A few years ago I was out at dinner with some friends from school.
“Su-Yin told me the other day I’ve gotten whiter,” I said, taking a bite out of (probably) eggplant from our favourite Japanese place.
“Oh, you have,” everyone agreed. “Definitely whiter.”
They weren’t talking about skin colour.
“What does that even mean?” I asked, mouth still full of food.
They all struggled to define it. But I sort of knew what they meant anyway.
I went to one of Sydney’s selective schools. You’ve probably heard of them – they’re currently enjoying one of their regular periods of flared controversy, thanks mostly to this article by a snooty white lady. A load has been written about it since, including this parody and this perceptive criticism of some of her journalistic decisions.
Interestingly, Ms Broinowski’s article, like most I’ve read on the topic over the years, is all about parents. Notably absent from the debate are the voices and opinions of students themselves.
My friends from school are mostly Asian. I joke that I only had one white friend – but that isn’t quite true. In the group of around 40 people I hung around with at lunch, I can think of five other white kids. Once, a group of us “skips” added up all the Caucasians and Eurasians we could think of in our year, and I think we counted about 40 people – or 20% of our year of 180.
Reports of our minority were hugely exaggerated. Kids from other schools, visiting to play us in various sports, claimed games of “spot the skip” could continue a long time before locating a person with a suitable melanin deficiency. If we comprised 20% of the school’s population, this seemed pretty unlikely.
By the time we left there were fewer white kids – and the school was realising they had a big PR problem. They put a massive sign at one of the school’s many entrances proclaiming ‘Multiculturalism’, but all the kids in the pictures were Asian.
My younger sister graduated from the same school in 2012, and reckons her year probably had about 20 Caucasian and Eurasian kids – or 11% of the grade.
Racially motivated questions were asked then and are asked now (more loudly). But honestly, they’re asked by the privileged white mummy brigade more often than anyone else – Asian parents don’t seem to care if their kids have white friends. Kids don’t even hide it – I’ve never had so many open, almost rude discussions about and around race. It was, and I think still is, normal for people to talk about “crazy Asian mums” “halfies” and “curries” – because with white numbers in the minority, it seems affectionate and ok. When white kids get out in the real world, this can cause issues. It’s tough to take a false minority headspace out into the harsh light of adulthood, walk it around, and see it for what it really is – fake.
Even at a school in which I was (according to the mummies) this downtrodden second-class citizen, I rarely experienced racism. The closest I got was this interaction:
Girl I Knew: I got 80% in maths! I’m such a failure
Me: Shut up, I got 50%
GIK: You don’t understand cos you’re white
Seriously. That’s it. My one big complaint.
At the time, this really upset me. But if we’re being serious, I think many LGBTQI, African American and Disabled people get down and pray for this kind of slight upset, these minimal hurt feelings, this probably heat-of-the-moment exchange.
Because even at school, I still noticed that teachers trusted me more than some of my classmates. I once ran into my history teacher at the shops while wagging school, and we had a very nice chat. School captains and prefects were disproportionately white. White guys, in particular, were definitively held up as the most attractive male specimens (white girls not so much. I was once told by a friend I “might be the prettiest white girl in the year” which probably make it into the running for Best Selective School Neg of All Time).
There were other negs too. The popular white people group (yes, a lot of them were racially segregated) were all seen as sluts on drugs, whether they were or not. Skips were automatically bad at science and math and had to get much better marks to be seen as “smart” than Asian kids did. We were bad at basketball, and dancing – two more popular pastimes.
Essentially white people were demoted to a shocking new status. Like any other race in this country, we were judged based on stereotypes, put in small and hard to escape boxes and told we were missing the big picture of racial issues. My best friend laughed when I asked for a fork – she made me learn to use chopsticks. I found it rude when people used Cantonese words I couldn’t understand – I was told to get over it. White people’s greatest fears came true – we were treated exactly like everybody else.
When I left school, the thing that shocked me the most were the totally OTT social interactions white people expected, sometimes demanded, of me. I was supposed to have levels of confidence I never even knew were a thing – to kiss strangers on the cheek and call people babe and end all my texts with hundreds of kisses. To expect boys to bow at my feet instead of be flawed human beings. To ask things of my parents that seemed preposterous to me (buy me a car? I had a part time job, like everyone else I knew). I was also expected to value things like brands and pay for waxing and go to a lot of the best clubs. It all seemed weirdly posed and fake to me. I tried bits of it for a while, but mostly I ended up back where I started.
And I think, personally, that this whole debate, whenever it arises, smacks of that confidence, that white assurance that we know better and our way is right. Even Ms Broinowski says the whole thing comes down to white and Asian parents disagreeing on how to give kids confidence – and then essentially outlines that the white way is best.
I don’t know if it’s Tony Abbot or the boats or the housing market or whatever, but some kind of racist assessment that white kids deserve the best things for no real reason seems to lurk at the heart of this whole discussion. Giving your kids confidence to be themselves is fabulous, but as they stand defending a client in court it’s the rote learned phrases, the hours of grunt work and a thorough understanding of the law that will prevail over Law and Order-style bluster. Nobody wants to see a doctor who’s come out of med school very confident in who they are – they want to see one who’s come out of med school very confident in what they know.
I’m the first to admit, as someone who loves rules, I do find tutoring a bit against the spirit of the thing. But as someone who used to work at a tutoring place, I can testify that a lot of it isn’t that helpful. A lot of it would be better advertised as child minding with a little added confidence during tests. Nobody is going to steal your kid’s childhood.
To be honest, of the kids I knew at school, the ones who thrived weren’t tutored or would never have needed it to get in. The best kids, tutored or not, were just clever with a great work ethic – they didn’t fool a test. What’s sad to me isn’t a few lost hours of a child’s life, it’s that regular, local high schools don’t have the resources to entice kids to stay.
So the thing I will say to white parents considering selective schools is that your kids will lose some of their whiteness. They’ll experience new things and other cultural norms and use racist terms without realising they can’t – because for a short while, they’ll lose some of their privilege.
And when they leave, they’ll gain that privilege back and it will be confusing. They’ll become “whiter” as they decide to be a writer instead of a lawyer or shack up with a white person or spend more on organic food. Like mine, their friends from school will probably notice the shift – and that will be hard, in that way that losing a piece of past you is always hard.
Your kids will probably be just that little bit more stressed about success, may think Asian women are the hottest women and will KNOW for a fact that the best thing to eat after a night out is Shin Ramen. Those parts of them will be confusing and kind of unacceptable to people of all races.
But you know what? If they’re anything like me, they’ll come out better people.
Because there’s nothing wrong with private schools, helicopter mothering and false confidence. And there’s nothing wrong with strict routines and rote learning numbers. But both can be awful when they come from a place of ignorance.
Kids at selective schools don’t care what colour their friends are – the debate people on their merits rather than charicatures on their stereotypes. It would be great to see parents (and journalists) learn from them.