Monday, January 9, 2012

Discrimination

We're at the park. One of the many dotted around this region. I have drilled my boys that they are TO START LISTENING TO ME and STOP RUNNING OFF AND SCREAMING, and for now it seems to be having an effect. They are wearing their all-in-one waterproofs, which have been useful in the Lake District and Yorkshire and are now doing service here, in what New Zealanders keep apologising to me about, the wettest summer for ages. Well, it must be dreadful if you are a Kiwi and expecting weeks and weeks of hot sunshine on end at this time of year, but if you are from Wakefield, then frankly it is all rather normal and even better weather than you would expect given that when the rain falls it is still warm enough to be outside. So my boys are splashing in the fountains, thinking it is brilliant fun (and probably wondering why on earth the local children aren't outside enjoying it with them on such a nice day).

Since we're alone in the park, I can relax a bit about safety issues - no traffic, no pushing other children - and have fun. My youngest is determined to go down the slide, despite the fact that he has already a bloody nose and bumped forehead from the last attempt. I sit him on my lap and go down - far too fast - and bump my bottom, hard, on the gravelly surface at the bottom. As I wince, I hear an Irish accent, and see that we are no longer by ourselves: a grandmother has brought her children to mess around in the puddles too. We compliment each other on our Northern Hemisphere-bred hardiness, and she asks me how long I have been in the country. She came in 1973. She tells me how different the country was then, how much prejudice they faced, how her son couldn't bear being bullied at school as the only one who could read (he was fourteen: it was a small rural area: the other children were Maori) and how he ran away for a while.

Her story makes me think a little about the racial silences and glaring imbalances of this community. I realise that despite the mixed community I meet at softplay etc, the Maori guy mowing the lawn ahead is only the third Maori I have seen in a working context in the whole month since arriving: the other two were the men who unpacked our furniture. Since I've been in and out of dozens of different offices/shops etc since arrival, it is odd. I am a little disquieted by the evidence that the Maori community may well be found in more menial jobs.

The experience of the last couple of years, of learning to grapple with the idiom and realities of disability in childhood, has made me hyper-sensitive to any other kind of segregation or discrimination. It pierces me, now, in a slightly different way from hitherto. I am wary of any suggestion that my kids' mild delays give me some sort of insight or understanding of other social dilemmas, problems, exclusions: that would be to suggest a false homogeneity: but they have perhaps given me a new wanting-to-understand, a feeling of urgency about them. I understand perhaps better than I did how all-encompassing a social disadvantage can become, how it can impact every single aspect of your life, so that you are circumscribed (and thus, pinned in) deeply by it. That is what stereotypes and under-funding do, they pin people into a smaller sense of themselves, they reduce opportunity so that life becomes less, so that the stereotype becomes painfully truer, as its inhabitants lose the opportunity to do more, to become more, to be more than the sum of their disadvantages, to be truly themselves.

Sitting on my bookshelf is an unopened Maori language book, borrowed from the local library. I remember how years ago, when we talked about moving to this area, I suggested that we might send our kids to a Maori language nest preschool for a year or so, in order to give them a start in the language. With the boys' additional needs to think of, that dream now looks impossible: disability, delays, syndromes, these will already make integration difficult enough. We have enough to grapple with making sure that they can cope and flourish in the local Paheka (non-Maori) culture, never mind adding in a significant language and cultural barrier. I am sorry for the lost dream. Sorry too, that Maori and Pakeha culture remain so - so - what is the word I am looking for? Disconnected. I could live here for fifty years and never grow closer to Maori culture than I am now. This disturbs me, because I know the social consequences of this kind of isolation. My father was a Protestant in South Ireland. My mother was born an English-speaking white in South Africa. Her father was a German Jew. I know a little about racial segregation and distrust from family experience. I do not want to pass these fears and hang-ups onto my children.

Yesterday I rang a local Trust, the provider of assessments for these fabled Carers' Hours. I ran through the boys' difficulties briefly. "Someone suggested you might be of help." "I should say you need us!" said the woman at the other end of the phone, and sent out an application form that arrived this morning. I shall have to grapple with the foreign language that is Carers' Needs, as assessed by local support services, quickly. No time to learn Maori as well?

Will it prove so tricky to integrate my boys into the local culture that I give up the dream of making sure they encounter BOTH New Zealands, long-term?

I hope not. But who knows?

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