Culture

“You can’t do that! Stories have to be about White people”

Young Writers of Colour

by Darren Chetty

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.

#40 ABC Fun2What 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 essayPlaying 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.)

Writing-Games2Then they wrote. Clearly, many of them enjoyed the lesson and many produced their best piece of writing. Here are a couple of examples:

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.

Michael

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.

Nabila

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.


________________________________________________

Teacher, Governor, Higher Ed Tutor, Hip Hop Educator, P4Cer, PhDer. RapClassRoom Find Darren Chetty on twitter @rapclassroom

READ the follow up: Writing and Reading While Black. Lessons learned.


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.

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87 replies »

  1. Children are very good at picking up the unwritten rules of society. They depend on it, they have to learn them so they can navigate this strange world they were born into.
    When they verbalise these rules and tell them back at us, adults are often horrified, because of course do they believe in “equality”. Of course do they believe that PoC can be protagonists! Of course do they believe that girls can be whatever they want! But they don’t walk the walk and when children notice this, it’s somehow the children’s fault.

  2. Right here is the perfect site for anyone who wishes to understand this topic.
    You realize so much its almost hard to argue with you (not that
    I actually will need to…HaHa). You certainly put a fresh spin on a subject that’s been discussed for ages.

    Wonderful stuff, just excellent!

  3. This is a good tip especially to those fresh to the blogosphere.
    Brief but very precise information… Thank you for sharing this one.
    A must read article!

  4. Great post. I agree with everything you say. I hope this issue stays at the forefront of the news and we actually get some change happening.

  5. For very young children the stories themselves are gender and race neutral – perhaps there is a problem with illustrators as well as (or not just) with writers.

    • I’m a mixed backgound (Asian-white) children’s writer. I look everywhere for picture books featuring non-white protagonists for my son, who’s nearly 2. The only onesI find, apart from the excellent Pamela Venus / Tamarind Press books, are as follows 1) set in a foreign country (non white = non British) 2) traditional tales (non-white = non-contemporary, ‘cultural’, different) 3) from the USA, reflecting contemporary US life. It has proved almost impossible to find something as apparently simple as a children’s picture book depicting a non-white child as the hero/ine of a non-issue based story. British children’s books don’t reflect the diversity of the UK outside the library doors. The problem is with publishing, I’d say, more than with illustrators and writers.

  6. It’s not just children. Writers who hope to sell a novel do the same thing. I’ve sometimes received manuscripts in my inbox from writers from other countries, including women and people of color, whose books are set in the USA and are about white male Americans. Unfortunately, though I’m sure they could write something publishable set in their own countries, it’s clear they know the USA only via television and their books are not going to win out against books written about white male Americans by white male Americans writing what they know with an authentic voice. It makes me want to scream.

  7. Wow, great read. Definitely a topic that never even crossed my mind until I read this. Thank you for knowledge, I feed on it and you have fed me today.

  8. I just love this. I’ve explored culture as well as slavery on my blog. Your post reminds me of a movie whose title I can’t for the life of me recall. Well-known actors with Sandra Bullock. White lawyer in the South seeks justice for the rape of a little black girl. All-white jury. Doesn’t look like he’s going to win, the bad white guys are going to get off. At the eleventh hour, in the closing argument, the lawyer appeals to the jury to close their eyes while he recounts what the men did to the girl. And he says: “Now imagine that girl was white.”

    I’m getting chills!!
    (And yeah, he won.)

    Let me know if you’d like to participate in the Race:

    http://holisticwayfarer.com/2014/02/28/join-me-in-the-race-around-the-world/

    You can share your experiences on my podium, promote your blog that way.

    HW

  9. Beautiful. So interesting of you to bring up the color blind topic. Im in the process now of writing about that.

  10. The subject of your post is not something I’ve ever really considered before, but it is very true. As I stop and think I find it hard to name a major character in a successful English language novel who is not white. Given the sensitivity to cultural nuances children have it is sad (but unsurprising) that they pick up on, and act on this unspoken truth.

  11. Young children take in these simplified ideas as they learn language and family roles. You are inspired to begin to break down these ultimately limiting categories of thought. They were obviously ready for it!

  12. I agree with you about this . One of the big things that bothers me about the schools is that my ancestry which is native american, Is lied about the truth is not told. It is just ridiculous

  13. Amazing! I really like your perspective as I have had similar experiences to my job applications. Within EU, the educational system prefers to stay silent and probably ignore this very fact. I am a mid-career Pakistani journalist and trainer on human rights issues, during my time in the EU I was keen on contributing stories at my former e-magazine. First I was told off with a very weird statement that “how can you write in English” ( 85% of my journalism work is in English) and then after much frustration I was told to submit my stories. The reactions were like ” Why your story has a migrant in it, yes your colored so you probably cannot write about real European people and so on.” My mental state was somewhere between hysterical and cold anger.
    I will follow your posts for sure, very very interesting.

  14. I look for a time when reading will encompass ALL people. I am interested in the 30,000,000 word gap between children of poverty ( no color added) and children of wealth. Have you heard about that?

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