Decolonising Parenting: Curating the World One Playmobil Character at a Time

I don’t know whether it is because I have recently finished co-teaching a postcolonial geographies module for this cycle, or because my daughter, at six, is becoming more conscious of, and interested in, the world, but lately I have felt my academic and personal worlds collide as never before. I have always considered myself at least partially aware of the heavy colonial legacies which shape everyday practices and assumptions in the UK, and as a white middle class woman been especially and often uncomfortably conscious of the privilege I hold, but there is something about raising a child, and having to curate the world for, and with, them, that makes you discover and confront these assumptions all over again. This is a good thing in one sense of course, but also utterly disturbing.

First, the museum visit. Like many parents I love museums and appreciate the windows they give us to other times and places, and the imaginations they spark (and the coffee shops, toilets, gift shops, shelter from rain, did I say gift shops?). But if I am honest I have only relatively recently reflected on why, and how, most museums in the UK – municipal ones as well as the larger ones – have collections from Ancient Egypt. And once you have asked yourself that question, standing in a beautiful museum space, overheated and weighed down with bags, drinks and coats, you can’t look at the artefacts in the same light again. You can’t just enjoy the journey into history without thinking whose history this is, where these things should be, how they ended up here. This is not helped by then being confronted with a biography of the white male explorer who ‘discovered’ these items in the 1920s on his ‘overseas’ dig. And then there is the dilemma – is it OK to ruin the magic of the mummy by pointing out that really we probably shouldn’t be looking at these things here? That these things perhaps belong elsewhere? That they tell us more about how we see the world, than what that world really looks like? So the question is, what should the decolonising parent do? How young is too young to introduce some context and reflection into the discussion?

And so there is a theme emerging here on mediating historical encounters. With daughter being a huge fan of the children’s series ‘Hetty Feather’, about a foundling girl in the 1880s, we have embarked at home on an extracurricular excursion into Victorian history. And of course you cannot think about Victorian history without bringing in the industrial revolution, and without confronting the beating heart of empire which underpins everything. You can explain about canals, and about cotton and mills, but you can’t do that without linking back to empire. So which empire do you link back to? The children’s history book empire of Victorian reach, innovation, trade and connection, or the empire you know of oppression, brutality and racist violence? It is so easy to nurture an emergent love of history when you live in Liverpool too, but here the responsibility is great again. Yes, look at those buildings, aren’t they spectacular (would it be we wrong to say about the slave trade at this point? Can I drop that in before heading to the carousel?). How can I explain slavery to a six year old, and should I even be trying?

At least we have some control over this curation though. School homework has now started to present new challenges for the postcolonial feminist geographer parent. History topics for this term are … Christopher Columbus and Neil Armstrong. More white male explorers, venturing into the ‘unknown’ and colonising space. Terrific. Some self-control was lost on the homework which asked what Columbus was famous for – I drilled it into daughter that it wasn’t really ‘discovering’ a place if people were already living there. It is difficult isn’t it? I can see why these histories are picked out, but when is it too early to challenge the narrative that is fashioned around them? And if it isn’t challenged at six, when it is first encountered, when will it be challenged?

And then there are the wider cultural references and material cultures you don’t necessarily see if you don’t have tiny people in your life in some way. The blatant and/or lazy racism and orientalism of most Disney films (The Little Mermaid, for example, Pocahontas, and don’t ever, ever, be tempted to watch the 1994 version of Thumbelina) is a shock all over again – and a further shock that other parents don’t even seem to notice, and look at you oddly if you mention it. Luckily we managed to avoid The Jungle Book – no amount of popcorn could tempt me into that one. Even Frozen, held up as a more progressive Disney offering, and bypassing the perennial need to ethnicise baddies as Hispanic or African-American by having an all white cast, which is not exactly better, still engages in what looks worryingly like anti-Semitism in one of its minor characterisations. Paddington was a relief, that’s for sure, although the rather benign, exportable view of Britishness offered up there is a whole other issue. And I am not sure what is going on with the programme ‘Shimmer and Shine’, an animated mash-up of Indian and Arabic traditions, music and settings, starring distinctly Caucasian looking princesses. And as for Playmobil. It hit home very hard a couple of weeks ago when I was unable to offer up a father figure of colour (to visit our museum) from the many (many) characters we have accumulated, who was not dressed in a security uniform of some sort. Even imaginative play is framed in racial terms.

This is not the rant of an over privileged white liberal, overburdened by guilt with an overactive mind. This stuff matters. Decolonising our worlds starts at home. The full force of responsibility has hit me because I can see the mindsets we get socialised into from the start. I can see the stereotyping that is ingrained in those films and programmes, the unquestioning acceptance that our museums should have these artefacts and that ‘our’ explorers brought them back, for ‘us’. I can see the consensual ‘naturalness’ of choosing Columbus and Armstrong as key historical figures, and the normative assumptions that toy figures (and of course dolls) would predominantly be white. None of these observations are new, but I think it is important to bring all these different points together, and to state and restate them, because it can be a lonely path trying to engage in decolonising parenting. I don’t want to ruin all the fun and innocence of my daughter’s childhood, but I owe it to her to encourage a view of the world that gets her to see beyond her immediate position, and ask questions about what is around her. My decolonising journey is just as much about home and family as it is about work.