Better by half

A Leicester Family Service Unit project is helping children to
be proud of their mixed race heritage and deal with the racism they
encounter in society. Frances Shelbourne and Jo Taylor explain.

“The black kids call me names and the white kids call me names.
It would be better to be dead, then I just wouldn’t be here,” one
confused eight-year-old girl insisted. Another said: “I was white
when I was a baby, I’m not going to have mixed race children.”

Mixed race children are overly represented in the care system,
and there appears to be an enormous gap in specifically targeted
preventive services. It is difficult to develop pride in your sense
of identity, to know how to deal with racist taunts, prejudiced
remarks and subtle undermining messages when you are eight.

It is even harder when most of your family is white and neither
the white or the black kids at school see you as one of them. Yet
addressing these children’s needs can be done with relatively few
resources and a limited budget. Two Halves One Whole, a group for
dual heritage/ mixed race children aged between seven and 11 at
Leicester Family Service Unit, was an attempt to bring children
together in a safe environment where they could benefit from
sharing their experiences.

The group was run across agencies, with one mixed race worker
and one white worker, both motivated by a mutual concern that mixed
race children were getting a raw deal. Two children came from
villages in the county, where there were very few black or mixed
race children, and six from the city. All but one lived with a
single white carer and three had contact with their black

Using travel brochures and magazines the children found pictures
of countries where they had extended family. On maps we marked
where these countries were in the world. We established that India
and the West Indies are very different places and found the group
had connections with places as diverse as Fiji, Jamaica, Kenya,
Mexico, Antigua, and Italy. We went to the African Caribbean
supermarket, looked at hair and skin care products and bought
plantain crisps. We brought in samosas, mangoes and guava juice.
The children didn’t like everything but they were willing to

We made lists of positive black and mixed race models. The
children were quick to think of footballers and singers. Only one,
a child who’s black American father had spent time teaching him
black history, had heard of Martin Luther King. This boy really
enjoyed being able to tell a receptive audience that Malcolm X had
done the same, but with violence.

We played games that were simple variations on old favourites,
aimed at boosting awareness and confidence. We had a cake with
candles to represent achievements, home-made certificates for
attending, and photographs of new friends to take away. As well as
having fun we made time for the children to share their experiences
of racism. Unlike some of the older children we have worked with,
some of whom denied having ever been subject to racist abuse, these
children were quick to share examples. We heard stories relating to
incidents at school that they had chosen not to talk about at home.
Parents and carers were often shocked by what they learned. We
began to wonder if the reality is that the experiences are so
painful, some children later suppress them, simply to survive the
stages of adolescence when being like peers is so important.

Some of the children were angry and aggressive. One had been
excluded from school for retaliating physically against another
child who had been racist towards her. Others were more resigned,
sad and philosophical. Their chosen ground rules for the group
included not teasing people, not calling anyone names and making
fun of people’s clothes. One said: “My dad says it is best not to
say things back. If you do you’re as bad as them.” Another
nine-year-old said sadly, “I don’t like being called ‘poo-face’ but
I don’t want to say bad things about white people. My mum’s

We evaluated the group by asking the children themselves what
they felt they had learned and what they had enjoyed. The
overwhelming response was that they would like to come again and
that we should offer groups to more children.

Using simple questionnaires, we asked parents to score the
children in terms of confidence in their colour and appearance,
their attitude to black people in the media, their knowledge of
their background and culture and their ability to share and cope
with racist remarks and incidents. Questionnaires were done before
and after the group. Most scores showed significant improvements.
Generally carers said they felt the most important factor had been
the opportunity for their child to be with other children who were
“the same”.

Most carers also said they would like to attend a group
themselves. They wanted to be able to answer their children’s
questions more appropriately, to learn skin and hair care, even to
share recipes. Simply opening a dialogue between parent and child
in relation to race seems a good start and we hope to offer a
parallel group to parents/ carers next time.

By doing so we hope to help parents develop their sense of pride
in their child and to recognise that being mixed race is not
something to be ignored or just accepted. We would like all
participants to be able to say, as one member said when doing an
exercise about what each child liked about themselves, “I’m proud
of being mixed race.”

Frances Shelbourne is family support worker in the
Hinkley Child Behaviour Intervention Team. Jo Taylor is a senior
social worker at Leicester Family Service Unit.



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