me an opportunity to learn about myself, and my relationship to the world, as well my relationship to my child. It demands of me that I focus on the relationship not as that which is to be performed, adorned, utilised, implemented, or instrumentalised. It demands the relationship be of a simple truth (oh yes, post-structural and constructionist versions of all-but-the-sink be damned, here there is a truth), and that is the truth of this relation-in-moment. Children are perceptive, as we all know (and as countless child-centred horror films keep reminding us…), they have a way of detecting sincerity, and true engagement, though can often be distracted by loud funny noises, colours and shapes).

Given this magical quality to the relation-in-moment then, reading to my children was and is always the point at which imagination, creativity, intellect, morals and values all converge in a process that is often seen as fundamental in shaping young minds and lives. So often we hear that yet another research study has proven that above all, reading to children, may well set the most pivotal conditions for intellectual development in early years. And when this process is so evidently powerful, what about WHAT we read to them?

Princesses, dressed in flowing dresses, princes, dressed in muscle enhancing costumes, blond hair, blue eyes, and the one constant, defining, over-arching, all encompassing-yet-invisible dynamic of all: whiteness. It is not just the presence of whiteness in children’s stories that mark the issue – it is the combination of all the above plus the differential and hierarchical representation of all that is non-white in the stories.  Try as we might, and by ‘eck, we’ll keep trying (there’s that accent again), the white-Disneyisation of humanity seeps into the relation-in-moment as an aspiration: ‘Can I be like Princess Elsa Daddy?’ ‘Can I have blond hair Daddy?’, ‘When I grow up I want to be a princess like …’ – and this despite the respectable efforts of team Keval (who lets face it are not alien to radical and critical thought…)

So, de-colonising the mind (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decolonising_the_Mind and especially the brilliant workshops at http://www.decolonizingthemind.org/) is not an abstract conceptual, linguistic process, or limited to an impossible structural revolution where the constraints of neo-colonial power are dismantled…it is an emotional journey. For me it started a long time ago when I noticed that my so-called ‘heroes’ in works of fiction neither looked nor sounded like me, and represented, ultimately, the oppression and injustice meted out to entire sub-continents. What’s this go to do with reading my children bed time stories? Absolutely everything.

All around them, non-verbal messages, adverts, utterances, moments of being noticed or ignored, forms of acceptable dress, heroes, heroines, role models, all dominant narratives that silence notions of being, of self, of truth, and work constantly to erode layers of cultural, linguistic, psychological identity, and replace them with…well, take a look at children’s stories, adverts, TV, toys, and films. Its pretty clear what kinds of identity are being reinforced for all children…but for some children, for some people, the impact is far more substantial than others.

The challenge is in providing substance to the alternative narratives, images, pictures, stories, messages, utterances, codes, cultural facets (I call them alternative because they are in that moment of an alterity yet to be moulded into a feasible and equal possibility). This needs to be done sufficiently so the child can engage with the notion of difference that does not demand hierarchical value. It is possible – it happens all the time in large, cosmopolitan, mixed urban cities. The key is to be able to somehow recreate that syncrecy of lived multiculture within ones home, and importantly within the psyche (for one’s self and ones’ children).

There is a weight that bears down, and which must be resisted, and that weight is made up of the history of colonial and imperial power. It is here with us in every second of our lives, and in the very fabric of our lived, social and cultural lives. Raising children within the folds of such a fabric is complex, difficult, contingent, and momentary. It is also joyous, because it generates the possibilities of creativity and thinking through dialogue and discussion. It is revealing, because when children are given the opportunity to talk about difference – in body shape, skin colour, size, accent, language, dis/ability, age, sexuality, religion, it is in these moments of engagement that de-colonising the young mind starts. And when this happens, their sheer, utter ability to transcend raciality gives one the hope that actually, its all possible in this lifetime. Helping to build coherent, stable, psycho-social identities that may just withstand some of the many and multi-faceted impacts of modern, racialised, global capitalism is a labour of love.

Do we get it right all the time? Dont be daft. Parenting is 50% trying to avoid handing your children the psychological baggage you have been carrying round, and 50% feeling guilty for failing miserably to do that. But going through (and still on) my own intellectual, bio-graphical, academic and personal journey has taught me a thing or two about this arena, this process, and that it is a journey I might just, as a parent help my children with. Maybe.  Its also sometimes just great fun to play with Lego and read silly stories. Lets no forget that.

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