Lunchtime today, and one of my sons has spilled rice all over him. "Pick it off yourself," commands his father. I laugh as he obediently plucks rice strands from his body. "It's like watching a monkey pick fleas," I observe, and add carelessly, "Did you know my dad used to call us all monkeys as children, and say that South Africa was Monkeyland, and that was where my mother came from?" The boys laugh. My husband looks at me with raised eyebrows and I suddenly realise what I have said. "But don't repeat that to anyone, that is just something I say home, don't mention it at school," I tell them hastily, suddenly realising the racial connotations of a seemingly innocent childhood joke, and aghast at the incidental racism I have just accidentally transmitted to my sons. We are often most racist (or sexist, or disablist) when we are blithely unconscious of the fact. I shudder at the thought of conversation at school. "Mrs Cumulus, we understand that you have been teaching your son to consider African as monkeys." "No, no, you don't understand - I was just repeating an old family joke - I had never even considered the inference - " "Hearsay is no defence, Mrs Cumulus. Obviously we will maintain diplomatic relations for the sake of your extremely needy and ill-parented children, but a symbolic protest must be made. From now we will refrain from offering you our staffroom Earl Gray tea."
This strikes me with particular irony, because I have just got back from church where a visiting vicar asked us all to reflect with our pew neighbour on experiences of feeling like a leper in society. (Gosh, it is such fun being an Anglican. I hear wild rumours that some Christians go to church to be uplifted and encouraged).
This was very easy for me, because I just thought of drop-off and pick-up time at kindergarten. The thing is, that I have been going there for two weeks now, and in all that time I have not managed to have a single conversation with a kindy parent. They just look past me, despite my regularly trying to initiate conversation, it is as if I have the volume turned off or something. I am pretty sure I don't smell, because at primary school pick-up I have the opposite experience, it is a social buzz that I look forward to all day. (Yes I know, I need to get out more, and have more fun. Maybe I should go to church more often. Oh no, hang on...).
At first I couldn't work this social isolation out. It was all the more puzzling because as luck would have it a childhood friend of my husband's is sending her children to the same kindergarten. She told me with delight how it was the centre of her social life, how the other mums were just such amazing friends and they spent so much time hanging out together...I had rather hoped that this would happen to me, what with being new to the country and knowing no one. But it's the opposite, I feel as if I am wearing a Harry Potter-style Invisibility Cloak. After a couple of weeks I realise with depression what the problem is, and feel an idiot for not having worked it out sooner.
The thing is, at the moment, unless you see the Teaching Aide seconded to meet him and see him out of school, my eldest is not visibly a Special Needs child. My middle one is. He doesn't have the language to interact properly with the children, he screams when I drop him off, he looks the kind of child you really wouldn't want to have for a playdate or invite to the park with his mother after kindy finishing time. I am not being deliberately excluded. It is just that my child is not a very attractive playdate proposition, and therefore I am at the bottom of the list of useful people to talk to. I am a strange mother with a very strange child. The same happened at my eldest son's first primary school in the UK, when it became obvious that he was a bit more than lively or sensitive: the other mothers started to shun me, to look past me and speak as if I was not there. I don't resent it. No, that's a lie. I do, I resent it deeply. I plan dark deeds of revenge against the mothers of that UK school. If a small nuclear device explodes one day in West Yorkshire around school pick-up time, yes, it's probably me. But seriously, I can't blame the other parents, because I am sure they don't realise that they are thinking this way, and I am sure they don't realise that they are excluding me. It just...sort of...happens. It's shit, and it's no one's fault, and it's life. Playground parents do not like talking to the parents of kids with Special Needs. It makes them feel uncomfortable, or guilty, or nervous, or something. It is like the way people avoid the recently bereaved. Perhaps they are afraid that Special Needs are catching.
And I manage to feel quite sorry for myself, whilst I explain all this to the nice young guy sitting next to me, and then I realise that he hasn't actually understood a word: he can't make out my accent. "So, do you have children?" he says. To avoid further embarrassment I ask him about his own experiences of being a social leper. He grins, and says as if it is self-evident: "Oh, all the time, I'd have to talk about work." I ask him what work he does. He is a barber. This is mystifying, particularly because he clearly expects me to understand what he is referring to. Do New Zealanders really hate barbers? I think confusedly. My husband never mentioned this. It is frustrating, because although we are both speaking English his accent is so strong that even if I asked him to explain I am not sure I could understand the answer. So I do the polite nod-and-sympathetic-smile that is an absolute requirement for graduating from clerical training, and we grin inanely and sympathetically at each other until the vicar calls us all to feed back what our partners have told us.
I pray desperately to God that we will not be called on. "This guy, everyone ignores him at work. Yeah, you know why. Do I have to spell it out? Oh, I do? Er - he's a barber? Isn't that enough?" But it's OK, because the vicar only wants a few anecdotes. We hear from a woman who found it very hard emigrating to New Zealand and felt she was treated very badly until she lost her English accent. That bodes well, I think glumly. English AND mother of Special Needs kids, thanks for reminding me. Wow, going to church is fun. Mornings like this make me so grateful to be a Christian. Can we stick nails into ourselves too?
Then the man who has blessed new priests and welcomed them to the community in Maori stands up. "The Maori people have been enriched by the English culture," he says. We all listen attentively. "My great-great-grandfather and my great-great-grandmother, the first white people they ever met was at the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi." A hush falls on the room. We are listening to real history. "Now we don't have to worry about English culture, we know. But the Maori world is dead. It survives with traditions, language - but not the world. I remember when I was a boy - it was different. Not now."
The vicar prompts him. "Have you had the experience of being a leper in your country?"
"Yes," he says simply. We are all listening, like children to their teacher. And I feel ashamed for being so het up about my own small experiences of exclusion and discrimination. "That is why - when I was a young man - my brother and I decided we would do our own work, not work for others, so to be equal. He became a carpenter, I drove a truck. I had my own truck, you understand?"
"And did that help?" asks the vicar, delicately. "No. Because I was not equal - here and here." He points to his head and his heart. "People - they did not see me as equal - here and here."
This guy is elderly. I know, of course, that the world he grew up with is not the New Zealand of today. But it is shocking, and familiar, at once. I am suddenly back in the South African townships, listening to respected elders of the Xhosa community describing in stilted, dignified English their treatment at the hands of the army and the police. They too would point at their head and heart, to emphasise with gesture what words would not convey. This guy's English is perfect, but remarkably, he uses identical gestures. The language of the body conveys something deeper. I come home, thoughtfully. It is only that evening that I remember the comic and baffling encounter with the young barber. What on earth was so obvious about the discrimination he talked about, that he didn't need to explain it? Well, I guess, now I think about it, he was Maori too.
I can't be sure that is what he meant. I do hope it wasn't. But it does seem odd. And the worst of it is, just like my kindergarten mums who don't mean to exclude, I very much doubt that if that is the case, it is conscious or deliberate. Most prejudice, in a modern society, isn't. Doubtless, I am unconsciously racist. I am also, probably, dreadfully insensitive towards other parents in other ways. We can't prevent this. We can only strive to change ourselves when we notice it, when we notice in ourselves a disinclination to engage with a certain type of person, or when we retell an old family anecdote and realise that it is not the kind of thing that we want our children to hear.