Racist literature – or teaching?

So how useful do you think studying a classic anti-racist work of literature is in teaching children about anti-racism? A student of African heritage in the UK doesn’t think it’s very useful at all. The book in question is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird:

“People speak like that in real life but we can study that in history or politics, there is no need to make up fictional stories about it.

“Books like this do nothing to alleviate or reduce racism, but have contributed negatively to the school community with me getting the worst impact of its negativity.

“This type of book only creates and incites hate, violence and racism among races due to terms used in them, which are grossly degrading.

“Times have changed. Racist fiction should be buried in the past.”

Although I enjoyed this book very much, I don’t agree with the teachers at the student’s school that “the point of studying it is to challenge racism”. The point of studying English literature in UK secondary schools is apparently:

to encourage candidates to develop:

  • the ability to read, understand and respond to a wide range of types of literary texts, to appreciate the ways in which authors achieve their effects, and to acquire the skills necessary for literary study;
  • an awareness of social, historical and cultural contexts and influences in the study of literature;
  • the ability to construct and convey meaning in speech and writing, matching style to audience and purpose.

Accordingly, during their examinations, students “must demonstrate their ability to”:

  • respond to texts critically, sensitively and in detail, using textual evidence as appropriate;
  • explore how language, structure and forms contribute to the meaning of texts, considering different approaches to these texts and different interpretations of them;
  • explore relationships and comparisons within and between texts, selecting and evaluating relevant material.

In retrospect, I believe my enjoyment of the book came from its recognition that racism existed and the injustices that people of colour could be subjected to. I was well aware that the book had a historical and geographical context that was not comparable to mine, but its use of coarse language (not just the n-word), and the description of the courtroom scenes and the children’s emotions, put racial hatred and its consequences out there for all to see. This was, in many ways, liberating for me, because I felt that made it impossible to gloss over it.

I acknowledge

  • the feelings that the young black student has regarding the language in the book.
  • his fear, based on his past experience, that he will be identified with the character of Tom Robinson, and that his oppressors will identify themselves with the prejudiced white characters in the book. and
  • his courage in taking a stand.

I note that

  • the headteacher says the student was warned about the content of the book,
  • she infers the white students were not, and
  • his subject teacher did not say that it was not right to use the n-word, but painted him as “oversensitive”.

I believe that

  • the students concerns were probably taken too lightly by the teaching staff,
  • the teaching staff do not themselves have a sufficient understanding or training to impart understanding in their students of such subject matter, and
  • the student was singled out as representative of his race in discussions.

So, do I believe that we should bury To Kill a Mockingbird in the past and ban it from studies of English Literature?

No, because I think it is a book that is easily accessible to most students and will allow them to meet the assessment objectives for English Literature, as well as dealing with a subject that still has relevance today.

But I do believe that for the mental health of all students, whatever their colour, anti-racist understanding and teaching must take a central place in education.

10 thoughts on “Racist literature – or teaching?

  1. I love TKAM, but I’m an English teacher, so there you are.

    I agree on the value of studying literature that affirms racism as undeniably real and reprehensible.

    I’ve no interest in book-banning here, but –

    I do feel some resistance to the book because only white characters have dimension and agency. Black characters are victims, unable to speak for themselves, and whites are validated as heroes for defending them. Also, I know as a white student I felt a sense of relief when I read the book. A passionate desire to stand up to injustice like Atticus Finch, combined with a sigh of “thank god we’re not racist like that anymore.” I was totally prepared to stand up to anyone who used the N-word. I was totally unprepared to recognize contemporary racism and other forms of oppression. If anything, the blatant virulent racism of TKAM masked my awareness of anything more subtle, more insidious.

    So I guess one question would be, are there better picks than TKAM for exploring “awareness of social, historical and cultural contexts and influences” with respect to more prevalent forms of contemporary racism?

    And another is, knowing how usual it is for white teachers to be unconscious and ignorant of anti-racism, which is better – to read TKAM and other literature that centers on racism, knowing that it may be clumsily and painfully handled, or not to teach it? (That’s probably a stupid question, even as a hypothetical. I think I’m exorcising old demons, wondering whom I hurt and how much, when I was teaching students of color as a white woman with good intentions and no anti-racist perspective at all. :P)

  2. TKAM is one of my favorites, (second to HP), for all the reasons you cite.

    Thanks for putting it out there so well. I vehemently disagree it’s not useful, and though I think the way schools teach it is wrong. I think it is classic literature, definitely one of (if not the) only anti-racist works we read in school.

    It needs to be kept in the cirriculum.

  3. I think the issue isn’t TKAM, per se: It’s that most white people ought to be pushed to see certain things about racism that most POC don’t want or need to be reminded about.

    I once participated in a project created by Guillermo Gomez-Pena, a Mexican performance artist, in which GGP and some other artists dressed up in pseudo-“primitive” outfits and painted their faces and stood around in a cage in the Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C. (A couple other white people and I were “docents,” answering questions about these fictional native americans who lived on a fictional island in South America.)

    The project was intended to make people reflect on the history of Western exhibition/artistic exploitation of POC — but in the middle of the whole thing, I looked across the room and saw a Latino family, and the parents looked *stricken*. They didn’t even come close enough to realize the whole thing was fake; they had come to the museum for a family outing and looked over and saw people who looked like them in a CAGE.

    That really got at me, because — while I understood what GGP was trying to do, and I didn’t really have a problem with shocking white people into greater awareness — I felt like the project was so precisely aimed at white people that he didn’t really think about the impact it would have on any POC who walked by.

  4. I think it is extraordinarily difficult to teach to a mixed group, but you’ll have a hard time convincing white people of this because it carries with it the implication that whites are less-educated and aware about racism.

    So a critical teaching of this would require examining the whole “savior” issue, among other things. Is this beyond the grasp of most white teachers? I would say yes.

  5. I think there’s another aspect to this as TKAM is based in the U.S. and is about American history. This student and school are in England. I’m not sure if there’s an English equivalent to TKAM but I think your point on white students identifying with prejudiced characters is very compelling when white English children don’t have the same socialization in regards to American historical racism as American children, who’ve generally been taught not to identify with prejudiced whites.

  6. Soude! Are you aware of what UK children are taught by comparison to US students? Are you implying that this would not happen in the US because American white kids wouldn’t take those terms and use them against their black classmates?

    I think the only other experiential aspect that might be relevant here is that the young man in question appears to be of African origin, and in the UK, that probably means his parents have brought him up to have a greater sense of entitlement than perhaps other people who are descendants of slaves.

    Thanks to all who have commented here. You have helped me to think more deeply on this subject, and I’m still thinking.

  7. I think one of the problems is that the kids might learn some facts, but they don’t have any understanding of the gravity or the meaning behind the facts. So if this student were my son, I would worry that white kids would definitely yank bits and pieces out of the book and use that to hurt him. White teachers might scold the white kids, but they probably wouldn’t understand the gravity either.

    Another example of this was in the Dartmouth incident, when one of the students used a flip reference to the Rape of Nanking and the internment of Japanese Americans. It was just a funny throw-away line to him. He doesn’t have any understanding of the deep pain of that history.

  8. @sinoangle- I have no idea what English students are taught. In fact, despite recently representing the UK at a mock UN conference (and doing it well!), I know very little about British race relations. I wasn’t really able to articulate what I wanted to say in the last comment but I meant that there might be no or little context for English children regarding the white people in TKAM, whereas Americans do have a context for them somewhere in slavery, Jim Crow, CRM, etc. I know that, regardless of nationality, people can be racist, just that there might not be as much as of a stigma attached to identifying with the racist characters in England.

    I don’t know; I really just thought that it was interesting that the English were using an American work and that that might introduce new variables or whatever.

  9. I feel Molly W has provided the most insight so far (@ Molly–was that project based on the “Theatre of the Oppressed” by Augusto Boal?).

    I participated in a few ‘race awareness’ workshops in the mid-1990s, designed primarily to sensitize upper-middle class white kids from universities in ‘multicultural’ Canada about their privileges (compared to other minorities/countries). I was a graduate student leader (that’s why I was at that conference), but I was born in the Philippines and I still wear the same skin.

    As hard as I tried to convince myself to go through with that workshop/ exercise, rationalizing how much good it could do, and how necessary this would be for the white kids (there were only 2 of us ‘students of colour’ in a room of about 35), there was a palpable knot that grew into a twisted rebellion in my stomach by the time the exercise finished. I nearly walked out a couple of times and was just shocked at how culturally insensitive this ‘anti-racist’ workshop was. As much as the white kids might have benefited from the exercise, in retrospect, I’m quite sure it had the effect of traumatizing me–(I only had 1 ‘privilege’ to speak of, that being my ‘level of education’, but it hadn’t been made easy-so it wasn’t even a ‘privilege’ for me as it might have been for the other kids!)

    It’s ironic that in trying to teach ‘anti-racism’, it gets done sometimes in a semi-racist way (e.g., assuming the audience will be all white and upper-middle class, so not considering how other cultures/backgrounds might be affected with the delivery). That’s just an indicator of how far we still have to go.

    I read TKAMP in grade 9 and I can say it had a very positive affect on me (which is not to say that it didn’t make me very angry and upset whilst I read it!). It certainly toughened my resolve. Literary works are markers of a time period/culture, and this book has important, if not always pleasant, stories/experiences to share…

    So here’s what I’d recommend:
    -The teachers should read Frantz Fanon (“Black Skin, White Masks”) and be prepared to get uncomfortable themselves. Cross-cultural empathy is an underdeveloped skill, so ‘anti-racist’ teachers need to get practiced. There’s also Augusto Boal and Paulo Friere–their published works AND their life stories for context.
    -In general, people need to get beyond ‘anti-racism’ and start thinking, living, feeling in terms of INTER-culturality.–interculturalism (diversity of process and values) instead of ‘multiculturalism’ (pluralistic but still hegemonic)
    -google ‘post-colonial theory’ and tell your students to do the same
    -be more flexible with the curriculum: e.g., give students who object strongly to the book (as with this student) an opportunity to write not only a critique of why s/he feels it misses the mark of promoting ‘anti-racism’, but to also draw a comparison with another book s/he may have read that does hit the mark in their view.

    Thanks for working towards our common dignity.

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