We Didn’t Ask for Tolerance: Acceptance versus Tolerance in Children’s Literature

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In Keeping’s book, neither of the children are “tolerated”.

This week, Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission released their report, Healing a Divided Britain: The need for a comprehensive race equality strategy. The report begins with pointing out that “inequalities of significant concern . . . mean that individuals are facing barriers in accessing jobs and services that impact on their ability to fulfil their potential, [and] they also indicate that some parts of our community are falling behind and can expect poorer life chances than their neighbours” (7). The report went on to say that “Britain is a very different place today compared to the 1960s, when casual racism and ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ signs were commonplace. Race equality legislation and changes in social attitudes have had an enormous impact. This is a cause for celebration. However, the evidence shows that, 50 years after the Race Relations Act 1965, stark inequalities remain” (7). Mishal Husain, introducing the report on the Today Show on Radio 4, commented that, “We may like to believe that we are a nation of tolerance and equality of opportunity, whatever our background, but are we instead a nation where racial inequality is entrenched and far-reaching?” (Today on Radio 4 18 August 2016). There is a lot that can be said about the report (and the reporting on the report), but I want to focus on Husain’s opening statement about tolerance. Upon hearing it, Dr. Nicola Rollock, the Deputy Director of the Centre for Research in Race and Education, tweeted, “Always baffled by statement that UK tolerant re race relations. Do we want ‘tolerance’ or understanding, acceptance & equity? #r4today” (@NicolaRollock 18 August 2016).

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But Keeping’s palette makes subtle comments about equity and gentrification in Britain.

It is interesting to look at the report and Rollock’s response (which was echoed by several who retweeted her) in the context of children’s literature from both the “dark ages” of the 1960s and 1970s and the present time. During the 1960s and 1970s, Black British youth demanded fair treatment from the police and Black parents demanded equitable treatment for their children in Britain’s schools. From the Black Parents Movement in the late 1960s to the Black People’s Day of Action that was a response to the New Cross Massacre of 1981, Black people in Britain were not requesting tolerance from their white counterparts. They were demanding to be heard, and claiming their rights as British citizens. Children’s books in the 1960s and 1970s did not ask for tolerance either, because tolerance suggests a hierarchical relationship (as does asking for society to listen and respond). In fact, children’s books such as the Kate Greenaway award-winning book Charley, Charlotte and the Golden Canary (1967) by the fabulous Charles Keeping subtly suggests society’s inequities while at the same time promoting a cross-racial friendship that is not questioned or highlighted as something unusual or different. Charley and Charlotte live in the ironically named “Paradise Street, somewhere in the big city of London” (n.p.); all the text says about their relationship is that “They were great friends, and every day they played together” (n.p.). What tears them apart is gentrification; Charley, the Black child, remains in Paradise Street as the houses are slowly torn down, while Charlotte, the white child, goes to “live in a flat at the very top of a brand-new building” (n.p.). The contrast in Keeping’s colour palette between the somber depiction of the slums of Paradise Street and the golden new tower block makes an unspoken commentary on race and housing in 1960s London. Charley does not see gentrification as a barrier however; he doggedly goes in search of his lost friend until he finds her.

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The children in Breinburg and Lloyd’s Sean Goes to School do not simply “tolerate” Sean, but actively seek him out as a friend.

Petronella Breinburg’s 1973’s Sean Goes to School, with illustrations from Errol Lloyd, is one of the earliest picture books from a mainstream publisher (the Bodley Head) to feature a Black child on the cover. Given the publication date which came not too long after Bernard Coard’s How the West Indian is made Educationally Sub-Normal in the British School System (1971), this could have been a demand from two Black British authors for “tolerance” in the education system. But in fact, it is simply the story of a child’s first day of school. Sean is frightened, and cries, but he is not labeled by the teacher as bad (or educationally sub-normal). He is not depicted as a suspicious character by the white children in the room. In fact he is welcomed like all the other children in the class, and treated with kindness without patronization. And because he is understood and accepted, he joins in the classroom activities and enjoys himself. Children’s literature in this period does not demand tolerance, but acceptance.

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When Azzi in Garland’s Azzi in Between realizes that she has not only been accepted but understood . . .

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. . . Azzi makes an effort to understand and accept someone else. This understanding and acceptance, rather than tolerance, empowers all people.

The report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission does not, of course focus on the 1960s, but only uses it to contrast with the contemporary moment. It reports that little has changed for the Afro-Caribbean Britain, and that since Brexit, things have worsened for many other groups as well. So the last book I would point to is Sarah Garland’s Azzi in Between (2012). This books look at Azzi, a young war refugee, as she enters Britain with her family. Like the immigrants of the 1960s, Azzi and her family have concerns about equitable treatment in their new home. But unlike the 1960s, Azzi and refugees like her have a greater fear that any rights they might have will be taken away. This fear is expressed in Azzi in Between, but Azzi herself is more concerned with being understood and accepted. When she meets people who help her, she in turn becomes helpful. When she is accepted, she becomes accepting. It is a lesson worth considering as Britain faces the challenge of a divided society. Tolerance does not heal. Acceptance does.

In the same Radio 4 report, Birmingham community activist Desmond Jaddoo commented that, “racial relations has never really been tackled properly on a no-tolerance basis”. Maybe we should stop thinking about tolerance of people who look or act differently from us, and start thinking about acting with “no tolerance” for racism instead.

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