How to be an Anti-Racist Language and Literature Teacher

“2009 Student Research Fellows” by NWABR is licensed under CC BY 2.0

By Estelle Baroung Hughes

Teaching texts from culturally diverse backgrounds is the very first step for an anti-racist Language and Literature syllabus. Without cultural, ethnic and racial representation there is no antiracism. However, when studying books that represent cultures, people and traditions from all over the world, educators can still either open minds or tightly close them. The apparent diversity of a book list can hide the fact that fundamental racist biases are not addressed. Three key questions Language and Literature teachers can ask themselves are the following: Who is discussed (and who isn’t) in our syllabus? Whose voice is heard? What is the impact of these voices on students? This is how to make Language and Literature courses more inclusive and intellectually stimulating for all students.

Who is discussed?

Teachers of Language and Literature should take it as a personal challenge to discuss texts from all the cultures or countries of origin of all the students in their classrooms. That seems particularly daunting in the context of international education where often, children have multiple nationalities and come from all over the globe. No effort, however, is more important than the one to connect with our students, understand who they are, where they come from, what their cultural identity looks like. Be it through the study of a song, a poem, a short-story, an extract from a novel or an essay, the attention you dedicate to inclusion sends a strong message on who matters: the student. Of course we keep Shakespeare and Salinger but we also widen the entrance for Adichie, Kadaré, Yoshimoto, Kavafi, Allende…This is the magic of world literature and a key principle of international education: an expression of the duty we have as teachers to personalise education while making it as diverse as possible. This way, every student is allowed, in one way or the other, to feature in the Language and Literature syllabus at least once.

Who is talking?

Perspective is the second key element for an antiracist Language and Literature course. If the visibility offered to the students’ cultures happens through a faulty lens, it does more harm than good. For example, there is a real danger of hegemony and alienation when we prefer books where white voices mediate the experiences of people of colour. Language and Literature teachers should choose to teach as many authentic texts as possible, where the writing, the characters and the messages emerge from the lives, creativity and spirit of members of the communities depicted. This does not mean we should disqualify authors who choose to write about cultures that are not theirs. The polyphonic approach is recommended for global issues like oppression, peace and conflict and the environment. The way to avoid a hegemonic syllabus is through multiplying perspectives. For example the apartheid era could be studied through extracts from A Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela,   July’s People by Nadime Gordimer, a female & white anti-apartheid Nobel Prize winner from South africa or The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay, an Australian novelist. All of these books have literary merit so why not read extracts from all of them, to compare and contrast perspectives?

To propose another comparison, the novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee describes the oppression of black Americans from the perspective of a well-meaning white person whereas The Bluest Eyes by Toni Morrison depicts the same racial dynamics but with a black voice. The second undoubtedly allows you to touch on black excellence through the analysis of Morrison’s style. The characterisation of Pecola, her mother and her husband is fashioned intrinsically, with the cultural insights of the black American family unit that reveals the beauty as well as the pain brought by hardship. It seems difficult to imagine how an outsider to black American culture would communicate this. On the contrary, an outsider might all too easily fall into clichés of pity, martyrdom and oversimplified victimisation. Teaching black culture through an author belonging to that group can help a teacher highlight the power of resilience and counter the essentialization of black characters as sheer helpless victims.

The question ‘who is talking’ also applies to the teacher. A diverse teaching staff is important to present students with as many cultural perspectives as possible on the studied  texts. It is a beautiful thing when teachers from the communities depicted in the studied texts can be present to help unpack the words. For there are hidden cultural gems that only trained eyes can spot. That is why it is also fruitful to invite parents and guest speakers in whenever relevant to enrich our classes’ understanding of texts. For, it takes a village to raise a child.

How does this impact students?

An anti-racist Language and Literature syllabus actively deconstructs stereotypes. Sometimes it becomes a complex task when there is an intention to raise awareness about some crucial world issue but the unit winds up alienating some of the students in the classroom. Afropessismism is one example. This posture often stems from compassion, a desire to help Africans, but it is damaging to African students and skews the worldview of all the others. Teachers should therefore explore how to approach hard realities like slavery, segregation, colonisation, war, genocide, without it resulting in a feeling of shame in the students’ whose part of the world is being discussed. As a matter of fact, diversity does not automatically produce tolerance, international mindedness and all the benefits we associate with continued exposure to different ways of life, appearances and beliefs. On the contrary, without appropriate mediation and if dominant narratives are left unchecked, we may be unknowingly educating racists and cynics. Let’s make sure this does not happen!

Beyond the literacy, the cultural enrichment and the nurturing of lifelong learning, there is something ancient about reading together. Language and Literature should be a quest for passion and beauty, a journey where we salute the powerful expressions of the Human Soul, regardless of the language, culture, accent or times the author expresses him/her/them/self/selves in. Antiracism does not disrupt that journey. On the contrary, it binds us closer together as we tread more carefully, yes, but also more respectfully and more lovingly on a path to personal and community growth. 

Published by APPEAR

APPEAR was formed in May 2019 after parents whose children had been negatively affected by racism at school, realised that the response from the administration needed improvement on the taboo topic of racism. APPEAR's aim is to rise awareness about this and work together with the school to make our schools a safe space for all.

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