In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, an international discussion has rightly been raised about race, discrimination and white privilege. From this discussion more and more conversations have arisen relating to the lack of Black representation within UK arts, culture and, as I will discuss here, the education system.
Through a wider global engagement, more consideration has been taken into the information, or rather lack of information, students are taught about discrimination, racial injustices and white privilege throughout their time at school. As someone who has studied English literature throughout both school and college, it occurred to me how little Black representation there was in both my high school and college English curriculum. We were taught syllabuses made up predominantly of White, upper-class male writers. In carrying out research into the level of racial diversity within some of the UK English Literature exam boards, I have found the results to be both shocking and saddening. Out of every possible play, poem and novel available to study on the AQA GCSE English Literature syllabus, 90% of the authors are White, with just 10% being from BAME backgrounds. Only one author of this 10% is Black. Even worse, out of the entire syllabus for WJEC A Level English Literature (Route A), 100% of the authors are White. There is not a single Black author on the entire syllabus. These results are symptomatic of an education system that, whether consciously or not, neglects to include the voices of Black writers in its curriculum. This leaves Black students without literature to identify with and relate to, and denies other students the opportunity to appreciate and celebrate the stories and heritage of their fellow Black peers. If studying literature is about finding a part of yourself within a character, creating empathy, building relations and widening cultural awareness, then a curriculum that is largely based on only one race is limiting, ineffective and unjust. To present young and impressionable school children with a syllabus that is 90% White and only 10% Black sends completely the wrong message. It creates a racist belief of white supremacy within literature and diminishes the voices of people of colour.
Children are not born racist. Just like they’re not born homophobic or sexist. Their perceptions of society are informed by external cultural factors: their parents, teachers, peers, what they read in books, what they see in films. If children aren’t taught to celebrate cultural and racial diversity from a young age, then we have no hope of a better, more equal future. If we are to create a society that lives in solidarity, tolerance and respect, then we must teach our children the values of diversity. We must present them with a range of racially diverse film, television, literature, history, art, music, theatre; the list goes on. However, in order to enable this we need a radical change in the curriculum. The word “radical” feels problematic in this context in that it suggests something that’s revolutionary or extreme. Cultural diversity is not extreme. It’s how it should be and how it should’ve always been. Peacefully protesting for the lives and equality of Black people should not be considered extreme. And yet we live in a society where right-wing conservatism sees anything remotely progressive or reformist as ‘radical’ or ‘revolutionary’ or ‘extremely left wing’. That outlook has got to change. If each and everyone one of us starts educating ourselves and making changes from the grassroots, then hopefully change will start to be enacted at the top. First in the department of education, then in schools and then, hopefully, in all walks of life.
As I was reading Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, I glanced at my bookshelf and realised how (unconsciously) it was predominantly White. I am ashamed that I hadn’t been aware of this earlier and taken the responsibility sooner to diversify the literature I read. But what I did do was set out to change this immediately. Not to be seen as partaking in diversity or political correctness but because I want to make that change. I want to and should learn about the lives, stories and heritage of Black people, about slavery, social injustices and oppression. I am White. I benefit from White privilege. Therefore, I can’t ever begin to imagine what it feels like to be a victim of racism. However, what I can do is use everything in my power to educate myself and lay down the path towards an ever-increasing level of individual and global understanding.
Ignorance is one thing, but knowing the problem is there and choosing not to do anything about it – that is far, far worse.
Below are some suggestions of books written by black authors, all discussing issues of racism.
- The Color Purple by Alice Walker
- Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
- Becoming by Michelle Obama
- Beloved by Toni Morrison
- Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
- How We Fight for Our Lives: A Memoir by Saeed Jones
The AQA and WJEC websites.
What you can do:
- Contact Gavin Williamson MP (Secretary for Education) make Black histories mandatory in the national curriculum
- Sign the Petition demanding Teach British children about the realities of British Imperialism and Colonialism