Why children and young people need opportunities to explore difference

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By Georgina Manning: georgina@equaliteach.co.uk

Recently I took my daughter to see ‘In Conversation: Queer Perspectives’ at the National Portrait Gallery. Queer Perspectives is a quarterly event hosted by resident artist Sadie Lee, where she invites guests who identify as LGBTQI to discuss selected works from the National Portrait Gallery collection. For this event, Lee invited artist Sarah Jane Moon and Dr Ronx, the subject of Moon’s portrait which is exhibited as part of the BP Portrait Award 2019.

You may ask why I chose to take my seven-year-old daughter to theoretical, academic (some might even say ‘highbrow’) discussion about LGBTQI and art. The short answer is that Dr Ronx was there, and my daughter is a massive fan (and I wanted to go anyway). However, my reasoning is far more complex than this.

Ronx is an emergency medicine doctor who is also part of the CBBC Operation Ouch Team and becoming increasingly well known to children and young people across the country. Describing themself as ‘a queer, Black, androgynous intersectional feminist,’ they say they have a ‘commitment to presenting a positive role model for BAME youth and especially those from the LGBTQI community,’ promoting the motto ‘you cannot be what you do not see’.

Dr Ronx portrait by Sarah Jane Moon
at the National Portrait Gallery

As a mother of a daughter, I love this message. From pretty much the moment of my daughter’s birth I quickly became aware of the weight of expectation put on to her as a girl. Although I try to shield her from this expectation, it seeps into our everyday life from every angle, from being called ‘princess’ at nursery, being asked about boyfriends or whether she is a boy or a girl because she happens not to be always dressed in the way some might expect a girl to dress, to being laughed at by peers because she rejects the idea of princesses. Fortunately for now at least, I feel I am winning the battle: she is a confident child who knows her mind and is happy in her own skin. But this does not mean I can relax.

I welcome my daughter looking to Dr Ronx as a strong, intelligent role model, as opposed to Disney princesses. Not only because of Ronx’s similarities to my daughter, but also because of their difference; as important as it is for young BAME people to see an individual such as Ronx succeeding and living their life as the person they want to be, for us to build a truly equal society, it is just as important for all of us to see this.

As a White woman born in this country to British parents, I will never experience the discrimination experienced by those without that privilege. Growing up in a small town with low diversity I had very little experience of people culturally/ethnically different from me. I was aware of racism but didn’t fully understand it. My first memorable encounter with a person of colour was in my sixth year of school, when a student from the nearby secondary school came on work experience. I remember my 10-year-old self being fascinated by her but also being very aware of our difference and terrified of saying the wrong thing, of being accidentally racist.

It wasn’t really until I left home to go to university that I had the opportunity to mix with people from different backgrounds and ethnicities. Through my life I have lived and worked in different parts of the country and worked with different public sector organisations and communities, allowing me the privilege of experience and training which has allowed me a greater understanding of issues around equality and diversity.

But what would have happened had I not been privileged enough to have encountered these experiences? Had I remained in a world where I only encountered people who were ‘like me’? How would I then feel when I did experience difference, how could I relate, accept, support this difference?

Ronx’s motto ‘you cannot be what you do not see’ is true, but neither can you fully understand what you do not experience.

My life experience has led me to be passionate about equality and diversity, so I work to bring my daughter up with the same values, but how do I equip her if she does not experience difference first-hand from a young age?

From September 2020 it will be a requirement for schools to include LGBT+ relationships in compulsory relationships education; a welcome move in my eyes. My husband and I have been very open with our daughter that we all have the right to love whoever we want, so I am thrilled that this message is going to be backed up in school, particularly on hearing that many of her peers are not getting this same message. To me this is nothing to be fearful of. I have every faith in our teachers to teach about all relationships at a level appropriate to the child. What it will do is ensure that every child grows up knowing that it is not okay to discriminate against someone because if their sexual orientation, that families come in lots of different make ups and most importantly, for those who grow up to be LGBT+ (and these children will exist in most classes) they can do so knowing that they are accepted, supported and included.

So, although admittedly for my daughter, this event was very much about meeting her idol Dr Ronx, for me it was about opening her world to difference. And although much of the conversation did go over her head, it created room for our own conversations and allowed her to see other people sharing the same message. I will continue to expose her to these conversations, hopefully allowing her to grow up knowing not only that she can be whatever she wants to be and will be accepted and loved, but equally, that the same counts for everybody else. She will know that we need to do more than tolerate difference but welcome it, celebrate it, and be supportive to those who are discriminated against and educate those who do not yet understand.

Books to help open discussions about difference:

It’s Okay to Be Different  by Todd Parr

The Family Book by Todd Parr

The Hueys in The New Jumper by Oliver Jeffers

Hats of Faith by Medeia Cohan

We are Britain Poems by Benjamin Zephaniah

Books about gender:

Alien Nation by Matty Donaldson

Good Night Stories For Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo see Coy Mathis

The Boy in the Dress by David Walliams

Are you a Boy or Are you a Girl? By Sarah Savage and Fox Fisher

Books about LBG relationships:

And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson

King and King by Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland

Mommy, Mama and Me by Leslea Newman Daddy, Papa and Me by Leslea Newman

To find out more about the upcoming changes to Relationships and Sex Education, see our other blog: LGBT+ Equality and Relationships Education: Creating Inclusive Spaces in our Schools

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