by Clare Warner Follow @44paisley
The set texts for GCSE English literature still strongly favour the works of Anglo-British novelists, poets and playwrights above all others. Although many educators and academics have rightly critiqued the Eurocentrism of the National Curriculum, few studies have attempted to demonstrate and quantify the impact on students of a Eurocentric curriculum, which is the purpose of this article. My research examined the way Year 10 students from a South London state school constructed whiteness and non-whiteness in the short stories they submitted. The findings and the implications for curriculum reform are discussed.
The school is an inner city school in south London. The pupils live in wards with the highest levels of social and economic deprivation. Like many such schools it has a diverse intake with a rich mix of ethnic and cultural groups. Over 50 languages are spoken at the school. I have used the broad and imperfect terms ‘White’ and ‘Non-White’ to reflect the way students in the study are socially understood by both the students and society at large. Both groups are diverse with the latter including those with Caribbean, African, South American, South and East Asian and Southern European heritage. The sample that I will talk about consists of 35 stories taken from two Year 10 classes, a high achieving and a less able group. Five students in the sample were white and the rest non-white as defined here. Of the 30 non-white students roughly one third were born outside the UK and had experience of another educational system.
In preparing students for GCSE English literature, I set an original writing task which fulfilled coursework requirements. The task was based on students’ study of the set literature text Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. In the novel Steinbeck employs a formulaic structure, launching each chapter with a brief description followed by dialogue. Based on this structure, I set students the task of creating an opening for a short story. But first we reviewed how to create settings, characters and dialogue effectively. I deliberately exposed students to literature set in diverse settings including a mosque and a black hair salon, in the hope that they would begin to think widely about the possibilities for their stories. The only requirement was that they relinquish the preferred use of the first person (I) in favour of the third person approach as this affords limitless possibilities for creating points of view within a narrative structure. The tasks’ emphasis on creating settings and characters inevitably engaged students in making decisions and arguably articulating worldviews about how people are positioned according to their race, class and gender.
Power and privilege as whiteness
Over half the non-white students (17) and all five white students in the study created white characters. This suggests that students opted to replicate the narratives they encountered through their study of literature instead of creating narratives centred on their lived experience. As a social category whiteness was viewed by both white and non-white students as one of power and privilege. A Caribbean-born student encapsulates this in her description of the home-based office of a white professional, Mrs. Bradley. She notes that the office was ‘strewn with books’ and that ‘On the baige (sic) painted walls hung four qualification certificates with marble frames’. Professionalism in the story is associated with high educational attainment and with being white. On several occasions, students also positioned their white characters as powerful in relation to less powerful non-white or white working class characters. Mangan (1993) argues that the curriculum is a specific medium for expressing political relationships, and a demonstration of the distribution of power in society. The students generally demonstrated an awareness of these power differences along racial lines but had neither a critique nor an understanding of how that power is both acquired and upheld.
One student of West African descent demonstrated this in her creation of two South American characters, Carlos and Rosetta, who sit on a beach and discuss the difficulties of being together when their parents disapprove of their relationship. Across the street from the beach she describes ‘the glistening five star hotel’. She makes passing reference to the ‘rich guests with an endless stream of colourful cocktails’ who, unlike Carlos and Rosetta, are unracialised and are therefore assumed to be white (a common practice in GCSE literature set texts). The pair look on at the glamorous lifestyle they are excluded from. Although she offers this depiction, she fails to critique the racial hierarchy which excludes Carlos and Rosetta from accessing the hotel because the category of rich tourist is fixed as white.
A student who arrived from Nigeria in September wrote a story set in Nigeria in which local people are relegated to the background in favour of European characters. She begins by creating a tropical setting: ‘The wind was shaking the rusty fingers of palm-leaves’. She evokes the summer sounds: the ‘frog voices, and the grating cicadas’, and the ‘ever present pulse of music from the neighbouring native huts’. She describes it all as though she is an outsider. Implicit in her description is a judgement which positions the ‘natives’ and their ‘huts’ as inferior to the main – white – characters who occupy a bungalow. The characters Jerry and Francis are ‘white in complexion’. They are later described as ‘two Englishmen’, producing Englishness as synonymous with being white. Her story seems to confirm Nandy’s (1983) contention that ‘the West is now everywhere, within the West and outside; in structures and in minds’ (quoted in Mangan, p. 6). In creating these narratives, students demonstrate their acceptance of a racialised social hierarchy which positions them, the non-white or working class white students, as at the bottom of the pile. The danger is that the worldview presented to students through the curriculum and reproduced in their narratives presents the social hierarchy as fixed and unchangeable, thereby restricting them to a limited script for their lives.
Eurocentric ideas about beauty
In addition to assigning power and privilege to white characters, non-white students also imbued them with signifiers of beauty which were wholly oppositional to their own physical beings. One story by a student of Nigerian descent featured a character described as ‘a very attractive young lady’. The author continues, ‘she had long brown hair that hung from her head in loose curls, big bright light brown eyes that sparkled, a pointy very bony nose.’ A student of Egyptian descent introduced the central character in her narrative as follows: ‘A fetching woman entered the room. She had porcelain white skins (sic) with bright cherry lips.’ A Turkish girl described ‘25 year old Valentina whose lavish hair was tinted with blond streaks. Her nose was straight with a soft tip at the end’. An Asian student in a story ominously titled ‘Popular’, about a friendship group at an American high school, described the beautiful leader of the group Tina as ‘a tall girl with deep blue eyes and long blond hair’ and her rival Cindy as having ‘straight blond hair and medium sized blue eyes’. A Caribbean heritage student created a white character, Desiree, whose very name conjures up notions of being desired and desirable. Desiree has ‘long honey blond hair which resembled the sand on a beach’. We learn that ‘she takes after a Barbie doll, with her perfect hair, manicured nails and fashion designer clothes.’ Although there were only three blond girls in the study group, blond was the descriptor most often used in relation to beauty, revealing the power of the cultural ideology, often upheld through curriculum choices which link beauty to whiteness.
When the students did create ethnically diverse characters, they often relied on negative stereotypes. In contrast to the wealth and decadence of the worlds inhabited by white characters, non-white characters were generally shown as disadvantaged. One student of African descent describes how Michelle, a white woman, is followed by a man through a park on her way home after a night out. The student creates a tense atmosphere, foreshadowing a bad outcome. The piece ends abruptly with a confrontation between the two characters. We learn nothing of the man except that he is ‘dark of face’, which reinscribes mainstream ideas about the black man as a threat to social order. Arguably, the student’s lack of critical consciousness about race makes her powerless to do anything other than recreate the very stereotypes which position her as inferior. Her lack of critical consciousness makes her complicit in her own subjugation.
Two other students of African and of Caribbean descent both wrote narratives about young black female characters who experience unplanned pregnancy. The character in one of the stories reveals her pregnancy to her boyfriend. His brutal response is ‘You’re telling me like I care. Get an abortion innit? It’s not my problem. Whatever. Phone me when you get rid of it’. The narrative presents a distorted and dysfunctional relationship between a young black man and woman in strong contrast to the numerous love stories submitted in which idyllic love is described between white characters.
Three students of African descent wrote stories featuring robberies committed by non-white characters. One was set in a dark alleyway covered in litter and graffiti and populated by stray cats. Into the alleyway walks ‘a young girl with dark chocolate skin’. The girl, we learn, is on her way to meet her friend (another young black girl) to rob an audio-visual store, reinforcing the stereotype of black youth having a proclivity for crime. When questioned informally about these choices, many students insisted that in their stories they were merely reproducing social reality. Yet most students have little consciousness of how the media shapes the perception of that reality and how systems of oppression including racism, sexism and classism create disadvantaged social realities. Without this knowledge they have little choice but to reproduce stereotypes in their narratives and potentially in their lives.
In black and white
Although the young people inhabit multiracial spaces in their neighbourhoods and schools, only three submissions featured a multiracial cast of characters – further evidence of the divide between the students’ realities and their written narratives. This tendency towards homogeneity is reflected in the contemporary English curriculum in which the social realities covered in the literature texts studied are generally either wholly white or positioned oppositionally as wholly non-white. This is most clearly apparent in the poetry unit titled ‘Poems from Other Cultures and Traditions’ (my emphasis).
Where students did create spaces shared by diverse characters, they invariably positioned the characters as being oppositional and often in conflict with each other. One student’s story featured a black prisoner, Jennifer. The story focuses on a conflict that ensues between Jennifer, a seasoned black prisoner, and a white newcomer, Louise. The two women are presented as at opposite ends of the spectrum in looks and persona. Jennifer’s ‘mahogany skin’ is contrasted with Louise’s ‘white skin which seemed to go paler’. While Louise has ‘unclean blond hair and blue eyes’, Jennifer wears a ‘midnight coloured weave’. Throughout the story Jennifer acts aggressively towards Louise, speaking directly and bluntly. Louise is presented as timid, as evident from her stammering responses to Jennifer’s interrogation. The student’s story reveals a common tendency to think about race through opposing categories of black and white. This fuels the creation of stereotypes that, in this instance, surround black and white femininity.
One student of Nigerian descent chose to describe an inter-racial marriage between a black woman, Marian, and a white man, Peter. She describes the couple’s living room firstly as Afrocentric by referencing the ‘textile cushions, dark coffee brown palate, pieces of African art, the masks carved of Ancient African Kings’, then goes on to describe the white Western influences in the room which include a ‘silver legged glass table’. Along with these stylistic features, the characters themselves are also presented as opposites. Marian is described as ‘a petite toffee coloured black woman in an African tunic’, whereas Peter is ‘a tall elegant white man with dark denim jeans and shiny black loafers’. Although the student falls prey to this dualistic convention of representation, she also transcends it by presenting a tender exchange between the two characters. More than any of the other students, she demonstrates how writing can produce insights into social life, as well as providing a means to imagine and reorder the world differently. Arguably, in order for more students to experience the practice of writing as liberatory, they would need to be engaged in critical dialogue about the social and historical construction of race, among other identities. This would enable them to move beyond doing no more than reproducing the racialised narratives they are exposed to through the curriculum and the media.
Antiracist educator Dei (1996) argues that through the school’s curriculum, educators and students are provided with academic definitions of what counts as valid knowledge. It is not unfeasible to think that by the time non-white and working class white students reach Year 10, their experience of the education system has taught them that their lives are unsuitable to be the content of literature. The students’ submissions reinforce the idea that personal knowledge exists as separate from the official body of knowledge, and this undoubtedly alienates pupils from school and education at large. Taken together, the students’ writing reveals the power of the formal curriculum to shape worldviews. It also raises urgent questions about how schools are failing to equip students with the necessary skills to navigate modern British society by refusing to introduce critical discussions about gender, race and class into the curriculum.
A version of this Article originally appeared in Race Equality Teaching, Trentham Books 2009
Dei, G. (1996) Anti-racism Education: Theory and Practice, Halifax: Fernwood Publishing.
Mangan, J.A. (1993) ‘Images for Confident Control: Stereotypes in Imperial Discourse’ in Mangan, J.A. (Ed) The Imperial Curriculum: Racial Images and education in the British Colonial Experience, New York: Routledge
Nandy, A. (1983) The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism, New Delhi: Oxford University Press
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Clare Warner is an FE lecturer and PhD student in the educational studies department at Goldsmiths. She is currently researching the experiences of African-Caribbean practitioners/organisations in applying to open Free Schools. She is a critical race theory enthusiast and uses the framework to help her think through issues of race and racism and their intersection with class and gender in the history, policy and practice of education. Twitter: @44paisley
This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing curated and edited by Yasmin Gunaratnam. A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.
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3 thoughts on “‘Her nose was straight with a soft tip at the end’ — Writing Race at School”
I enjoyed reading your article but one thing seems unclear as you haven’t outlined when you set the task whether you exposed your students to literature that dealt with non-white, non-stereotypical characters. You state that you ‘deliberately exposed students to literature set in diverse settings including a mosque and a black hair salon’ but you don’t mention if you deliberately exposed them to diverse protagonists. I don’t know why you mention the setting really here as you don’t focus on this aspect later, rather your main focus is characterisation. Did you try to redress the obvious white bias that was being presented in ‘Of Mice and Men’ by showing them other positive non-white characters?
Thank you for this well-considered piece which provokes much reflection on the urgency of the literature situation in London, the UK and wider world, and ruefulness that eurocentrism and racism in the curriculum persist so fundamentally to this day.
I remember the poems and stories I wrote in primary and secondary school (I’m 22). White families, Disney-pretty girls, cherry lipstick, chiselled white male adventurers. It was only halfway through university I began to have a narrative for how damaged I was. “Her lack of critical consciousness makes her complicit in her own subjugation.” Yes, exactly.
I would like to view the students’ work. I suppose there is no chance you can print or excerpt each one? Furthermore, if you had a discussion/ feedback session with them afterwards, whether you had a record of their comments on the exercise?