“You can’t do that! Stories have to be about White people”
Young Writers of Colour
I’ve spent almost two decades teaching in English primary schools, which serve multiracial, multicultural, multifaith communities. I want to explore two things I have noticed.
1) Almost without exception, whenever children are asked to write a story in school, children of colour will write a story featuring white characters with ‘traditional’ English names who speak English as a first language.
2) Teachers do not discuss this phenomenon.
Furthermore, simply pointing these two things out can lead to some angry responses in my experience.
Why are you making an issue of race when children are colourblind?”
is an example of the sort of question that sometimes gets asked.
Well let’s look at that. If children were writing stories where the race of characters was varied and random, there might be some merit in claiming that children are colourblind. However, even proponents of racial colourblindness do not argue that all people are White… and English. They argue that race no longer matters. If that’s true, why are young children of colour and young white children writing exclusively about white characters?
But, surely you are not arguing that teachers are telling them to do this?”
I’m not. I think it’s more complicated than that.
A few years ago, I taught a Year 2 class in East London. I had built up a good bank of multicultural picture-books and resources and shared these with the class whenever seemed appropriate. When it came time for the class to write their own stories, I suggested that they used the name of someone in their family for their protagonist. I wanted them to draw on their own backgrounds, but was worried about ‘making an issue of race’. When it came to sharing their stories, I noticed only one boy had acted upon my suggestion, naming his main character after his uncle. He had recently arrived from Nigeria and was eager to read his story to the class. However when he read out the protagonists name he was interrupted by another boy, who was born in Britain and identified as Congolese.
“You can’t do that! Stories have to be about White people.”
I’m confident the boy who announced this was being sincere and indeed, in the ensuing class discussion there was a fair bit of uncertainty about who could and couldn’t be in stories. I was surprised and confused by this. Why did they always write stories about children from very different backgrounds to themselves? And why were these characters always White? After all, I had shared a number of stories about children of colour with the class.
I just hadn’t realised what I was up against.
What do I mean? Well, if you are a teacher, try this with your class. Ask them to write down their favourite 25 children’s book characters. Then ask them to count how many of those characters are White (and look for other patterns too). Publishers like Verna Wilkins at Tamarind do a great job at promoting books featuring People of Colour. However, a friend of mine who writes for children, has been told by publishers that by making her central character a black girl, she will reduce its marketability – so unless she is writing specifically about ‘black issues’ she should make her ‘front-cover’ characters white.
On World Book Day, many primary schools ask children and staff to dress up as a famous book character. On this day in my local schools, you will see children of colour dressed as White fictional children. Again, this in itself might not be a problem – but the lack of options is worrying for some Black teachers and parents. A Black colleague’s exasperation at this, led to us creating a resource for discussion that has proved an effective way of starting conversations with colleagues and children about race and representation in children’s literature. World Book Day – A Teacher’s Dilemna
This isn’t confined at children’s literature of course. In her essay ‘Playing in the Dark’, Toni Morrison argues that “the readers of virtually all of American fiction have been positioned as white.” (Morrison 1992:xiv) We might ask if the same is true of children’s literature and how that might affect children’s relationship to story-writing. And I don’t think any such marginalization is limited to books. Take a programme set in the very area of England where I teach. When EastEnders was launched, it was lauded for its inner-city realism and diversity. Recently the BBC compiled this list of characters with the most ‘doof doof’ cliffhangers – an indication, albeit an imprecise one, of who has the main storyline. In the top 50 characters, the number of People of Colour was exactly zero.
Reflecting on my experience with my Year 2 class, the following year, whilst teaching Year 5, I was emboldened to experiment.
What would happen if for just one lesson I insisted they write about a character from a similar ethnic, religious, linguistic background as themselves – just as I sometimes insist they try to include fronted adverbials, or a moral dilemma for their protagonist?
First we discussed ourselves in terms of amongst other things: language, family migration, physical appearance including skin and hair, religion, hobbies and clothes. Then I asked them to write a character who was similar in some but not necessarily all of categories. As I modelled this process for them, I realized it was something I rarely did in class myself, causing me to later think of my role as a teacher of colour (indeed the only male teacher of colour in my current school.)
Bang! As I stormed to headteacher Mrs. Paula’s office my head filled with fear. Fear of exclusion!
Mrs. Paula was a short, slim, young white woman with red ruddy cheeks. She was a stern woman who hated disobedience and inappropriateness. As I stroked my black hair, my smooth lips crumpled and my creamy brown face turned red with worry.
Maryam Patel was a twelve year old girl, whose parents were Indian, but she was born in Britain. She was a fairly religious person. However Maryam thought one does not have to wear a headscarf to be religious. She loved her red straight hair. Her hair was as red as blood. She had decided to dye her hair as she hated her dark brown hair. She loved football and the club she supported was Liverpool. One day I will play for the Liverpool women she thought.
I want to avoid making huge claims here. However, I do sense a greater emotional engagement with the story from the children and the beginnings of an authorial voice in both Michael’s dramatic first-person opening and Nabila’s character description.
Nabila did start four sentences with ‘She’ and I would want to give her feedback on varying her sentence structure. But there is genuine characterisation in the paragraph not just a short list of features, which I often encounter. More than that, there is some psychological insight in this 9 year-old’s writing precisely because she is using her own life as inspiration for her creativity.
Speaking to Nabila, she told me she had never written about an Indian heritage and/or Muslim character before. Nobody had ever told her she shouldn’t. But at the same time, nobody had ever explicitly given her permission. Subsequently, she wrote two further full stories about ‘Maryam Patel’. The third installment described Maryam’s trip to India. Trust me, it was a good read.
*Names of children have been changed.
Our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice — and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.
READ the follow up: Writing and Reading While Black. Lessons learned.
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- Book list for black girls: promoting self-love and empowering young black women (mediadiversified.org)
- “Black people don’t go to galleries” – The reproduction of taste and cultural value (mediadiversified.org)
- Eastenders: Not Quite #AllWhiteTV; Doesn’t Make It Right (mediadiversified.org)