What racism does to a child

Negro, brown monkey, macaca

Children know what racism is. Harassment, jokes, negative statements about heritage, colour and religion belong to the life of many primary school pupils. Through individual conversations and focus groups, MO* examines this phenomenon. Their results are both startling and challenging.

Parent witness accounts

‘You smell’, says Maxime (10) to Lamia (10). Every single day. If he’s in the queue for school, he pinches his nose. Or he will smell her hair. ‘You smell’, he says. ‘Is that Moroccan shampoo you use?’ On advice of her classmates, Lamia went to her teacher. He decides whether this is true. ‘But you don’t smell at all Lamia.’ The warnings by the teachers haven’t helped at all. ‘You are brown. ‘You are a negro’, says Maxime (10) to Lamia (10). ‘You need to properly wash yourself to become white.’ Lamia goes to a white school in Antwerp. But Lamia and her parents can now breathe a sigh of relief. ‘Maxine is moving’, says the teacher. Problem solved. Of one thing Lamia is sure. ‘Maxime is the worst racist ever’, she spontaneously tells her parents. And she is sure she never wants to be called a Belgian. Idriss has been called a macaca for months on end by three classmates. ‘You are also an alien’, Idriss was told by one of them in response to an environmental studies class. Not once. Repeatedly. Idriss’ mum found out about it through another mum, who in turn heard it from her son. Idriss is in a white school in Limburg. The mother got in contact with the teaching staff and one of the parents of the bullies. An anti-bullying contract was drawn and signed by the entire class. Sara was called a brown monkey. The slanging matches became intolerable and Sara’s parents decided to change schools the following year. Sara was also in a white school in East Flanders. Her brother of six years old was often called chocolate mousse. And Busra, eight years, was surprised when they had to get off the bus after just two stops. ‘Do we have to get off because we are Turkish?’, she asked her aunt. Aïcha is in year three in a town somewhere in Flanders. Her parents gave her a note to give to the teacher: Aïcha would stay a day at home during the Festival of Sacrifice. ‘What do you mean you are staying home? Because you’re celebrating a holiday? That’s not fair, is it? You’re here in Belgium’, says the teacher, upon she gestured as if she was wearing a headscarf. ‘I’m also a Muslim; I want to take a day off.’ Aïcha wished the ground would swallow her up. Not for all the money in the world did she want her mum to discuss the incident with her teacher, let alone file a complaint at school. ‘Don’t do it,’ she begged, ‘the teacher later apologised.’ Her mother remains perplexed. ‘What am I supposed to do about this?’ she wonders. Ismaël is of Senegalese descent. Since he has started going to school, he wants to prove by any means that he’s not as dark as his mother. ‘I don’t know how to deal with this’, says his mother. ‘I’m scared to contact the teaching staff. It could go down the wrong way. We shouldn’t participate in reverse racism.’

The witness accounts above are from parents. Are these exceptional cases or is it a general trend? Every day bullying or is there more at work? And who is the worst affected? Children in white areas or children in white schools? How do parents, teachers and management react? Research abroad has shown that children of foreign descent who go to white schools are more vulnerable. The witness accounts seem to have confirmed this. But is that to say that children in school mergers are facing fewer difficulties? MO* found the answer to this on the basis of conversations in focus groups with foreign children, particularly from Turkish and Moroccan descent.

Children having their say

‘They don’t want us here.’ All children in the focus group in Antwerp – six boys and one girl between the ages of eight and eleven – said the same thing in different ways. Some children are from the suburbs of Antwerp, others live in the city itself. Why they believe the locals don’t want them and how they came to know this, they can’t say. They just know it. Whether they enjoy going to school? Of course not, say most. It’s hard work. Whether they want to tell their class about their way of life, for example the Festival of Sacrifice? ‘No, they are not interested in that in our school’, say the children in a Catholic school in the suburbs of Antwerp. Nevin (11) is firm: ‘A Moroccan child did once talk about it and there was a girl who found it disgusting. That’s why I don’t talk about it.’ And the boys say: ‘We don’t get invited to birthday parties because we’re Turkish’. Only Nevin speaks from personal experience. ‘I was once invited by a friend to come play at her house. But her brother didn’t want it to happen because I’m Turkish. ‘Whether they have native friends? Of course, but very few. The children of Turkish descent primarily play with cousins, they are also in the same school. Rami and Sofian, of Algerian and Moroccan descent respectively, mainly have Moroccan friends because they are in a school merger. ‘White is beautiful. Brown is less beautiful. Unless it suits you’, says Nadira (11) from Gent. She has been called brown Arab by the same – especially Turkish – children in the focus group. ‘Arab is not an abusive term?’ Emin reacts (11). ‘I don’t mind if someone calls me Turkish.’ ‘Dark brown, now that’s unattractive.’ Celil (9) is talking about Vanessa, a girl from his class. ‘I don’t like her’, he says. ‘Because every time someone calls her brown, she cries.’ ‘You would cry too if someone called you brown’, Nevin replies. And when we presented the children with photos and asked them questions on it such as ‘Who would you rather be friends with?’ or ‘Which photo do you like the most?’, they often chose the mixed groups: Class photos with white and foreign children. Or photos with children that looked like them. It reminds them of a friend or a cousin. Photos of girls with headscarves are also popular with the girls. Afize (11) chooses a photo of women wearing the burka. Would she ever wear a burka. ‘Never. Otherwise the boys will never see my face’, she giggles. Only one boy (11) from Brussels has chosen a photo of a group of laughing African boys. ‘I chose this photo because I think I should be able to play with them.’ The children in the focus groups in Gent have no problems talking about their culture and traditions at school. Their school, a Freinet school, has even done a project on the Festival of Sacrifice. But they seem to have a problem with the Bulgarians, often the Roma people. They don’t want to interact with them because ‘they are dirty’. In Antwerp it is the Moroccans who are at the bottom of the hierarchy. If jokes are told, they are often jokes such as ‘There was a Turkish, a Belgian and a Moroccan’. And the Moroccan always scores the worst. He is especially inferior. In Brussels, Toto is often the main character in the jokes. The children from the Brussels focus groups are all from Sint-Gillis and are primarily of Moroccan descent. Except for Pedro who has Latino roots. And ‘Pedro eats ham’, says Ayman (7) repeatedly. Do they know what the word racism means? Of course. And most of them have something to say on it. ‘Bougnol, get out of here’. Asma (10) was told this by an elderly lady when she was walking down the street with her mum and sister. Bougnol is an abusive term for Maghrebis in France and the French-speaking part of Belgium. ‘My little sister of four years old wanted to play with the dog but the lady didn’t want that and called us names. My mum was furious. An argument formed, a big argument and lots of people gathered to watch. They thought the lady shouldn’t have said bougnol.’ Our neighbour is also not very nice. ‘He calls us terrorists,’ says Asma. ‘I think he was drunk when he said that. ‘I didn’t want my mum to argue with him. I begged her to not cause an argument. I’m scared if there is a fight.’ Karim (11) was playing with his brother on a square of a council estate. They were chased away by a man and called bougnol. Karim: ‘We were just playing with our bikes.’ Furkan draws his dad. ‘He has big ears. ‘He’s an alien’, he says. Osman draws himself. ‘Look, I’m a terrorist’, he laughs. And Nadira tells a joke: ‘Two Moroccans on the backseat of a car. Who’s driving? The police!’ and she burst out laughing. Oh, and she knows a rap song: ‘I’m Moroccan but I haven’t done anything. The police are coming.’ At which point another child from the group adds: ‘And Bush needs to die.’ And another: ‘Obama doesn’t.’

No examples are used of severe bullying within the school walls in the focus groups. For that we will need serious one to one conversations with each child separately. Interviews with parents show that children often deny being bullied. The parents either find out by accident or via a third person. The teachers also don’t notice it. And when children or parents approach them, they downplay the situation. ‘Often we don’t have the time to listen to each individual complaint’, one of the teachers admits. Something like that takes a long time and we have a curriculum we need to stick to.’

The experts

To frame the above witness accounts given by parents and children, MO* spoke to two experts. Former teacher Marc Laquière is responsible for IQRA, an education project formed by the Federation of Moroccan Associations. Laquière often acts as mediator in conflicts between parents and schools Birsen Taspinar is a psychologist and works closely with Turkish families.. Racism is more than just bullying and insulting. Institutional racism is present in education. ‘It doesn’t matter whether you go to a white or a merger school’, says Marc Laquière. ‘Bullying comes from children but patronising statements on religion or traditions comes primarily from adults; from the staff in schools. Teachers are role models for children. Their opinion and behaviour has an enormous impact on students. At the same time, children are raised with certain norms and values. It’s not only parents who are worried about the food or the supervision of girls on school trips. Children have these fears too. ‘Maybe things will happen which my parents won’t like and I won’t be able to tell them’, is a widespread fear.’ According to Laquière, teachers can sometimes be patronising and ridicule children. ‘They might say for example: ‘Go on, imagine there are balls in the soup!’, or: ‘You and your religion. When are you finally going to use your reasoning?’ And what to think of a teacher who gives Easter eggs to all children except to foreign ones because they are Muslim? Following our meeting, this teacher has now apologised. But children are severely impacted by these things. But what is it? Racism? Discrimination?  Misunderstanding? There will undoubtedly be people amongst the teaching staff who vote for extreme wing parties.’ ‘Children between seven and 12 years are very worried about feeling included’, says Birsen Taspinar. ‘Children are very sensitive to anything that’s outside the norm. This might have something to do with social class – the white middle class is the desired ideal – or with religion, ethnicity… Children try to adjust and are scared to be out of the group. There are also children who are ashamed of who they are or of their parents. One of the mothers told us that her son forbids her to wait for the departure of the bus and to wave him goodbye. The mother wears a headscarf and is dressed traditionally. Another woman told us that her child doesn’t want her to attend parent evenings because of her poor Dutch. Sometimes this leads to bizarre situations: A child thinks a signature from his parents isn’t valid because they don’t know any Dutch. Or a child that walks several feet away from his mum because it doesn’t want to be seen with her. Some children have names which aren’t pronounced correctly and sound funny in Dutch. There was also a period in which it was not great if you were called Osama.’ All these affairs take an extra toll on children according to Taspinar. ‘The fewer schools embrace diversity, the bigger the weight on the shoulders of the children. And that has consequences for the cognitive and emotional development of the children. The fear that you don’t belong, that you’re not part of society, limits their view of the future.’ We notice that children of Turkish descent from the focus group conversations, in comparison with other ethnic groups, have the most confidence. Besides, they can reproduce the same prejudices as the dominant majority. Taspinar doesn’t find this surprising. ‘At the moment, being Muslim is a difficult to differentiate, but for the Turkish being Muslim comes second. They are first and foremost Turkish, and they remain Turkish, wherever they are. It gives them a certain pride and confidence. And it’s classic. To feel included, minority groups use the same exclusion mechanisms as the dominant majority. In fact, the behaviour of the children is a reflection of society. That’s the scary realisation. They tell us how we, adults, and society are established. People with an immigrant background also don’t want to let in newcomers. And in America the Chinese and the Latinos are less black, less foreign than the Afro-Americans, even though the latter have a longer history in the US.’ According to Taspinar, it is up to the school to be alert to racist bullying or social and racial exclusion. ‘The parents can’t deal with it on their own. Often they don’t know how they should react. A parent once told me that they punished their children for being too aggressive. Aggression is often a reaction to verbal aggression. Parents often wonder how to teach their children to deal with racism without losing themselves. Schools only notice physical violence after all, whilst verbal violence goes unnoticed. It’s not taken seriously and its impact is underestimated.’ According to Laquière, part of the solution lies in training the teachers. They must not only know the theory of diversity but they must also learn about what diversity means in practice. ‘They must be confronted with conflict scenarios during their course and must be trained on how to deal with it. That is what we do with parents after all. We teach them how they can raise their problems at school. There’s no point getting mad at a teacher or creating an argument with management. It won’t solve anything.’

Research methods

MO* organised three focus group discussions in December with children between seven and eleven years. Seven children took part in Antwerp and twelve in both Brussels and Gent. The majority of the participants were of Turkish or Moroccan descent. The focus groups were led by the MO* editors in collaboration with psychotherapist Sven Van Der Aa of the Centre for Mental Health Andante in Antwerp. During the focus group discussions, which lasted 1.5 hours, children were asked in a playful manner about their environment, family, traditions, home life, school and friends… It was a deliberate choice to only invite native children. The first reason for this is that we wanted to give priority to the lives of immigrant children, to their feelings and how they experience reality. The second reason is that we didn’t want to create the impression that we are accusing native children of racism. We also didn’t want to get involved in a discussion about whether children can be racist innately or whether it’s a consequence of their upbringing. To protect the privacy of the children and their parents, their real names have been replaced in this article by fictional ones.


The theme of racism is a sensitive one in society as has become apparent in this dossier. During the course of this research we have learned to avoid the word racism. Not only do many schools become uncooperative when hearing the term, experts also use the word tentatively. Even immigrants are scared of the word. An immigrant teacher once said that racism doesn’t occur at all in her school. Yet one of the children we have talked to went to that school. And what to think about native parents who complain about the behaviour of immigrant children? ‘My children aren’t allowed to play in the schoolyard by their Turkish peers. Is that racism?’, asks a father. Norbert Van Beselaere also, as head teacher associated with the Faculty of Social and Cultural Psychology of KU Leuven, finds it difficult to speak about racism where children are concerned. ‘Children are bullied for being different. A native child can also be bullied for being ginger or wearing glasses. Racism is a legal term that must not be trivialised. If we overuse the word, it will lose its significance’, he says. Psychologist Birsen Taspinar is of a different opinion. Taspinar says, ‘there is a difference between bullying and harassment’. ‘The profile of bullied children and children who are affected by racism is not the same. Even the most assertive immigrant children deal with racism. Which difference is perceived as inferior and which difference is preferred? How black are you? Black and white is different from ginger. It’s a whole other dimension. It’s to do with who you are. It also has to do with power relations. You can have ginger hair but still have a sense of belonging and be part of the middle class. But a black child who wears glasses; that’s something different altogether.’ Sociologist Nadia Fadil also believes we shouldn’t be scared to label problems, on the contrary rather. ‘A good understanding of racism is important if we want to understand and fight the phenomenon’. She says. ‘Racism is usually reduced to insults or antiforeign views. But we mustn’t lose sight of institutional racism. Racism is also in the varied expectations one cherishes with regard to certain children because of the colour of their skin or their cultural and social background. Teachers identify themselves with white middle class children and expect the same of these children. With regard to poor, immigrant children, the bar is lowered; problems are seen as ‘cultural problems’ and one quickly draws conclusions that the child simply cannot cope. Thus, it’s more than just insulting and bullying. It’s about institutional racism that is also present in education, but that remains invisible. This is much more disastrous because children from weak, immigrant backgrounds are not given equal opportunities in education.’

Maak MO* mee mogelijk.

Word proMO* net als 2886   andere lezers en maak MO* mee mogelijk. Zo blijven al onze verhalen gratis online beschikbaar voor iédereen.

Ik word proMO*    Ik doe liever een gift

Over de auteur