Discrimination and Youth

There was an article in yesterdays Observer discussing youth-based discrimination and Harman’s forthcoming equality bill.  The bill will protect children and young people who are being discriminated against because of their disability, race, religion, gender and sexual orientation – but not those who are denied access to services because of their age.  As it happened, I was working at a Children and Young People’s Cafe yesterday, and was in an excellent position to ask some young people what they thought.

“It’s really annoying,” one teenage girl said.  “You can’t go into shops in more than a group of two, so someone’s always got to wait outside.  And then when you do go in they’re often really rude to you.  And in clothes shops they follow you around because they expect that you’ll steal something.”

I remember this happening to me when I was young, and being infuriated by it.  Wasn’t my money as good as anyone else’s?  Why should I be assumed to be a thief?  On more than on occasion I set out to buy something particularly nice, such as for my Mother’s birthday, and ended up asking another adult like my father to come along just so that I would be taken seriously.

Youth-based discrimination based on a set of assumptions: that children and young people will take advantage of any opportunity to steal, damage or misuse adult property (including public property, which is coded as adult) or waste adult time.  That children or young people might have genuine need of services in a way similar to adults is not recognized.  As with any form of prejudice, the problem that children and young people face is that in the eyes of adults they are, regardless of all other signs such as politeness or willingness to pay, at all times reducible and dismissible simply by virtue of being young.

This kind of day-to-day discrimination is annoying, and contributory to an atmosphere in which young people feel unwelcome in their own communities and adults feel able to belittle them without consequences.

I once spoke to an teenaged boy in a idyllic-looking village in Lincolnshire where nearly everyone we spoke with had been born at the local hospital.

“People used to be nice enough,” he said, “but then a couple of the teenagers went a bit mad with drugs and now they hate all of us, even though the rest of us don’t do that stuff.  It really feels like the grown-ups against the kids here.  I’ve been spat on in the street, and I’ve known these people all my life.  But they don’t see me anymore, just another hoodie.  It’s ridiculous.  These people have kids of their own – what do they think their kids are going to be in a few years?”

When children and young people are made to feel unwelcome in the public sphere, moved along by police and harassed by local residents, what reasons do they have to feel invested in that public realm?  What regard could they develop for a sense of community?

There are more dangerous instances cited in the article as well, such as the calls to emergency services that were disregarded because they were placed by a child or young person, and the dramatically reduced access to public services such as health care that many teenagers face.  Additionally, there are many children and young people who are the primary carers in their family, with responsibilities to siblings and adults in the house that require them to fulfill many of the duties that would otherwise fall to adults.  When these children are discriminated against, we are collectively making a very difficult job even harder.

The same goes for the very difficult job of growing up.

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