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Devjani Bodepudi writes a personal essay about growing up as the 'other' and why reading diverse books to children creates a culture of inclusion
We bring our children up in bubbles. They float around in a protective bouncy haze for as long as we can help it; from our homes to schools, to clubs and lessons and to playdates. Eventually, however, they will be exposed to a world we may not have adequately prepared them for. In my opinion, it is our job as parents and educators to provide our children with the tools to cope, grow and thrive in the world they will find themselves thrust into.
Growing up, I longed to be called Sarah and I wanted blond hair and fair white skin which freckled in the sun. In my dreams, I was a blond, white boy who could fly. I have not spoken to a mental health professional about these strange childhood phenomena, but I am quietly confident that these desires and subconscious fantasies stem from seeing little white girls and boys being the ones to have adventures and being the ones to succeed. They were the subject of books and films. They held magic in their wands, and they could fly! They were the ones who were seen. I was ‘the other.’
My mother made me wear oil in my hair while she plaited it tightly into a long a black rope which thwacked against my back as I ran. I prayed to odd looking gods with unpronounceable names. I ate with my hands and when I finally used a knife and fork for the first time, during school dinners, I fumbled and clattered with the cutlery until someone came to help me. The other children did not laugh. In my primary school, we were all different and so we were all the same. That was a comfort. But the small multicultural community where I grew up and gained my primary education was a ghetto of sorts. We did not have much money and we could only dream of the opportunities of children who were not like us. We knew that there were others like the ones we had read about, the ones on television and in the movies. We did not know them though we longed to be them.
My skin is a dark brown and I cannot blush. My name is strange, and some people find it hard to say. As I was growing up, there were no books about me, girls like me did not feature on screens, so I felt ugly. This was something I struggled with much more after moving from primary school to my new secondary school. It was a private establishment, and I gained a scholarship to learn there. My parents and I were so proud.
But the children I met at my new school, even the brown ones, were all white. They were proficient at eating with knives and forks, they did not have oil in their hair, and they did not pray to odd looking gods. I was ‘the other’. I was awkward and defensive, so I isolated myself and did not make many friends. The children were not to blame but neither was I.
I’m a teacher now and happily, I teach at a ‘No Outsiders’ school where diversity is welcomed. Faith, colour, gender, sexual identity, marital status, physical ability; these things which make up a person, will never be barriers to a person being welcomed and nurtured. We read the children picture books once every half term, which focus on diversity. We invite the children to respond. Books such as Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love and The Jasmine Sneeze by Nadine Kaadan or The Day War Came by Nicola Davies are so very important to us as a school. The children learn that war is a reality and there is a place called Syria. My children gasped and wept when they learnt that families just like theirs could be torn apart and they giggled with joy when they learnt of the Jasmine scented streets of Damascus, and equally, they were delighted that Julian’s grandmother helped him become the mermaid he was sure he was.
Children need to see and be seen, which is why we must expose them to as much diversity as we can. Only then can they truly be safe and happy.
The world we live in right now is divided in its ideologies. In many ways, in many places difference is a threat. It’s an excuse to divide and pillage. Donald J Trump and his tweets directed at four congresswomen of colour, telling them to ‘go back’ to their countries, was elected to power because of the very fact that the narrative of the successful, white, straight male has won out and has been heard more loudly than any other thus far. His supporters chanting racist slogans at his rally are commended as ‘incredible patriots’. But what if they had read the books I read to my children? What if they had met the authors? I doubt they would be able to direct so much hate towards another human being because of their differences.
It is for this reason we need to be wary of what our children are being exposed to. We need to celebrate ‘the other’. Children who grow up loved and celebrated for who they are, grow up to be champions of truth and all that is right.
“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom.
And when we can teach our children to love, through books, art, film and poetry, through celebrating all the wonderful achievements of humans of all hues, when that bubble finally bursts, and they walk out into a world of clashing colours and sounds, they will know what to do because we have taught them to love well.
Devjani is a writer and teacher of Indian descent. She has published many articles, poems and short stories online and was assistant/contributing editor for award-winning socio-political magazine, Kindle Magazine while she lived in India. Her forthcoming debut novella, Mirrors is soon to be published by Holland House Books. You can find more of her writing at email@example.com.