I am a person!

I recently attended a Youth Question Time in Haringey. A large proportion, if not an actual majority, of the young people attending were non-white. Apart from the fact that the audience at times appeared a lot brighter and more lively than we politicians on the panel (three Labour, one Lib Dem – me – and one police officer), what struck me incredibly forcefully was the real sense of fed upness among the audience with being labelled ‘ethnic-minorities’.

One of the Labour panellists was talking about ‘ethnic minorities’ and a young black boy (name of Justin I believe) shot up his hand and said he was fed up with being labelled; fed up with being always thought of as ethnic minority; felt it put him in a box. He wanted to be taken as him – as a person.

I have to say that the Labour panellists appeared a bit taken aback – after all Haringey Council (Labour) has spent years cultivating separateness and shoring up the ‘ethnic’ vote by keeping and feeding the separation – encouraging dependency – or divide and rule!

One Labour panellist put forward in response the view that you do need some special funding for vulnerable ethnic groups (women in this case) to help them access public services and so on – which is fair enough and a valid point – albeit it didn’t address the bigger question.

But what I found so interesting – thrilling actually – was the welling up of ‘I am a person first and foremost’ and hurrah I say! That is what we need our young people to feel – that they are valuable as individuals – not just as block votes.

A girl in the audience followed the same tack. After some debate about how to deal with poor educational attainment amongst ‘ethnic minorities’ this girl (black) said basically that she was fed up with hearing about the non-achievers – what could we offer to those who were really clever and able. Hurrah again!

So – you can see from the way this discussion was going – that these young people were incredibly bright and forceful, bursting with energy, brains, talents and enthusiasm – and most important of all in my book – confidence! Of course, there was an element of self-selection in terms of which kids get involved in Youth Council, Youth Parliament and so on. Nevertheless – I came away from that meeting with more food for thought than most of the ones I attend with adults.

And I guess – in that hall – is the nitty gritty of the issue at the heart of our society. How do we keep our incredibly important cultural or religious differences – and yet be part of mainstream society? There are difficult questions for us all in this. Realistically, Church Schools are not going to disappear – and there seem to be more and more state-funded faith schools being demanded – but I am not a great fan of separation. On the whole – I’m with Justin! I have always thought that human beings have more in common than they have apart. That culture and faith is for the home and the family – and the rest be that school or work – should be neutral. Of course -within that neutral areaobviously those with religious or cultural needs in terms of what is worn or expected in terms of behaviour must be free.

So -removing barriers and fighting discrimination remain a real issue – but perhaps these young people are telling us something important. If you treat me as if I am just a colour of skin or an ethnic group- then you limit my aspiration, you dictate my place in life and you perpetuate the stereotype.

Therein lies a lesson for all us politicians!

(c) Lynne Featherstone, 2007