You could say the vast bulk of the culture of the seventies and eighties was a curriculum for racism – from the way that Adi Amin and ongoing violence in Uganda was portrayed in the paper, to the way the riots in Brixton were talked of on the television news, to the comedy of ‘Mind Your Language’ to the bewildering continuance of ‘The Black and White Minstrel Show’ which was still a television staple until 1978. Things are so different now – but racism certainly hasn’t gone away? Why not?
I look back on the attitudes to race that were commonly all around me as I grew up in the seventies and eighties with absolute horror. They were evidenced through casual use of racist language, by the jokes that were told on the playground, by the nicknames that children of any race other than the dominant white-british were given. If you were there, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.
Those attitudes, the language, the jokes, the nick names were born out of our parents attitudes I’m sure. And I’m sure that the newspapers were filled with horrible stuff then – as some still are, and that the television casually stereotyped race for lazy dramatic or comic effects but I don’t for a moment think that lets the teenage me, or my friends who shared the jokes and the attitudes, off the hook. I knew damn well that those jokes were unfunny and that the names were unkind but I was insecure enough that I stayed around as the idea of being outside the group and on my own on the big school playground was too scary to contemplate. Yes I had black cousins, and yes I loved them – and no, I didn’t challenge racist attitudes and behaviour which I knew to be wrong because I didn’t want to be on the receiving end of the language, the jokes, the nicknames, the occasional violence that was always ‘only a joke’.
Things got better for me when I got a little more confidence and found new friends who didn’t trade in racist, misogynistic and homophobic jokes for social currency but I don’t suppose they immediately got better for the children around me who were the objects of the language or the butt of the jokes – who were expected to carry the nick names with a wry smile.
It’s all too awful to think about. If anybody is reading this who was around me at Nutfield Church First and Middle or St Bede’s Secondary School in the seventies and eighties I’d like to take a moment to apologise. I’d like to own the knowledge that yes I knew it was wrong and, no – I did nothing about it.
I think my own son, now the age I was when I stood in those circles of cruel laughter on the playground, would be shocked, puzzled and horrified by the lazy stereotypes, the cruelty and the humour of those times. The Black and White Minstrel show isn’t on television any more, nor is ‘Mind Your Language’, in TV dramas, on a good day, black actors play roles that aren’t defined purely by the colour of their skin.
And yet it is patently obvious that racism is as much with us now as it was back then. So if the toxically racialised culture of the seventies has gone why has racism persisted? The answer, as I see it, is that simply removing blatantly racist aspects of culture is not enough – being neutral is insufficient – we need to create an anti-racist curriculum. Schools can’t sit idly by, proud that they are not peddling the same filth we were exposed to in the seventies and eighties – they need to work on representation and get to work building better attitudes.
Let’s play a little game. Think about the books you enjoyed as a child. How many black or asian characters can you name? Give yourself a few minutes. Come back when you’ve had a think.
Back already? How many did you get?
I got three, Little Black Sambo from the book of the same name, Jim the Slave from ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ and Donovan Croft from Bernard Ashley’s ‘The Trouble with Donovan Croft’. That’s it – genuinely. I can now name a few more characters that I might have read but didn’t, I might have found Jacob the young boy in Lucy Boston’s ‘Chimney’s of Green Knowe’ for example.
You could certainly argue that Huckleberry Finn is a book that perpetuates racist tropes though I’m quite sure that Mark Twain would have thought he was giving a positive portrayal of Jim as a man and as a person deserving of freedom. Donovan Croft in Bernard Ashley’s book is treated with compassion and empathy by the (white) author but is nonetheless a worrying figure to the white child through whose eyes we witness the story – an elective mute from a fractured if not broken home who is healed through his experience of the white home and white friendship. This doesn’t do the book or its author justice but it’s a reading many young readers would come away with. Even books which strove not to be racist seemed to approach race from a deficit model. They might come from poor homes, or broken homes, or tough estates, or from slavery but with white help and white grace they could aspire to a condition of whiteness. Is this too harsh? I don’t really think it is. No, I’m not getting into Little Black Sambo – that was never ok.
Perhaps I’ve missed an important character out – can you think of a character in children’s literature when you were growing up who had a full role in their own lives and just happened to be black?
What if there was and we never knew? Maybe George from The Famous Five was Jamaican and Enid Blyton never thought to tell us. Or Diggory from The magician’s Nephew? Perhaps he was an Ashante child – I mean, it never says he wasn’t does it? Am I making racist assumptions for assuming he’s not? Would it make a big difference if he was?
I suppose the point here is that in a children’s book written in English we presume people to be white until we are told otherwise – based on long experience that’s not a bad assumption. In fact I can only think of one book where that turned out to be wrong. It’s a good book too and I won’t spoiler it for you by identifying it but yes – in one children’s book I – a reasonably sophisticated reader (Oxford English |Literature degree for whatever that’s worth) cheerfully presumed a child to be white and British until a good halfway through the book when the author who had been very clever with her adjectives, reported speech and use of pronouns chose to show me otherwise. When the production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child opened in London many people were surprised, even upset, that the character of Hermione was played by a black actress. JK Rowling pointed out she had never stated in the book that Hermione wasn’t black. True enough she hadn’t – is that good enough to satisfy?
Do children from Black or other minority ethnicity backgrounds see this otherwise? Perhaps black children assume all characters to be black until they are informed otherwise. Well no, teacher and author Darren Chetty spears this one very accurately in his excellent chapter in the essay collection ‘The Good Immigrant’ – as a teacher in a very diverse classroom he found that the whiteness of characters in stories wasn’t just assumed, it was actively policed. “You can’t say that! Stories have to be about white people!”
Well, well, well – I’m sure you have seen these arguments rehearsed before and I certainly can’t stand up to Darren either as a writer or a thinker so I will urge you to buy a copy of ‘The Good Immigrant’ (edited by Nikesh Shukla and available from all good bookshops) and read Darren’s chapter. And the other chapters too of course, buying the whole book and only reading Darren’s chapter would be weird.
What I’m winding very slowly towards is a consideration of what we can actively do to counter racism in our pupils at school. If the removal or – shall we say – ‘toning down’ of actively racist language and depiction in our culture has not moved things on much we need to take positive action to ensure not just that children of colour in our classrooms are safe, protected, celebrated and conferred as much subjectivity as the white pupils but that, crucially, the white children who might be a majority in our classes and might in many schools particularly in rural areas might make up the whole of the class, are also able to celebrate and respect the subjectivity of black people in modern Britain.
Wow. That was meant to be an introductory paragraph and it kind of spread. The short version? Not acting like you’re racist is not the same as being anti-racist. You have to actually do something.
Ok. Like what? What do I really want the children leaving my Year Six to go on to secondary school to have under their belt and what can I do to make it happen?
Well, first of all I want them to be proud of who they are, of their skin and their hair and their voice and their family and their humour. Everything starts from the most proximal – until you are comfortable in your own skin you’ll struggle to be comfortable anywhere. And I want them proud of who they are on a bigger scale – not in a wishy washy way, I want them proud of their culture, history and heritage whether they are from Latvia, Sudan, Brazil or Bangladesh. I want them to know who they are whether they are Nua, Romani, Kurd or Catalan. The English in particular often forget that your country and your national identity are not always the same thing.
I want them to know that their place has history and identity too. And that can be complicated as they might be half Jamaican and half Irish like Jimmy Hendrix or half Brazilian and half Portugese like a good many children I’ve taught.
I want them to know that racism exists, and has existed, and will probably continue to exist but strong people have stood up to it and groups of people have stood up to it and that that has made a difference.
I want them to know that they have dignity and that they can make a difference.
Starting from our very youngest children – from nursery up they need to see themselves in books. Not as victims or as people who are bravely facing challenges but as kids. Eating apples and playing in the snow to echo Chimimanda Ngozi Adichi. Books like ‘So Much’ by Trish Cooke and Helen Oxenbury and ‘My Hair’ by Hannah Lee and Alan Fatimarahan do that and more books are published every month it seems. A recent favourite is Nathan Bryon and Dapo Adeola’s ‘Look Up’ about a child who dreams of being an astronaut. The books characters are recognisable, cute and relatable. Their culture is quietly celebrated without being a plot driving feature, there is no deficit model to being black in these books.
No child is ‘colour blind’ – if that were possible – they see skin colour, hair colour, eye shape and lip shape. Young children need to see children that look like themselves. Seeing themselves and their families in the books they read confirms their ‘I’m OKness’, their recognition that people like them exist and do stuff. For the children of other races in the class, seeing depictions of races other than their own from an early age confirms the proper right of those people to take up space in the world.
If you have spent time with children looking at books in which there are positive depictions of diverse race, and the other work has been done to ensure we recognise the positivity of ourselves and are then able to recognise the positivity of others. We might be lucky enough to get to a place where we can start to think about the interesting aspect of race that people come from different places. That, while in our village most people look like Mrs Jones and Mary and Joe and Allen, there are places in the world where people look like me and mum and Aunt Patience. We might see books like Mama Panye’s Pancakes or We All Went On a Safari as a way towards that – and those are both beautiful books which deserve a place in your diverse collection – but there is an issue.
So many children’s books looking at Africa in particular, though books about the Caribbean and much of Asia fall into this trap too, look at countries through an othering lense. In ‘Mama Panye’s Pancakes the characters live in a rural landscape that, to most children living in the UK would seem to be the world of ‘once upon a time’. People sit on the ground, go to market with a coin, don’t wear shoes, have livestock roaming around… really one would not be surprised if they were to acquire a set of magic beans and go up a beanstalk. That is not to say that many people in Africa don’t live very happily in the way depicted in the book, nor to deny that it’s a charming book and well illustrated and told. It is, however, something to be wary of. To a child with Netflix and their own toy filled bedroom, the world of Mama Panye’s Pancakes is a million miles away and – used insensitively – risks reinforcing an idea that ‘Africa’ is rural, backward and poverty stricken.
Ask yourself how you would feel about a child growing up in Lagos, Addis Abeba or any of the many African cities learning about the UK from a book which showed them walking to school through a field of sheep and returning at nightfall to celebrate with the family by Morris dancing with the family while dad plays his accordeon. Well sure – I expect that family exists somewhere but I’m not sure I’d think they were all that representative of me and my culture. And I say that as an accordeon player.
There are not a very great many books for young children that present a recognisable picture of the modern urban africa where the majority of people on the continent now live. It’s a shame as there is a real need for them. Let me know if you know of any. One series which children from Year One upward really enjoy is ‘Akissi’ – presented as comic strips these tales are short, vivid and funny and present a picture of an urban Africa that is absolutely true to the lived experience of the Ivory Coast where author Marguerite Abouet grew up.
The Anna Hibiscus series by Atinuke also does a great job of depicting a relatable child in a modern urban African setting, yes chickens do peck around but people sit on white plastic garden furniture rather than squatting on the ground, the roof is corrugated iron not thatch, dads wear shirts and drive taxis. Read these books with children and you’ll develop people who don’t think Africa is all round huts, lions and tribal masks. That’s as important for white British children as it is for any of African heritage.
We now have children who can see themselves in books and who have an understanding that people who live in different places in the world are both like me in some ways and unlike me in other ways. We might feel we are getting to a place where it’s possible to approach the subject of racism. Well that’s fine. Let’s make sure we do it through some positivity – I’d rather use a study of the transformative story of Rosa Parks than talking about segregation without that window to a brighter world – even if, at the moment, it looks like America hasn’t maybe got an awful lot further. Children can go to some pretty dark places in their learning and their reading but there must always be hope. Studying the darkest periods in history is vital but always with a chink of hope there somewhere. So let’s take Frederick Douglass as our focus when we look at slavery and Rosa Parks when we look at segregation. Not because we, as adults, are afraid to acknowledge the existential darkness of these histories but because we want to build empowered, active young people who know they are actors in their own stories and that means curating the way we present stories which will become foundational to their sense of themselves. Not to do so risks the attitude to race which I remember being horrifyingly common during the Ethiopian famine of 1984. The victims, lazy racist bastards who relied on their ignorance and the tabloid press for their information would tell you, were too lazy to help themselves – they liked sitting around in the sun so it should suit them. If it weren’t for the white people feeding them they would starve and that would serve them right. SO lets keep hope at the heart of the stories we tell. Yes – Apartheid was horrific and knowing that is essential to the story but Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela stood against it and by their very example showed up how wrong the racist rationale of the system was.
And lets also make sure we tell how it wasn’t just a handful of heroes who ended apartheid but tens of thousands of ordinary people – people thrillingly like you and me – who took action. Because it’s not enough to know that this person or that person was a hero, we need to know that we, whether in a big way or a small way, can be a hero too. We can be the writers of our own story.
There are many picture book retellings of the stories of Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks. As with any topic it’s really worth trying to take a look a range of resources before choosing one to use with a class of children – not just because the content will differ but because the tastes of different children will differ so much. Use the library rather than buying all these books yourself – it will bankrupt you! A good starter however might be the Little People, Big Dreams version of their stories by Lisbeth Kaiser and Marta Antelo. Though I harrumph slightly at the cutification (yes – thats a word) of all their subjects, the Little People, Big Dreams books always tell their stories clearly and with a sense of purpose – ideally I’d present them in a diverse unit on inspirational people including men and women and a variety of ethnicities.
By now your pupils are approaching key Stage Two. Perhaps now they know who they are, are able to celebrate themselves and others, understand that different peoples come from different places that are in some ways like ours and in some ways different and that that is ok. They know that society has sometimes – often -stacked up against some kinds of people but that doesn’t mean those people are weak because – Look! – here’s amazing people who achieved amazing things. They’ve reflected on how it might have felt to have lived in those times and whether they would have stacked up to stand alongside Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King.
At this point I’d hope we would be ready to think about the racism that people of colour continue to face in our society. If the curriculum in your school has quite intentionally worked towards this point then writing by authors such as the always brilliant Jason Reynolds or the national treasure Malorie Blackman will find a rich soil for reflection and discussion. Also – let’s hope – for action as any curriculum is only worth judging by the fruit it bears. Children who haven’t been on this journey through the school – may well simply not ‘get’ or be unable to respond appropriately to a book like – to take a well known example – Noughts and Crosses.
I’d also hope that by now we would have the curiosity to approach a more in depth study of a very specific geographical area. My heart sinks when a class tells me they are ‘doing’ Africa. “What, all of it?” I say and brace myself for round huts, Lions and tribal masks all over again. The best ‘Africa’ project I ever did with a class was not on Africa, nor on East Africa, nor on Uganda, it was on the city of Jinja. Focus in and the detail comes into sharp focus. Where did I get the resources for my unit on Jinja? Well, partly from my visits to our sister school there but also from google earth, lots of reading, curiosity, imagination. People – do your research.
My whistle stop tour of this curriculum has taken us from Nursery to upper Key Stage Two. I haven’t brought in the art curriculum – there’s another blog in there. Or the history curriculum but please please take a look at @jon_hutchinson’s encouraging work on this. I have confined myself to addressing a PHSE strand that works intentionally to foster anti-racism.
Of late I’ve struggled to recognise the British Values we are tasked with promoting in school – at least in our government. They really do seem to be unconcerned with democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. Nonetheless, those values are ones which I hope all schools would be happy to sign up to – I’d quibble with the word ‘tolerance’ to be honest, it seems awfully weaselly to me but otherwise, yes. If you want to BE that school you have to DO something. Don’t just sit there not being a racist, get up and be anti-racist and do it with real intentionality because if I know anything about curriculum it’s that if you don’t plan it on the big scale it won’t happen on the small scale.
Further Reading and Resources
If you have read this far then, first – thank you, and second perhaps you’d like to read some more. My own learning on this is deeply indebted to Darren Chetty and his great work.
Darren, whose chapter in ‘The Good Immigrant’ I reference in the blog, is one of many people working academically in this field. With Karen Sands O’Connor he writes a regular column in the online children’s literature magazine Books for Keeps. It is always worth a read. You can find Darren on Twitter as @rapclassroom, Karen Sands O’Connor is @ksandsoconnor, ‘Books for Keeps can be found at booksforkeeps.co.uk/
A collection of Darren and Karen’s pieces for the magazine can be found here beyond-the-secret-garden-a-round-up
Lots of publishers are working to produce books which represent a wider range of ethnicities. Two whose work I always enjoy are Knights Of and Tiny Owl. Knights of published ‘Knights and Bikes’ an exciting adventure for seven to nine year olds which sort of answers the lack of representation in the Famous Five. For older readers their ‘High Rise Mystery’ series is gripping. They are the UK publisher for the always amazing Jason Reynolds who, it seems, can write just about anything.
Tiny Owl create the most beautiful picture books in the world, all with a link to Iran – either written or illustrated by Iranian authors and artists. Look our for books illustrated by the magnificent Ehsan Abdollahi.
A community of people who are passionate about this subject can be found at reiyl.com (Researchers Exploring Inclusive Youth Literature). You can find them on Twitter at @REIYL_Community – a look through their timeline will reliably turn up more interesting leads and ideas.
The CLPE (The Centre for Literature in Primary Education) has produced an number of influential reports on representation in children’s literature. This has expanded into a regular blog as well as audit tools and much more – all under the banner of ‘Reflecting Realities’.
The UKLA (UK Literary Association) have some useful collections of resources that are worth a look. ukla.org/resource_collection/diversity-and-inclusion/
Professor Rudine-Sims Bishop is one of the most respected elders in this field – if you read nothing else read her ‘Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Doors’ which is almost the foundation stone for serious thought on representation. You can read it here.
People like Melanie Ramdarshan Bold (on twitter as @ilovecopyright) are making serious academic investigation of representation in literature for children and young people. The title for the introduction to her most recent book ‘Inclusive Young Adult Fiction’ made me want to stand up and clap – ‘In an era of fear and division, fiction plays a vital role in dramatising difference and encouraging empathy’. Now that’s a title.
Verna Wilkins of Tamarind Books (now an imprint of Penguin Books) is a veteran of representative publishing and oversees and exceptional list of books for children and young adults. Tamarind’s website is here tamarind and this interview with Verna is inspirational.
“The children identify. The parents identify. For the first time they’ve seen themselves validated, celebrated, beautifully – with dignity.”