An Alternative Explanation

Entry by: writerATGJFYSYWG

16th March 2017
The story with no victim

'Who cares about black people.' That's what he said, word for word. What he meant was 'Who cares about black people and white people', as in, 'Who cares whether a person is black or white.' Only he didn't finish the sentence and he didn't include a question mark.

Or perhaps he meant 'WHO cares about black people', which might be worse, as in 'Who cares about The Black People.' No, Louise is pretty sure he didn't mean that. That's too sophisticated for an eight year old boy. And she is completely convinced he did not mean 'Who cares about black people?' But that is what he said.

When he comes out of school he's upset. Well of course he is. Poppy Seleke had stood at the classroom door and shouted, 'How dare you make fun of the colour of my skin,' in front of all the other children. As Michael is telling her this, Louise thinks, 'Good on her', but gives her son a tight squeeze and dries his tears. What strength of will, what bravery, she thinks. The only black kid in the class and she's not afraid. She sees prejudice and grabs it by the throat and stamps down on it. Hard. And the awful truth is she knows what it looks like, what it sounds like, because she's had to listen to it from an early age. Her son, Michael, does not know what it is, would not know how to spot it, because he has never had to hear it. He doesn't understand what Poppy means when she shouts at him from the doorway, but he feels the force of her anger and it scares him.

She imagines him trying to explain to the teacher. Oh dear, this is awkward, Ms Woods would think. Can't let this blow out of proportion. 'Just a misunderstanding,' she would breeze. 'Not to worry, it's not what you think,' she would say to Poppy. 'Look, here are your parents, off you go.'

Louise sees Poppy storm out and march towards her mother. She has been ignored and she's starting to think that her aunty is right when she says, 'You can't trust white people.' Even her teacher, her wonderful, fun teacher who is usually so good at being charge, does not want to take charge now. It's the end of the day, the waiting parents in the playground signal she's nearly finished and can go home in five minutes. Ms Woods waves to Louise - 'Nothing to worry about Mrs Watson.' She avoids looking at Mrs Seleke and slips back into the school building.

Through hot sobs Michael tries to explain to his mum, but pursuing one line of thought has never been his strong point and the story is all over the place, like a log catching fire in several places at the same time.

Louise discerns it is something about Poppy. 'Ms Woods says it was a misunderstanding,' he says, trying to get his gappy teeth around the word. They walk out of the playground and as they pass Mrs Seleke, who is listening with intent to her daughter, Louise takes Michael's hand and with the other hand gives the woman the thumbs up. A misunderstanding? Everything ok? Everything ok between us? No. Poppy's mum looks at her suspiciously and turns back to her daughter. Taking Michael, Louise leaves the playground and is glad to be away from there.

Michael forgets it. In his mind, the teacher sorted it out. On the way home he calms down and explains what happened and his mother nods in understanding. He feels vindicated. He moves on and sits in front of the TV sorting out his football cards.

Louise cannot forget it. There is more to the story, although she thinks she has the gist now, but she's worried that Poppy thinks Michael meant what he said. And, if she's truthful, she's worried that Mrs Seleke will think the same of her whole family. Why shouldn't she? The Seleke family will have been victims of racism before and Michael Watson, with his clumsy way of saying something he doesn't mean, fits right into that narrative.

She thinks she might send Mrs Seleke a message. But when she finds her on Facebook and reaches out tentative fingertips she's met with, 'He said who cares about black people.' And then, 'You can't keep excusing ignorant children's comments.' And then, 'Poppy has been told to go back to Africa, she's been told she can't be in a dance group because she doesn't look like the others.'

When her husband gets home Michael is in bed and Louise is sitting on the sofa with the TV turned off and her phone in her hand. As she tells him the story she starts crying. She can't help it. What Poppy, a child, has had to hear from others. What spite and hatred she has had to stand in the face of. From children in the playground, from adults, from parents of children in her class.

Louise has spent the car journey home listening to Michael and she doesn't know how on earth she's going to explain to him what prejudice is. What racism is. How can an eight year old possibly get their head around that kind of cruelty? But for Poppy, she has had to. It has been forced upon her. She has had to work it out quickly, understand where the dangers are, harden herself against them. A child.

'And Mrs Seleke thinks we're the same,' she says. 'All my life I've stood up to prejudice, challenged it, been mindful of my privilege.' She hears herself sounding like a politician and hates herself. It is her fault Michael can't articulate what he actually means; she can't either. She cries harder and it's for the injustice of what Poppy has had to deal with, but it's also for the accusation against her son.

'Darling,' he says. 'She's the victim here, not us.'

Louise stops crying. Her phone beeps. 'Sorry for my rant - moan over! Don't worry Louise, I know you're not racist.'

The next day a meeting is unavoidable but thankfully it happens after the children have gone into school. They stand together, away from the other parents, down a side street near the school. Louise feels sick and is sweating but knows it is a good thing that they are here together ready to have a conversation about what happened.

'Mrs Seleke,' she begins, telling herself she must let the other woman do most of the talking: hers is the voice that needs to be heard. Nevertheless, she thinks, she must just say this. 'I am so sorry about what Poppy has had to deal with.' It sounded right in her head, but she hears the politician again, with a politician's apology, avoiding all blame.



'It's Maria. Call me Maria.'

'Oh. Yes.'

Even though her words are inadequate, Louise knows her face is full of apology and anguish. She remembers what her husband said and tries to flatten her expression. She is not the victim here.

'I think I'm going to speak to the school.' She is talking again. She must be quiet in a minute. 'What has happened has made us realise Michael doesn't understand what race and racism are...those concepts...and we're dealing with that at home now, we're having those conversations...but perhaps if they were to address it at school more, make all the children aware of it, notice it if it happens, I mean when it happens, know how to challenge it and so on...'

Mrs Seleke, Maria, is shaking her head and Louise trails off. The sick feeling in her stomach moves to her throat and she feels heat gather around her neck.

'No,' says Maria. Louise forces herself to stay quiet. Wait for her to speak, listen to what she has to say.

'I have spoken to the school in the past and nothing happens. It doesn't do any good.'

'Yes, but you shouldn't have to. This is our problem, not yours. If I spoke to the school this time...'

'No,' says Maria again and Louise bites the insides of her cheeks to stop herself from talking. 'I don't want it to be an issue at the school,' Maria continues. 'Poppy is the only black child there and if it becomes an issue it will only highlight that fact. She will become more isolated. Already she is having to learn that being black is a political statement and I don't want her to have to fight the 'us and them' battle every day. I would prefer for us to forget what happened, smooth things over, let her just be a kid in a class.'

This morning in the playground Louise had kissed Michael goodbye and he ran into school with his friends, his heart light, his movements easy. Maria only wants the same for Poppy, and why on earth can't she have it?

'I am not the victim,' says Maria and looks hard at Louise to see if she understands. Louise falls quiet and begins to turn the story inside out. She thought she had it worked out, but finally she's hearing what Maria's saying. 'And I do not want Poppy to be the victim either. I want her to have as much of her childhood as Michael has of his. All of it.'

She puts her hand on Louise's shoulder and says she'll see her at the school gates later. Louise looks back at her, but Maria has finished. The weight of sadness lies heavy on Louise's shoulders, but she sees Maria is already carrying too much for one person to manage.