“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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163 replies

  1. this was such a great read. i remember in high school, reading manic magee or maybe it was Jr high? but i loved the fact race and everything was addressed the protagonist was a child that didn’t see a difference in color and really spoke to you. great read! wish i was in your class too haha

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is very interesting and perhaps telling that we need to be more blatant about representation of people from all backgrounds and cultures being featured in stories, books, paintings, photographs etc etc…and positive ones, until it is part of everyone’s psyche. We are all people, all equal, all important and that is not what children from ethnic minority groups are feeling! It really needs a head-on change.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love the thought that you put into it, and you are correct: there is a greater number of picture books about white children than those of other backgrounds. And it is unfortunate that, rather than embracing it, we are somehow taught, whether consciously or not, to ignore the diversity of our cultures and heritages. My former professor in a course about early childhood also mentioned this, and she emphasized using the mirrors and windows of books in our classroom: children should use books to see themselves and the world.

      By the way, the idea of mirrors and windows came from this article, if anyone is interested in searching it up:

      Wiltse, L. (2015) Mirrors and windows: Teaching and research reflections on Canadian Aboriginal children’s literature. Language and Literacy, 17(2), 22-42.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I know I have commented on this but I really love it. It deserves some real appreciation. But the real question is, will this method of perception ever change? Will we ever be open to the day where they will show novels with people of color or motion films with the actors and actresses being people of color. I hope in that in this productive era, that we will see our society develop. Thank you so much for writing this!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I really enjoyed such a valid and daring post. I like Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote “Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.” Concerning American education, I believe it is still producing talented thinkers; however, the rate and quantity are being lost in botched standardized test scores and constant disrespect for teachers. It is amazing how countries such as India, under the caste system, esteemed educators as being important in their society. Again, great read.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great post! I have seen this Ted Talk several times, even blogged about it myself as it is powerful! It really gets one to look at something we take for granted like literature and show a whole new light of how it effects others around the world.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is a fantastic article. A couple of years ago I worked right in the heart of a couple of Pakistani families, and it took a while to work out why all of the characters the children wrote had western names, even though they were doing things like going learning Arabic and reciting the Quran. I was a bit confused until I heard an aunt calling two of the children Mary and Sam. Humayra and Usama. Luckily this family had a balance that they were comfortable with and the children were writing characters who they identified with.
    Where I do find a problem is a character I’ve written. In my head she was always black – she’s an amalgam of some wonderful kid’s I’ve worked with, but people read her as white, because people expect her to be. Which is fine, I suppose and perhaps a more traditional name would have helped, but Delilah is a British child and her name, while not typically English, is one that wouldn’t stand out too much – I didn’t want to be that white woman writing a stereotype. It’s a hard line to walk.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This is such an interesting article. I’m almost 25 years old and after reading this, I find I do the same thing as some of these children without knowing. Definitely going to be thinking about this the next time I write something.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Insightful and sadly true. In recent years, I have become aware of the absence of disabled women as main characters in fiction. It’s a theme i deal with in my writing, from a personal experience with my disabled mother, and, as a feminist, making the connections between the personal and wider socio-political issues.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Great article. Not long ago, a news channel interviewed black girls showing pictures of different girls and asking them to pick their favorite. Most black girls picked white girl pictures stating “they are me beautiful, they are prettier, I wish I were lighter “. So sad how they perceive themselves.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Thank you so much for writing this! I am Hispanic and love writing but always have unknowingly wrote about characters who are white! I think you are so used to the culture of television and stories being promoted in class rooms! My husband grew up in Chicago and his school taught black culture! We def need to promote who we are because we all have a significant part in this world and we need to make our mark as multicultural people!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Really amazing! I just don’t like the use of “people of coulor” to talk about Black people.

    Just say it: Black people, all right?

    By the end, white people are people of colour or discolour?

    It’s language keeps a Padron and it’s terrible tô hear, read or think about ir like it was normal.
    😀

    Liked by 3 people

  12. Very valid points. Although you can argue that the use of an English-derived name does not mean said character is inherently English or white. I am mixed race and my parents nor myself are Jewish, but my name is still Hannah.
    Race is important to discuss in literature because of the lack of ethnic and racial diversity in western literature. But is there an argument in creating characters with unknown or unstated characteristics such as race, or even gender and sexuality, to see how character development can be made when certain identity tropes are taken away?

    Liked by 2 people

  13. I wish i were in your class. Thanks for making me ponder over such a delicate yet overlooked issue. Keep sharing your insights. Lots of love.
    And yes i am an indian and Nabila’s character seems like the girl next door. Colours and shades indubitaly connects.
    :)

    Liked by 3 people

  14. This is a brilliant article! I too think that other cultures should be given just as much exposure as the white culture so that we’re wowed by the uniqueness of the world. I’d definitely like to show a wider side of my own heritage from now onwards. Eye opener indeed!

    Liked by 3 people

  15. I can feel the heart, good will and genuine love for the children here. But a person as grand as Maya Angelou, in fact Maya Angelou was very concerned about African American children and all so called minority children (minority of what; a person with a soul is a majority before God and people who know what it is to stand as an individual) losing their heritage AS HUMAN BEINGS CONNECTED TO EVERY FORM OF LITERATURE WRITTEN BY ALL HUMAN BEINGS AS THEIR BIRTHRIGHT. FOR INSTANCE, SHAKESPEARE…the beauty of language. “ALL THE EXCELLENCIES ARE MINE, ” said Maya Angelou and she certainly meant the whole entire heritage of world literature inclouding the great classics written by “white” people. This is a ridiculous way of actually marginalizing so called minority kids generally by DENYING them the feeling that ANYTHING HUMAN ANYTHING BEAUTIFUL IS THERES by birthright whether they see themselves in the picture or not, it is the words in which human feelings, human aspirations, the human soul especially in poetry has been expressed for ALL TIME for ALL PEOPLE that belongs, belongs, belongs to them. The picture is in the words, the picture is in THE REFLECTION OF THE HUMAN HEART NO MATTER WHO WROTE IT WHEN.

    Liked by 3 people

  16. Excellent read, I enjoyed this in its entirety. I wish more teachers were like this, identifying underlying problems and addressing it. I recall writing as a child but never given color or race to the characters. It wasn’t until I was older that I became painfully aware of race. I digress, your doing an amazing job and the impact you are making in these children’s lives will be unforgettable. I wish I had a teacher like you.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. Very poignant post! Personally, when I write stories, I make sure there is diversity. One of my current works features an interracial couple and their mixed daughter. Life is full of color – why shouldn’t novels/movies/series/commercials/billboards/everything celebrate it? The face of the world has changed. We need to change with it.

    Liked by 7 people

  18. Wow, great perspective. As an educator myself, I have never given this much thought. I respect how you presented this issue as something that we need to bring awareness to and not make it a racist thing. Because as a white educator of multicultural students, I don’t intentionally push a ‘white agenda’ but I see now (thanks to your article) that I am sadly unaware of the lack of culture that our literature and curriculum include. And I believe most educators would be very accepting to the idea of adding more culture to the curriculum but just lack the awareness and know how. Thanks for being bold and provoking thought and change.

    Liked by 6 people

  19. This is an excellent article. I am glad you are raising awareness about the niche in the market. Your perspective will give future writers an eyeopener and maybe they will try and make their characters more diverse. Moreover this article is beneficial for the education system as they could introduce more diverse books at an early age and maybe get children to study it as part as their curriculum. I hope this article gets more views. Thank you.

    Liked by 4 people

  20. Great read! I question this very same thing as I raise a young African American girl. When I was a kid I believe that I probably wrote stories with white characters also. My dolls were white, the television shows I watched had white main characters, and the books I read in school had white characters also. I do believe the world that we live in now is a bit more diverse than it was back in the 90’s when I was a kid. Even with this it hasn’t changed that “American culture” is “White culture. This definitely affects the lenses that kids see themselves through, how they perceive the world, and how they tell their respective stories.

    Liked by 5 people

  21. Very interesting post! I teach secondary music in the UAE but we have a cross curriculum for year 7 and this is based off 4 books Macbeth, Boy overboard, Private Peaceful and The demon headmaster. At least Boy Overboard relates to Arabic children but the others are based on white characters. It would be nice if school incorporated books of black origin, (or different ethnic backgrounds full stop) instead of being exclusively white. It immediately excludes a group of people. This post reminds me of a black girl in the news recently who said that Santa Claus should be an animal an not a white man for all children to be able to relate, after all its all about inclusion within schools!

    Liked by 4 people

  22. This article raises a very important question. It stresses me out to see the condition today.
    It is a brilliant post. It made me think about things beyond my small little world.

    Liked by 4 people

  23. Excellent article. This is very true. I remember my days in school, I was that student who always wrote an essay about white people. Now that I think of it, I believe people or rather the society at large could change their perspectives on this issue.

    Liked by 4 people

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