SCHOOLDAYS are said to be the best days in your life, but for Asian children in Britain they are often the harshest. At five they are pushed into an environment where the language is new, the rules incomprehensible and where, unless it is a predominantly Asian area, they are made to realise that they belong to a special category - Asian. And being an Asian is almost always made out to be a disadvantage.
The structure of primary education in Britain is implicitly racist - in the books used, the curriculum, the teachers’ attitudes. But discussion of racism is taboo. When I asked the headmistress of a junior school my daughter had been attending about the racist remarks children at the school had been making, her answer was well-meaning and typical: ‘Asking them to say thank you "and "please" or asking them not to swear is one thing but asking them not to say "nigger" or "wog" or "black people stink" is quite another, A discussion of these things would only make the atmosphere worse.’
For Asian children, racism is impossible to ignore. School, with its white figures in authority, its totally foreign values and judgements, comes as a shock. After the initial effects of this wear off, children begin to realise their own and their parents’ position. The rules of the education system are only implicitly racist but the way Asian children are actually treated in school is often quite overtly so. When a child gets out of line in assembly and the teacher shouts ‘Don’t you understand English or are you just stupid’, or when Asian parents who do come to speak to teachers are laughed at or rebuffed, children both black and white, learn just how Asians are thought of by people who matter.
Many Asian children at primary school react by trying to dissociate themselves from their own race. Indian children, for example, often become ashamed of anything Indian, disowning their food and their language and in some cases even their Indian first names. A few try to make even their skin as inconspicuous as possible - as white as possible, A teacher in an East London primary school once told me of an ‘amusing’ incident when an Indian girl of ten was reduced to tears when she had to go out in the sun in the summer term. The reason - she was afraid of ‘becoming black’.
This apparent rejection of one’s race is often accompanied by a desire not to stand out, not to cause trouble, to tiptoe about hoping nobody will notice you. Why? Because this is not your country, because the British have done you a favour by letting you in.
For an Asian child growing up in Britain there is a choice. Either you stand outside your own community and see yourself as non-Asians see you, which often means identifying with racist opinion, or you learn to hate people who say racist things. Many children are caught in between. They lead a double life, on the surface passive, even servile, but inside they suffer.
Children below the age of nine seem too young to fight against cultural racism at school. It is as stunned into accepting the inferiority with which white society has labelled them. But from about the age often, their feelings seem to change. It is not that racism vanishes - In fact it intensifies and violence increases - but most children start to face up to it and their ‘inferiority’ usually clears away. After all. when racism takes the form of violence. they can’t fail to recognise it as an attack on themselves, and part of a value system which they cannot accept. Feelings of inferiority fade and are replaced by an acute awareness of the need to protect themselves and their community. But when young Asians stand up for themselves and fight back against racist attacks, they often find themselves facing a new enemy -- the police.
‘Conspiracy’ of self-defence
This month, on October 24. eight Asian youths will appear before a London court charged with the serious crime of conspiracy. The eight boys all live in Newham, a borough in London’s East End with a 27 per cent black population. Their ‘crime’ - organising themselves to protect young Asians (including their younger brothers and sisters) at a local primary school, On September 14 last year about 15 white youths with sticks invaded the playground of Little Ilford School. Three days later an Asian boy of 12 was so badly beaten up at morning break by white youths from outside the school that he had to be taken to hospital. Two days later, a gang of 60-70 skinheads with sticks and iron bars rampaged through the streets kicking and abusing black people before confronting Asian school children going home from football, None of these incidents was reported in either the national or local press.
On September24 a group of Asian youths, after hearing of another planned attack on Little Ilford school, waited outside the school gates. No white gangs appeared and the Asians decided to check the surrounding areas to ensure the safety of the children returning home. At this point, a car drew up carrying several white men. There was a fight in which one boy. Kalbir Singh Khala, was so badly injured that he had to be taken to hospital and another. 19-year-old Inder Johal, lost his front teeth, A police van arrived and the Asians were arrested and taken to Forest Gate police station. It was only then, the youths say, that they realised the white men were plainclothes police officers.
The Asian youths were charged with offences ranging from threatening behaviour to inflicting actual bodily harm on police officers. They became known as the ‘Newham Eight’ and have since been charged with conspiracy.
The events leading to the arrest of the ‘Newham Eight’ are typical of conditions in many schools in Britain today. Yet a mask of official indifference still hides the everyday reality of racism in British schools. Last November Saul Ezra, the head teacher of Little Ilford School. told me: ‘There is really no problem of racist violence in our school’, And this despite the playground invasions and beating-up of an Asian boy only two months earlier, At nearby Langdon school, where National Front leaflets were circulated last year, an Asian girl claimed:
‘Teachers are not really interested. Every day we get pushed and spat upon in the corridors by white boys. When there is a fight about, it is usually the Asians who get punished.’
An Asian boy who left another school in the area two years ago said: ‘What looked like whole families of skinheads would come in cars and wait outside the school - nearly every day there would be a fight and some Asians would get beaten up, with support from the bigger brothers of the skinheads. The police would come and take names and addresses of the Asians. No one was ever caught. A few teachers were sympathetic, but they were afraid of gangs. They would be threatened "We’ll get you outside".
Young Asians at another East London secondary school, Eastlea. say the violence has continued and Asians are fighting back. ‘But because we are hitting back, the police who were never interested in what happened to us are now attacking us.’ They find it very hard to concentrate on their school work in this atmosphere and believe that, because they have traditionally done well academically. the violence is another way of ‘putting them down’. A major effect of this combination of police action and inaction is the criminalisation of young Asians, as evidenced by the conspiracy charges against the ‘Newham Eight’ -Among Britain’s school teachers, the overwhelming majority of whom are whites, a small minority do take a strong anti-racist line both inside and outside the classroom. But they are exceptions, often fighting a lone and unsuccessful battle against the racism of the school system and the society of which it in an integral part. The majority of their colleagues prefer not to talk either about their own attitudes to race or about racism in their schools. And while discussion of racism in British schools remains taboo, racial conflict continues to mount.