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.

Enhanced by Zemanta

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

  1. Though I am Chinese-American, the protagonists of my stories have always been white. It’s an unfortunate habit that I have become accustomed to, and aim to break.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I enjoyed this piece as a teacher of English and Literature. Here in the Caribbean and more specifically where I live, our students are exposed to characters who are white and to those of colour. Likewise, they are exposed to both races of writers along with other races. This was not always the case. This change, I guess was made for some of the same reasons that surfaced in your article. Children then used to have to read of settings, cultures, races and situations that were not their own and this influenced the content of their writing. I shall continue to follow and share this article on my face book.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. That reminds me of something a friend of mine shared with me. He is an English teacher, and has synesthesia, so one day he asked his class, “Can anyone tell me about the number five?”

    One girl raised her hand and said “Five is red, and she’s a girl!”

    Most of the other students looked at her as if she was crazy, but my friend only asked her to stay after class.

    “Tell me more about the numbers,” he said.

    As she explained, he knew she had synesthesia like he did, but had suppressed it in her writing for the same reason that all her classmates had stared at her. To sum up, my teacher friend encouraged to let it influence her writing, and since then her writing has exploded in depth an color. Kids will do a lot more if they know they’re allowed to.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Great read! And an interesting one, too. Maybe this is something I might give attention to once I have my own children…because even if I AM white, I should like to see a little more color and a little more culture in stories, too.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. It’s sad to read that out of the top 50 characters 0 are people of color, and that the little boy thought stories had to be about white people. Likewise it was great to read that the students excelled when they felt more free to express themselves and their cultures.

    I also have kind of a delicate question, that I hope isn’t too weird to ask, but this seems like it might be a good place to ask it.

    I’m a fledgling writer and pretty inexperienced. I’m white, and I know it’s an issue that a lot of literature, especially in fantasy and sci fi, tend to be, well, monochrome. I’ve always been interested in other cultures and I want my writings to reflect that.

    However, it’s a little bit tricky because I don’t want to misrepresent anyone, and sometimes I worry that if I give a character of color a characteristic, a way of talking, or a background, that it will be taken the wrong way, ie racist. I also live in the middle of nowhere, (Wisconsin – I saw you give a talk in Eau Claire!) and while I’ve studied abroad in Japan and met some pretty awesome people from all over the world in college, I still feel…unqualified, would be the best term, I suppose, or insecure.

    Does anyone have any advice or insight?

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Thank you!! I’ll definitely have to take a look at that.

        Also I can’t seem to edit my message – sorry about the Eau Claire comment. I copied part of my comment from a message I sent to a specific author and forgot to delete that part.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. Thank you for this posting. It is indeed thought-provoking. I can relate to these school children. I am desired to be a writer for a number of years and I’m finally in a position to do so full time. The thing I was left with after reading your post is how powerful rejection and our judgment is over people. I am always tempted to change my characters from African American to white Caucasian. Why? Because then, perhaps, my book would sell. I have come to realize that is nonsense!! Diversity is greatly needed in the world. After reading your post, I have come to understand for that to happen I must be a part of the difference. In other words, if I don’t offer my difference to the world, namely my black authorship and my black world of characters, then I enhance the existing problem. Thank you for stirring my thinking and my place in the world. God lead me to open your post and He has indeed enlightened me through your words. You have indeed been inspiration and a blessing to me this day. God bless!! And keep doing your exquisite work for your children. You will indeed change the world!!!!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Great article! It’s a really complicated topic that spans various historical, social, political contexts and I like that you explored all of these in your classroom. I also admired your willingness to discover your own internal boundaries about race both as a teacher and a person…Thanks!

    -Valentine
    Flux: Encountering Adulthood
    http://www.fluxforum.com

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I was an Art Director for Educational Publishing way back when. I recall a time when ‘the research dept,’ believed it was time to move past our textbook’s presentation of America’s cookie-cutter history. We designers were instructed to include Multicultural Features which we did. Ultimately, there was a backlash because these features stood out as tokenism. After a collective lightbulb moment steps were made in the right direction-incorporating not just footnoting or highlighting.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. An excellent article. As a dual heritage English literature student I can’t recall reading stories about non-white people when I was younger at school. It was my parents who provided multicultural fiction for me and my sisters. It’s saddening to see that nearly 15 years on, children are in the same position that I was once in. I fear that the lack of multicultural characters for children to relate too could distance them from education. Food for thought. http://www.stylecrossedlovers.com

    Liked by 2 people

  10. A few years ago I wrote a posting that is a parallel to this one. I read a certain book series and loved it. However, it was made into a television series and one of the predominant characters was black. I was floored.

    I spent a lot of time reflecting on the matter. I wondered if it made ME racist because I assumed the character was white. Then I started thinking about all of the books I read and decided that no, it wasn’t me.

    Why? The author never stated the race of the character. As I looked through all of the other books I read, I realized that in numerous cases there were main characters in the books who are of multiple races and the author described them as such. Simply stating “dark hair and dark eyes” as an author literally makes nearly every race a possibility. When there are limitless possibilities as a description, I think we all default to what we know best.

    It might be a fun experiment to have the children draw a character based on that description: Dark hair and eyes. It would be interesting to see their renderings.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Reblogged this on Regeneration Nation and commented:
    This is an AWESOME blog post that made me realize how insular most of us, especially people of predominantly white heritages are blind. I feel a call inside to bring awareness to others and ask that you share this blog or at least it’s message.

    I have alway been aware to share many cultural books with my daughter. At nearly 7 the only stories she has written have been about puppies lol but, she has made comments before that as an adult I have found racists and have been shocked to my core. I have Chinese friends, Maori friends, Native American, Indian and of course other white friends but, maybe she needs more exposure and perhaps role models be it in books, history, movies or the arts of some form so that the barriers of communicating with others is a barrier no longer. Much love and please, let’s do something to change this for the betterment of the world

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Now there is a gap I had NO IDEA about. As a white child I was rather colour blind and I always loved to pretend to be a protagonist of late or Native American descent. Lol, I still do sometimes today.
    It’s a problem when someone can’t identify with their culture. Well, that doesn’t seem like what I’m really trying to say.
    This post reminds me of a worry I’ve had since I was a teen – that eventually the people in the world willbe one big homogenized society with the same homogenized language, culture and colour. To me that would be a MAJOR travesty. What are we doing as a world that these beautiful souls think all stories must have white ppl? Why would a part of them even feel they need permission? How come the top stories are all about white people? The diversity in human life is an amazing thing. There is so much beauty in each culture to inspire, create and to balance each other. I feel like I should do something to break this barrier but what? This i’ll have to ponder. Thank you so much for opening my eyes to my ignorance xo

    Liked by 2 people

  13. This is wonderful! So grateful to find your blog. Kenneth Clarke’s studies on children (the doll study) show that children actually aren’t colour blind, and absorb the stories of mainstream culture very early on. Buhle Zuma from UCT has done some further work on the doll studies.

    Ben Okri also explains (in astonishing the gods) a young boy’s perception of living in a world where his poeple were seen to be invisible.

    I think people are not talking about colourblindness, as much as the fear of making whiteness strange, and calling attention to it. Of course, ‘race’ is a myth, and transcending ‘race’ is really about transcending hierarchies. One of those hierarchies would surely be that only one culture dominates, and only one culture has the right to be represented as heroic, innovative or taking part in a hero’s journey (as opposed to a villain’s). It’s about dialogue, not monologue, and how can this happen if one culture has the power of voice?

    It’s such a privilege to see a post like this, thank you.

    Liked by 3 people

  14. Great post – very good to see it Freshly Pressed. This is such an importance issue and your examples from practice, and the Chimamanda lecture, illustrate it powerfully. I recently tried to apply the concept of ‘single story’ and Chimamanda’s observations about the representation of people of colour in literature to my own specific interest of autism. I know it’s a different focus but it similarly involves the impact of cultural representations on identity. Will share your post with my students. Thank you! dylanandliz.wordpress.com

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Wow, such an interesting perspective to hear about race viewed from the eyes of someone living in England. And I thought race in America was super complicated (we are still dealing with ramifications of the Civil War and it’s been over 100 years). It’s kind of heartening (maybe not the right word?), but it makes me feel better than other countries grapple with this just as much as the USA does.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. In my personal opinion it is the abundance of news, culture, media, people and books all around the children which shapes their perspective. People of color are not well represented or only represented in certain roles ( e.g. fat people cast in mostly comedic roles~ perception that obesity is something to be made fun of and that those people are stupid as well ). The problem lies in the way children pick up their cues from their environment and act to emulate them.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. Thanks for sharing this, this blog entry is so valuable I can’t even begin. However I will reblog and write my own blog entry in response. I have much to say as you have in this golden piece I hope everyone finds. Keep asking questions. Great thinking.

    Liked by 3 people

  18. I have enjoyed reading this and as I write myself I do try and include characters of different classes, ethnicities, religions, races, genders etc so that should I ever get published, all readers would hopefully have a character to which they can relate to some degree. However, saying that, my main characters so far are white, with a similar religious upbringing as myself or no religion, as that is what I know well, with only secondary characters as people from different race, ethnicity, etc. Hopefully as I gain experience, both as a writer and life, and as I get to know more people with different backgrounds in the real world, I will feel confident to explore other options for my main characters.

    Liked by 2 people

  19. I recall at primary school when we were given handouts to colour in or if tasked to illustrate, all the kids of colour myself included would generally use the following colours: pink, yellow and blue – go figure.

    I started using brown and black at Year (Grade) 3 after seeing my best friend at the time doing so himself.

    I always did feel odd in drawing or colouring in white faces, it almost felt as if we were conditioned to do so – perhaps because at the time (90’s) it was relatively rare to see brown or black faces in movies or cartoons.

    Liked by 2 people

  20. Sadly, I have never thought of this. I write short stories now and again but it’s based on experiences I’ve had, even if a bit exaggrated. However, years ago I started noticing how the more popular TV shows had no one of color, save the ‘token’ character once in a while. Thank you for writing this and opening eyes, especially mine, to this problem and encourage people to be more true to who they are.

    One question – What is ‘doof doof’?

    Liked by 2 people

  21. A very interesting article, and I would like to give my opinion to you on this subject. When I started reading it I was a bit reluctant because I have lived in a multi-cultural environment since the age of 7 and personally this phenomenon had just not occurred to me. I have always been more a writer than a reader and honestly I just haven’t read enough to come to this conclusion. What you have experienced with your students I do believe but I wonder if you have done any research if it is like that in other countries?
    One must understand that as an immigrant, whether born there or not, children adapt to their surroundings. Although I am not certain of this, I speak from my own experience, children will write about what is dominant in their surroundings. Do white children living abroad also see the need for a main character to be white? I wonder.
    I guess I find this a subject on which I could write a lot and give my opinions, but in the end it would only be speculation. So I will just finish with this….
    Racism is far from absent, but we have made progress. Lingering on the past won’t help us so one must look to the future. I know that in the Film Industry the white man still is still predominant but that has also become more diverse over the years. So instead of asking ourselves why children have this tendency, I think it would be more productive to encourage them to diversify. Use your position as their teacher to encourage them to write about other ethnicities. For example, at the beginning of each month do some research with the children on a specific culture and at the end of the month ask them to write a story with a main character from that culture. We can not change the past, but the future is there for the taking.

    Liked by 3 people

  22. great post! I wonder, have you come across the (U.S. inner-city) study where kindergarten (five year-old) children of color are asked to choose a doll, either black with kinky hair, or white with straight, blonde hair. Nearly all of these children ‘preferred’ the white doll, seeing it as ‘beautiful’ and the dark doll as ‘ugly’?

    Liked by 2 people

  23. Reblogged this on Dearmonaefox and commented:
    Think about this! Read it in it’s entirety. I never thought about it in this light. Our children just do not identify with their own race and it should be a topic for discussion. Feel free to comment.

    Liked by 2 people

  24. I am a writer myself. I did not really notice what was going on in my sub conscious as an early writer in elementary. Most of my characters were white. I am a woman of color. Your post brought that to my attention. You made a great analysis and I approve this post! I am currently working on a project that only includes people of color as the main characters! Thanks for this. I will reblog this!

    Liked by 2 people

  25. I think I was an odd child. I remember at school I would draw people of different skin colours in my work. I went to a Christian school, and often liked drawing lots of white, black and Asian people, but usually with brightly pink hair…because I liked pink hair.

    I remember my mom and dad were called into school because I had drawn Jesus with brown skin. My parents and teachers asked me why I had coloured Jesus in brown. I said, “He came from Israel, which I know is in Asia. So he must be brown.” My dad said, “You can’t argue with that logic”, and afterwards they got me a McDonalds for really thinking about Jesus. In truth, he did’t have to be brown to come from Israel, I was overgeneralising, and I was 7.

    But I also drew women with boobs at a young age, because I wasn’t really afraid to show my teachers that I knew women grew boobs.

    Of course, watching Pochahontas, and having black barbies had helped me understand that white people are not the only race. And I didn’t exactly have a lot of different races in my primary school, so I had made educated guesses about different types of protagonists through media and toys.

    However, I do think that children base characters on their familiar surroundings. If a child has an Anglican name, and has been brought up in England, there is a good chance that despite ethnicity and religion, any child will write about their usual world.
    Of course, I believe you’re on to something.

    Children who have experienced a culturally or socially different background should be encouraged to use these experiences within school work. And other children should be familiarised and educated to understand other cultures.

    I do believe more and more schools are trying to bring lots of different cultures into teaching though. It’s not always positively perceived by pupils, but the education system is now trying.

    I think this was incredibly insightful. When I go into teaching, I will think about what you’ve said, and will raise it as an important issue, if it ever arose.

    Liked by 2 people

  26. This is so great, and true. My own two boys, whom I’ve pretty much never discussed color with, have recently come to the realization that they are not “white”, only half white…(I’m of Mexican decent, their father is a white American). This rocked their worlds, even though it is an obvious thing when they look in the mirror.

    Liked by 3 people

  27. Meh, seek white stories and you will find them. Seek other cultures stories you will find them. Many colors of people use other cultures names. My Chinese manicurist is named Kathy, if you read a story about her, would you just assume she is white?

    Liked by 6 people

  28. It’s true, media in the UK and in the US is very biased towards white people, which I try to correct as much as possible in the fiction I write (and I’m hoping for a Doctor who isn’t white when Capaldi retires, though I’m very excited for him). It’s very difficult to get children to think of other characters that aren’t white, but for those who manage to do it the world can open up for them.
    Keep up the good work.

    Liked by 5 people

  29. I have to admit that I started off reading this thinking you were pontificating on a fairly trivial non-matter, but you quickly grabbed my attention when you delved into East London. Blown away by the observed behaviors you made, your point proven in practice.

    I suppose it is worthy of matter. A fictional character has no content other than its background, creed, language and so forth. It’s the only thing that can be analysed and question when tracing the sociology of the children and mass digest culture.

    I applaud you, this is an original question and thought.

    Liked by 3 people

  30. I find that there are a wide variety of children’s books told from a multicultural and diverse perspective. However, some of the books meant for middle school students have a tendency of stereotyping certain groups. Children’s and young adult literature today also illustrate diversity in terms of family units. I have never experienced what the Hip Hop teacher describes. My student wrote about and used names familiar to them. My Hispanic students used mostly Hispanic characters and included “White” and other names as well. The schools served many linguistic, socio-economic, racial and ethnic groups so perhaps diversity was not foreign to them.
    However, I agree that teachers must be vigilant and pay attention to their student’s writing. We must validate their voice and become knowledgeable of their backgrounds and the stories they bring to the classroom.

    Liked by 3 people

  31. I find that there are a wide variety of children’s books told from a multicultural and diverse perspective. However, some of the books meant for middle school students have a tendency of stereotyping certain groups. Children’s and young adult literature today also illustrate diversity in terms of family units. I have never experienced what the Hip Hop teacher describes. My student wrote about and used names familiar to them. My Hispanic students used mostly Hispanic characters and included “White” and other names as well. The schools served many linguistic, socio-economic, racial and ethnic groups so perhaps diversity was not foreign to them.
    However, I agree that teachers must be vigilant and pay attention to their student’s writing. We must validate their voice and become knowledgeable of their backgrounds and the stories they bring to the classroom.

    Liked by 3 people

  32. What did you expect? England is drenched in ‘white’ culture. If all those kids had grown up in Africa their stories would probably all be about black people. Multiculturalism might be the Holy Grail for those with a leftist agenda to push, but you can’t change the cultural identity of a nation or a people through New Labour style social engineering. And thank Woden for that!

    Liked by 3 people

  33. A wonderful article. One of the lessons I remember most fondly from my school days was from a German lesson, where we were told to write a story about a German protagonist, and were encouraged to talk to a German person to learn about the ins and outs of their day in order to be able to write about it.

    It would be interesting to see how the same approach could be used to pair students from different backgrounds to learn from, and then write about, each other’s cultures.

    Liked by 3 people

  34. At my Ohio college in 1989, there was a professor that assigned the class to write about their childhoods. One of the black girls wrote a beautiful piece about rope skipping and hand clapping games and chants. I loved it. It reminded me of my own childhood in New Jersey where my friends were all different colors and religions and that was how we played. The professor gave her a failing mark and told her that black English was not right for either narration or dialog and that she should correct it or fail the class.The girls asked me to fix the story. I said i didn’t feel right about destroying an authentic biographical piece just for the sake of a snooty professor. They cried. I relented and rewrote it in “correct” “white” English. She passed. I was disgusted.

    Liked by 5 people

  35. What an excellent and thought provoking article, it gets worst, try finding a well written non fiction book for a ten year old black boy. Or try seeing a programme on television with an all black cast, or one where the main black character falls in love with another black person or try seeing a cookery program where the black chef invites all black people to eat or even one where the white chef invites one non white person, or try seeing – heres a good one, a beautiful competent black female scientist or engineer who saves the world and returns home to her black husband and natural hair children………….trust me the list goes one and on.

    I raised this issue regarding characters in my children’s reading material at both of my children’s school, one a seven year old girl and the other a ten year old boy and the brick wall I faced was farcical. One teacher actual made a comment that my son didn’t enjoy the fiction aspect of the curriculum and I asked him if what he was reading had a character that he could culturally identified with and I faced another brick wall.

    Then my daughter’s teacher commented on the fact that she didn’t enjoy the fiction aspect of the curriculum and I asked her if what she was reading had a character that she could culturally identified with and I faced mmmnnn you got it! another brick wall….. See the pattern emerging, at the time my daughter was in nursery and yes she was reading chapter books – a phenomenon that TEACHERS found hard to deal with and my son was in year three, a young black boy who loves reading and reading about young black boys not football novels or whizz bang fizz nonsense – another phenomenon that TEACHERS found hard to deal with.

    So we as parents and teachers have to challenge these nonsense and thank you for putting this information out there, it starts with us and the interesting thing is the young Nigerian recently arrived student felt so happy in his skin he just wants to share it with everybody and that is how all our children should feel.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Great comment…so true and it’s so much more than that – at the hair dressers, at the Drs. waiting rooms, the dentists etc the pile of magazines in the waiting rooms are so skewed towards white majority it’s appalling. I am white my children are black and my daughter nine (son seven) and especially for her – print magazines are so appallingly white it’s blinding. We don’t have them at home but it does not matter – they’re everywhere. It makes me so mad!!!!! This is a good discussion to be having.

      Liked by 1 person

  36. Great post and important stuff. I found myself musing about Nabila’s example: It’s clear from her name and her mention of the headscarf that she’s a Muslim from Hindu-majority India, but the way she mentions the headscarf makes it sound like in her mind, headscarf-wearing follows from Indian-ness. It’s also interesting that she’s chosen Patel, which is usually (though not always) a Hindu name, for her character. Perhaps it would be unlikely for a Year 5 student in the UK to notice those things, but I can imagine a Hindu Indian student in the same class having some reactions to Nabila’s story and her representations of Indian-ness that might utterly flummox a non-Asian teacher! Of course this is not a reason not to do this sort of experiment, but teachers need to realize that they’re throwing the door open to all sorts of debates about international cultural/linguistic/ethnic identity they may not understand very well, and be careful not to accidentally exclude anyone.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      I don’t read Nabila’s writing quite as you do.

      She knows of people who are British, Indian, Muslim and named Patel and draws on that knowledge in her story. In doing so, she makes no claim for typicality – indeed she appears unburdened by the need to offer a representation that conforms to stereotypes. It’s true she uses the word ‘religious’ rather than ‘Muslim’ but I don’t read any confusion on her part in this paragraph rather an assumption of a level of knowledge on the part of the reader.

      I do agree that the approach I’m proposing has consequences for teachers. If we stop shutting the door on children’s cultural knowledge, we do need to listen and be responsive to what they share with us. That requires energy, commitment and a willingness to accept that not all outcomes can be planned for.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I didn’t mean to attribute it to confusion on her part either… I was just imagining another student in the class going “But why is she wearing a headscarf if her name is Patel?” and how that could be a tricky discussion for the average British teacher to field.

        Energy, commitment, and a need to listen… absolutely. Teaching is hard work. Respect.

        Liked by 4 people

      2. I think I understand you better now.

        Yes, I’m all for having tricky conversations. But in this case, if such a question was asked, I’d probably ask the author to respond, as long as I felt they were comfortable doing so. I’ve also had times when I’ve admitted ignorance, gone home and researched a bit, and reported back the next day.

        Liked by 4 people

  37. This is such an incredible point, and I now know what I will be getting up to in my afternoon lessons this week. I stand by my view that classrooms are the battleground of intersections, and any viewpoints or ideas that go unchallenged in schools are likely to be held onto throughout the rest of that young person’s life.

    A similar interesting point is looking at how often characters are presumed white, even if it is not made explicit by name or illustration. A great little experiment I did was to give the kids copies of Simpsons comics and then ask them what colour the Simpsons are. Obviously they said yellow but then I just cryptically told them to look again.

    They realise that Apu – http://simpsons.wikia.com/wiki/Apu_Nahasapeemapetilon – is Indian, and he is brown so Yellow means ‘Not Indian’. They see Carl – http://simpsons.wikia.com/wiki/Carl_Carlson – and see that Yellow means not Black. And so on.

    Liked by 4 people

  38. This article raises a hugely important topic.

    As someone who wants to get into teaching once I graduate, the thought of children policing themselves, and whitewashing their own imagination in the process, is heartbreaking. But as shocking as the issue clearly is, I suspect many reading this are nevertheless unsurprised.

    Fortunately, I didn’t experience anything like this in my own primary schools. I would be tempted to say its because I was a pupil in Stockwell, but this article makes it clear that the events described were witnessed in a multi-cultural school in East London.

    As the article stresses, the way children in our community see themselves is of the utmost importance. Addressing questions of identity within a classroom environment are fundamental, not just for “our” community, but for society as a whole. After all, children with self-identity problems will very likely grow up to be adults with even deeper issues.

    Having said that, the example exercise provided for the year 5 pupils is brilliant, and should arguably become mandatory. The fact that “Nabila had never written about an Indian heritage and/or Muslim character before”, despite never being told she couldn’t, is very telling. I believe it IS up to teachers to address these issues, but before that happens in all UK schools the issue needs to be debated in broader circles first.

    This article is a prime example of that.

    Liked by 5 people

  39. What an excellent piece. I don’t know how to begin to express how this issue grieves me. In part because it’s just so hard to put a sure hand on what is by nature a nebulous and hard to define thing. It’s just sad to think that from so young an age ethnic minorities are inundated by so many influences – implicit, vague and oblique – that fail to provide that ‘permission’ to be who and what they are. It demonstrates the extent to which many people of colour in western countries subconsciously feel the need to filter themselves, even sanitize themselves, and thereby be estranged from the bold weight of their own history, heritage and culture – their very personhood. It’s like being robbed, but before you can develop the wherewithal to even know something’s been taken.

    It’s hard to know exactly what ought to be done. But having more teachers like the author of this article – i.e. male & non-white (which has got to be the rarest kind there is) – has to be a start, as has the mandatory provision in schools of more stories told from the perspective of minorities. In short, just like with the media, we need more diversity.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. Thanks for adding your thoughts so eloquently… this is exactly why I think the issue is so important. The ‘single story’ is an act of terrible violence & the root of much more violence.

      This government’s cuts and changes to teacher training mean less time to study inclusion & diversity. What I learned on my PGCE was so valuable, but I was in an excellent institution, I chose to focus on anti-racism and I got what I consider the bare minimum. The cohort after me at that college will not be able to get anywhere near as much relevant training, because of changes made to the course in response to cuts.

      Liked by 5 people

  40. Excellent article – the psychological impact of the Whiteness of school and children’s literature on Children of Colour is something I can only speculate about, but it but be huge… I can highly recommend this book which I read during my PGCE. It’s written by a White woman teaching in a multiracial school (White readers will find the dismantling of her assumptions and development of her ideas helpful). One issue she highlighted was the fact that many of the children had British parents (even grandparents etc), and even those who didn’t usually had limited experience of the countries of their parents’ heritage. There seemed to be a few good books available about children living in other countries, but almost none about Children of Colour in Britain, like her students (of course, the books from other countries are great and should be part of the mix!) These books need to be written and published and promoted far and wide…

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Couldn’t agree more Zanna. Until there are more diverse narratives – in schools, in the media, in entertainment – there’ll be few opportunities to learn about any cultural context (whether race, class or gender) that is different from one’s own. It’s something that would serve everyone.

      Liked by 5 people

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.