Khaya Rowland and I connected through a women's development network in the early days of Project Neighbours to talk about being a half-Indian mother raising two black boys with very few role models.
My mum is Indian and she was born in Kenya and my dad is white-British. I was born in London. We weren't a really traditional household when I was growing up; we had a very good relationship with my mum’s side of the family, but she wouldn't speak her mother tongue to us or make us do things like wear traditional clothes to an Indian wedding.
Learning own culture
As I got older, it started to annoy me that I didn't learn my mum’s first language. It does my head in that she never made sure we grew up bilingual especially since my grandmother speaks very little English.
I wish I had learnt more about the culture, too. There are so many elements to it that I know so little about. It hit home for me when I had my first son and I realised he was part of this culture, too, and I couldn't really teach him. I then decided to do what I can so my sons grow up aware of their cultural influences.
Raising black boys
They don’t have as much contact with the black side of the family as I wish they did, but I do my best to bring them the food, the music, the custom of their heritage.
I had to learn to cook Afro-Caribbean food. It seemed unacceptable to me that they could grow up without these flavours. When I was pregnant with my first, his dad’s mum gave me a cookbook and I practiced the recipes.
Standards are higher
I want them to be aware that they're black; people make assumptions. I don't want them to read too much into it, but I want them to be aware.
My eldest is in secondary school now and we speak about this a lot. I don’t want him to jump to the colour of his skin each time he’s being treated differently, but he does need to know that standards for black boys are that much higher.
Racism subtle and blatant
There are things that white boys can do that black boys can’t get away with.
It’s not active discrimination, but it's as if as a society we’re waiting for black boys to slip and when they do, we say, well of course, instead of helping them get up and keep going.
All black boys and black men I’ve ever met remember at least one teacher who wouldn't give them an opportunity or who would pick on them. In the end, they give up.
At the same time, these kids often don’t have anyone at home to push them and say, don’t let one person define you. Without a positive influence, kids almost take opportunities away from themselves. Why bother, if no one’s telling them they can do it?
There is something really wrong in seeing one kid as less capable than another just because of what they look like.
It may not seem like much, but the results are real.
Black kids are more likely to leave school early and less likely to make it to the top, which means we don’t have enough black role models to set as examples for our kids.
My eldest is at an age when he can be easily influenced and we have a lot of conversations about his role models.
People to look up to
He looks up to a lot of sports people, mostly basketball players, but also the few black policemen in the MET who have to overcome a lot to be anywhere within the police force.
He also watches a lot of rap videos and I try to explain to him that this isn’t real life. If he wants to go into music, that’s great, but a rap video is not something to aspire to.
He also knows about the London gangs and all the violence.
For now, he sees the stupidity in this and says it’s not the path he wants to take. We talk a lot about what would happen if he did; we discuss possible scenarios and their consequences, so that he knows how to make his own choices.
Stop and search
Conversations like that, they weren’t really part of my upbringing. I had a good relationship with my parents, but it wasn’t a relationship where we would discuss everything. That’s something I try to do with my own kids. I can’t control whom they’re around or how they’re treated, but I can help them feel in control of their own choices.
I think that as a society we’re getting more embracing and there is less racism than there used to be. But I have been with people who have experienced blatant discrimination.
With their dad, I’ve been part of many stop-and-searches and there were many times when he was arrested just because he fit a description even though he was nowhere near the place where something happened.
Racism is not an excuse
People sometimes think that being black is used as an excuse.
When my son is being treated differently, for example, people sometimes say I don’t see the issue at hand and instead I immediately think this is because he’s a black kid. I do what I can to look at things objectively and I’m very strict with my boys; if they’re out of line, there are consequences.
At the same time, when my child is being made to feel sad or angry, it gets to me. I don’t want to be a problem parent, of course, but I have to react and openly address it. I’m a mum. I have my boys’ back.
Khaya Rowland is a single mother to two boys and a full time HR/Finance Administrator at the University of Oxford. She fell pregnant with her eldest at the age of 19 while she was in her first year of a fashion degree at the University of East London. She moved back to Oxford when she found out about her pregnancy, but was not allowed to move back home, so she lived in temporary accommodation for about two years. When her son turned one, she went back to college and finally graduated in 2011.