Do we teach prejudice?

Prejudice_wide-620x349Racism is not something I’ve had a lot of personal experience with. I’m a brown-skinned, brown-eyed, brown-haired white girl living in a fairly white kind of world. But whenever I venture out beyond my rural homeland the inevitable question comes up.

“So, where are you from?”

To which I answer with a description of my small town. Whereabouts, climate, flora, social milieu.

“No, I mean, originally?”

The ancestry question.

As far as I know, I am of English, possibly Irish descent. Convicts, most probably. This is always a surprise to my listener. Often I am erroneously claimed to be part of some more exotic ethnic group.

“I bet you’re Greek … Italian … Lebanese …”

The list goes on. I’ve even had someone guess half-Thai, which seems a stretch. I’ve been claimed by Aborigines on public transport, “Hey Sister, come sit with me. Tell me, where’s your mob?” And then scoffed at for denying my heritage.

This claiming seems a warm thing to me. A welcoming. A belonging. It is always with regret that I refute it. But it leads me to pondering what preconceptions are being foisted on me without my knowledge. What is contained in other people’s assumptions of my cultural heritage? If I experienced racism based on my assumed ethnicity, would I even notice? And do people think of me differently when they discover, despite appearances, that I am of plain-old Anglo-Celtic heritage?

With the jumble of ethnicities in cities I notice the ancestry question is something sorted out early on. But what quickly becomes clear is how often people guess wrong, and when corrected – how little the truth actually tells you about a person. Can clear deductions about cultural heritage even be made nowadays? Despite attempts to maintain separate ethnic identities, have these markers become diluted in the mishmash that is multicultural Australia? If my Australian mother was of Italian–Croatian heritage, and my Australian father was of French–Malaysian heritage, what would that say about me? Maybe a little, maybe a lot, but the complexity of cultural associations would be a little mind-boggling to decipher from the outside.

Which leads me to questions of perception – what we see in others, and what we rate as important. My mother once told me a story about my first day of school that has always stuck in my mind. I grew up in a small country town. My primary school had sixty kids all up, so maybe twenty in my classroom. There was one black girl in amongst an otherwise white class. She was an Islander of some description, though I never discovered which island. Her skin was not tan, or dark brown, but a lovely near-black. My mother was curious about her. This exotic-looking black-skinned five-year-old girl. When I got home from school she asked:

“And who was the little black girl?”

The question of whether my mother could have used a more sensitive adjective springs to mind, but I guess since I was five, she was trying to keep it simple. The surprising thing is – even though there was only one black-skinned girl in my class, and even though I’d never met a black person before – I didn’t know which girl she meant.


Not yet schooled in this difference between skin colours, it seems I didn’t notice it.

“How did she have her hair?” I asked, perplexed. Hair was something I was minutely interested in.

“It was black and fuzzy, in pigtails.”

“You mean the girl with hair like puff-balls?”

And then I finally got it. I knew who my mother was asking about.

Often it seems as though perceptions of ourselves, each other, and the world around us reflect a reality set in stone, but really we notice what we’ve been taught to notice, and we judge what we’ve been taught to judge. Nowhere does this truism become clearer than in the raising of children.

Again and again I’ve been surprised by what my children don’t see. I once invited a friend who has a disabled child over for lunch. The child was born with only one functioning eye, half an ear missing, and a malformed leg that had been amputated above the knee. Despite these difficulties, she was bright and cheerful. My children were pre-school age and I wondered if I should talk with them about the girl’s disabilities before she arrived. I was alarmed by the prospect of them treating her strangely, or reacting in some way that was hurtful, but I was unsure of how to manage this possibility. What would I say?

“There’s a girl coming. She’s looks a bit different from you, but try not to make a big deal about it. You don’t want to hurt her feelings.”

This kind of sentence sat heavily on the tip of my tongue in the hours before her arrival, inadequate and somewhat patronising. In the end I decided to just see how it went. To let my children make their own deductions.

The friend arrived and the children played. Zalie had a spike like a pirate where her foot should have been, but she was mobile. We had lunch, and the kids rushed around, chatting and squealing and laughing, and there was no mention of the missing eye, ear, or leg. After my friend departed, while sitting quietly in the bath, my five-year-old son said:

“You know Mum, Zalie had a broken foot.”

That was it.

And it got me thinking about how differently the day might have gone if I’d made a point of highlighting Zalie’s difference. Of guiding my children’s perceptions and judgements.

It certainly showed me a lot about my own.

First published on Daily Life, January 17th 2013

How much is a mother worth?

So far, the debate about cuts in the income of single mothers in Australia has revolved around the question of whether or not it is possible to live on Newstart. This is, of course, a worthy question. But for me it sidesteps some of the larger issues at hand.

At the heart of the matter lies the age old problem of who is responsible for the children and what is the cost of that responsibility.  Women, and not just single mothers, are often left with the lion’s share when it comes to parenting. Mothering undoubtedly has its rewards but it is often a significant encumbrance when it comes to being part of the workforce. There has been a push in recent years for fathers to share the ‘burden’ of this care, but – on the whole – we are not there yet.

Statistics about the discrepancy between men’s and women’s incomes, even when doing the same job, are well established. When I was a teenager understanding how this difference could conceivably exist was impossible. My high school was full of high achieving girls: passionate, dedicated, intelligent creatures who, it seemed, would one day rule the world. How could it be that when these girls made their way out into society they would somehow become the underdogs? I thought about it a lot, but the answer remained elusive. Discrimination? Based on what?

It was only when I reached university that the answer became clear. An introductory Gender Studies subject was all it took. I still remember the bookshelf of the library I was standing in front of when the revelation hit. It was all about mothering. The sudden knowledge came at me sideways, a painful thwack. To build a career and have children I was going to have to do two full-time jobs, only one of them paid, and juggling these two jobs would leave me exhausted and frayed at the edges. And, as the statistics consistently showed, doing these two jobs would mean I’d often be left in the dust.

I must admit, it was not an appealing future.

What is forgotten in debates about parenting payment is that mothering is work. It may not be financially remunerated, or a sure-fire path to the top, but it is work nonetheless. And if mothers didn’t do it, someone else would have to be paid to. Although childcare workers are among the lowest paid in our ranks, we still don’t expect them to work for nothing. There is an annual American survey by which attempts to estimate how much the average mother would earn a year if they were actually paid for the work they do. In 2012, the average stay-at-home mum came in at about $113 000 a year, with a working mum adding about $66 000 to their annual income. It would certainly be interesting to see an Australian calculation.

All this brings me to the difficult question – what is the value of mothering? Clearly, our whole society chugs along quite nicely on the unpaid labour of women and has for some time. Perhaps it has been this way since the invention of money, but that doesn’t make it right.

Inarguably, things have improved in our nation for women in the last half century, mothers included. The introduction of the Supporting Mothers Benefit in 1973 could rate as one of the biggest wins for feminism in Australian history. Mothers being paid for mothering. A fiscal value being placed on what is undeniably a vital and worthy labour. But it has never really been seen this way. From a sympathetic vantage point, providing ‘parenting payment single’ is seen as an act of generosity from a caring community; a safety net for abandoned mothers which prevents them and their offspring from slipping irrevocably into poverty. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, it is seen as an easy route for pregnant teenage dropouts to sit pretty whilst contributing nothing to society for the rest of their sorry lives.

Nowhere in either of these mindsets is there room for a real discussion of the value of mothering to our society at large. If we leave aside an attempt to put a monetary value on the labour of mothering, we are left with an entirely different set of parameters. Mothers care for children. Children are our next generation. The quality of care they receive is imperative to our future. Does it not seem palpably obvious that the value of mothering is therefore high?

Gillard’s strategy to move mothers from parenting payment single to Newstart once their last child turns eight will create an estimated savings of $728 million over four years. Right on target for budget surplus come next election. That the government sees single mothers as the easiest target when it comes to revenue-raising, the least likely spending cut to create a voter backlash, says a lot about our country. To suppose this budget cut is an equitable solution is to assume that once children have settled into school it is a fair playing field for single mothers in the workforce. Deep down, we all know this isn’t true.

And to believe that having older children is less of a burden on mothers is to have very little understanding of the issues at play. In the simplest of terms, I am a single mother with two teenage boys. My oldest is fifteen, 6 foot 1, weighs 80kgs, and easily eats as much as two grown women. Feeding him alone is a substantial cost, and that is just the problem of sustenance. Taking into account the varied and multifaceted nature of my children’s demands upon my time and resources, the Newstart allowance is something of a joke. Working part time, as I did previously, will now cost me 40 cents in every dollar I earn over $31 a week. What else is this but a deterrent? I am left with a choice between living in poverty or attempting to join the full-time workforce. ‘Attempting’ being the operative word. Each of these paths is littered with motherhood-related impediments.

I used to be so proud to live in a nation that paid mothers for being mothers. It is disturbing that in order to balance the budget our government is taking money from those of us who give so much and already receive so little in return. If we are to live in a society that considers everything only in terms of a spread sheet, it is time we started to count the cost of parenting, especially for those of us who go it alone.

Mothering is work. Women enter into motherhood at great personal cost, yet the contribution of mothers to society is immense, and – let’s face it – vital to the continuation of our world as we know it.

Pay us what we’re worth.

First Published on Daily Life, 7th January 2013.

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