English Literature is a compulsory subject for students across the UK up until the age of sixteen, thus it is not unreasonable to assume that what is taken from these lessons will inform these students’ future understanding of the world. The whitewashing of the UK education system, and specifically the secondary school syllabuses, is therefore damaging and reductive. If literature, along with art, music, and so many other mediums, is so important in informing our education, why is then so acutely unrepresentative of our history and diverse population?
Whilst we often learn about the US Civil Rights movement in school, little is taught about racism and colonialism within the UK. The whitewashing of literature studied in schools, often studying books written hundreds of years ago, reinforces this narrative. Not only does it erase a significant aspect of history, it also leads to the lack of a realistic, demographic representation of the country. A conscious effort to diversify literature taught in schools, to children of all ages, would give a wider exposure of cultures and create a deeper understanding of history. In turn, this would raise awareness of the ingrained, systematic oppression and social injustice which has existed in this country for hundreds of years. Black children should be able to see themselves represented in literature, just as white children do.
A study commissioned by the Book Trust, found that in 2017 less than 2% of children’s books were written by British people of colour (POC). The lack of diversity of published children’s literature means that children are generally only exposed to books by and about white people. Hence, the importance of teaching books by POC in the education system is paramount, as it may be the only place that children are exposed to these authors.
Take GCSE texts for example, previously, the main texts studied across the country have been To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. As both books are written by white authors, it means they portray the suffering and oppression of black people through the gaze of white characters. This denial of a black perspective is problematic in itself.
Although To Kill a Mockingbird directly addresses racism in America, it also romanticises the issue by characterising Atticus Finch as a white male hero. Of Mice and Men is equally as problematic in its portrayal of racial injustice, if not more so. There is only one black character, ranch-hand Crooks, who is hugely mistreated by the white characters in the book. Whilst it is arguably a realistic portrayal of the racial issues present in 1930s America, Steinbeck does not challenge this racism, in fact he aggravates the issue through the use of unacceptable racial slurs. If these texts are the only exposure young people have been getting in regards to racial injustice, then how are these children supposed to grow up with a well-rounded understanding of racism and social inequality?
Instead, there are many other educating and influential books written by POC that should be taught in schools. Including these books in the curriculum would provide a more diverse and realistic education on the history of racism and oppression, whilst also being more representative of the UK’s diverse population. Some books by POC that could replace books by white authors include, The Bluest Eyes by Toni Morrison, The Colour Purple by Alice Walker and Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo. This list is my no means exhaustive, as there are many other books by POC that would also be extremely beneficial in schools.
In the current political climate, with increasing support of the Black Lives Matter movement, it is impossible and irresponsible to pretend that racial inequalities do not exist in the UK and the rest of the world. It is heartbreaking that so many innocent black lives were taken in order for the world to start paying attention. However, it is promising to see changes already being made. We, as a society, must not allow the momentum to deplete when the media coverage does, as racial injustices are still prevalent. The diversity of literature in the UK education system may seem like a small change, but it could make all the difference in creating a more equal, representative and just society.
Words by Isabelle Gray
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