Tag Archives: Nikesh Shukla

Acceptable Racisms and Children’s Literature

There are two kinds of racism: incidental, by which I mean something that happens because of the actions of individuals; and systemic, by which I mean the deep-rooted, institutionally-supported disadvantages experienced by people of color.  These two racisms are not mutually exclusive; often, someone feels that their individual racist comment or belief is justified because the system or society does not censure their speech or action.  Equally, if individuals were more willing to examine and censure the individual racisms of themselves and those around them, systemic racism would begin (or at least be easier) to break down.  But they certainly manifest in different ways.

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Anne Rooney’s Race Hate tries to take a balanced approach by interviewing racists. But Race Hate is apparently an individual, rather than an institutional, problem.

This week, news items in the UK and US showed both kinds of racism.  In the UK, what seem to be examples of incidental racism actually point to systemic problems.  And in the US, a result that seems to suggest systemic problems highlights the responsibility of individuals.  Bonfire Night in the UK saw one group of people delighting over the burning of a model of Grenfell Tower (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/grenfell-tower-model-bonfire-burned-guy-fawkes-party-a8618661.html), and a Tory councilor wearing blackface at a Bonfire Night event in Hever (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/nov/07/tory-councillor-wears-blackface-kent-bonfire-celebrations).  These were both roundly condemned in the media and the public, as well as by officials.  Theresa May criticized the Grenfell Tower bonfire.  And yet, her condemnation was called out by several people who pointed out that many Tower residents are still unhoused nearly a year-and-a-half after the fire (see, for example, Nikesh Shukla’s tweet from 6 November 2018).  The bonfire was unacceptable racism; but the system that allows the people of Grenfell Tower to continue to suffer at the hands of the government is not changed.  Similarly, the Tory councilor was participating in the bonfire as a member of a Church of England school PTA.  The school dissociated itself from the incidental racism, saying, “We are very proud to be a multicultural school with ‘respect, love and wisdom’ as our motto” (Guardian online); but they failed to acknowledge their responsibility to ensuring that all members of their community—PTA included—embraced the slogan.  Neither the government nor the church created or directly encouraged the individual racist behavior.  But the government’s and the church’s own lack of action on racism makes it easier for racists to act.

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“People may have racist ideas instilled in them”: but who is doing the instilling?

Children’s books, even well-intentioned ones, do not always make this link between individual acts and institutional racism.  Anne Rooney’s Voices: Race Hate (Evans Brothers 2006) is part of a series which, according to the back cover, “brings alive a range of modern-day issues—many of them highly controversial—and aims to stimulate debate and discussion.”  Although I am not convinced there is much that is “highly controversial” about any kind of hate (hate is something we tell children is bad, no?)—not to mention the lack of controversy about the issue of hunger or child labour, other titles in the series (also bad, no?)—this series is clearly designed to discourage, rather than encourage, readers’ participation in or support of these issues.  But by failing to address the link between systemic racism and individual acts, the book ends up excusing people from the responsibility for racism.  Thus, the double-page spread, “Why Hate Other Races?” excuses individuals from racism by blaming “stereotypes” without explaining that stereotypes are connected with systemic, structural and institutional racism.  The photo on page 9 includes a caption that says, “Many white families employed black workers to serve them” but does not connect this servitude with a history of slavery, or a lack of other available employment opportunities for Black people.  Claire Heuchan and Nikesh Shukla’s recent book, What is Race? Who are Racists? Why does Skin Colour Matter? And Other Big Questions (Wayland 2018) addresses this failure to link structural and individual racism head on, pointing out the consequences of such a failure: “Even when people are aware of racism, they can hesitate to point it out because of the implication that somebody has been racist . . . So we end up in a strange situation where there is racism but, supposedly, no racists.  Except racism is produced by people who are racist—so if we are ever to pull apart the racist structures of our society, there must be a way to say who is propping them up” (6).

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Heuchan and Shukla’s book recognizes that institutional and individual racisms matter.

While individual racist acts exposed systemic problems in the UK, the news from the US this week highlighted the opposite problem.  One of the headlines of this week’s midterm elections was the record number of women who ran and won in their races.  Some media even called the elections the #MeToo Midterms (https://thehill.com/homenews/house/406183-women-wield-sizable-power-in-me-too-midterms), and election reports frequently mentioned the “suburban women” who helped defeat Trump-approved candidates.  Of course there is nothing racist in women running and supporting candidates for office (indeed, many of the new congresspeople are women of color).  But “suburban women” is media code for white women (here’s one report on “suburban women”: https://www.msnbc.com/stephanie-ruhle/watch/how-will-suburban-women-vote-in-the-midterms-1358101059960?v=railb&), and the #MeToo movement (which was started by an African-American woman) has been criticized for its focus on white women as well.  Just as second-wave feminism was about the middle-class, educated white woman, excluding and eliding the rights of women of color, the midterm elections reveal that white women will unite around an issue that directly affects them, but cannot extend their understanding of oppression to issues such as police brutality against African-Americans or racist and jingoistic language and threats against migrants and refugees.  The system allows racism to exist, and white women—who understand what it is like to be oppressed by that system—do not, through their individual votes, call for an end to that system.

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Curiously, even though White’s book mentions both abolition and the civil war as causes Morris supported, there is not a single African-American depicted in the book.

Again, even well-meaning children’s books can sometimes reinforce systemic racism (and classism) under the guise of individual choice.  Most children’s books about women’s suffrage show photographs of white women only, and have lines like, “only men can vote” (I Could Do That! Esther Morris Gets Women the Vote, by Linda Arms White, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 2005).  This elides the fact that in America, African-Americans could not vote, and in Britain only rate-paying men could vote until 1918, the same year that women over 30 got the vote. An alternative approach can be found in Nosy Crow’s short story collection, Make More Noise: New Stories in Honour of the 100th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage (2018).  Unlike many books about women’s suffrage, which focus almost exclusively on white women and their struggle, Make More Noise includes stories about all kinds of women and girls, historically and contemporaneously.  Patrice Lawrence’s story, “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” for example, tells the story of Olive Malvery, a woman of English and Indian parentage, who “came to London when she was twenty-three and was shocked by the way poorer women were treated” (83).  Lawrence’s story shows Malvery helping a young mixed-race girl who suffers not just from being poor, but from being brown.  When the young girl, Victoria, asks for an extension on her rent, her landlady tells her, “the best thing your father could have done was take you with him back to whatever country he came from!” (59).  This and other stories in the collection show that no woman has an identity based entirely on gender—so all women should band together to ensure everyone’s rights.

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Nosy Crow’s Make More Noise listens to the noise of all kinds of women, not just white suffragettes.

Racism is, or should be, unacceptable to people of all backgrounds because it harms the entire society.  But if we can’t recognize our individual racism, then we can’t fight systemic racism.  And if we don’t see the systemic, structural and institutional ways that racism is supported, then fighting individual racism will never lead to victory.  Racism will go on being acceptable, and we will all be the worse for it.

Children’s Books, Diversity, and List-Making

When my London philosopher friend, Darren Chetty, asked me to write an article for the Times Educational Supplement with him, I didn’t hesitate to do it. First, because I admire Darren’s work; he gets into the schools and talks to kids about issues of ‘race’ and racism, providing not only a venue for their discussions but a model for their teachers (you can find discussions of his work in “The Elephant in the Room: Picturebooks, Philosophy for Children and Racism” as well as in “‘You Can’t Say That! Stories Have to be about White People,’” his chapter in Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant). Second, I wanted to do it because the TES is putting out really thoughtful pieces right now about education in an increasingly restrictive world (restricted by testing and assessment, worries over immigration, lack of funding, among other things). But mostly, I wanted to help because when people find out I research Black British literature for children, their first question is, “Oh, is there much of that out there?”

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Here are a few of the books from the list that are still in print in the UK–for now.

One of the elements that the TES wanted in the article was a “diverse” book list, and they were willing to let me do it my way. That meant, for me, a list of books with main characters who were British and BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic—I’m not hugely fond of acronyms that “other” but it is the one that it is currently in greatest use in Britain), written and/or illustrated (at least one or the other, and preferably both) by BAME authors and artists. The reason for this is simple: if Britons know any book with a BAME main character, it is likely to have been written or drawn by a white author or illustrator. The most popular “diverse” books over the past half-century, and the ones that have stayed in print, have been written by people outside of the community that they are writing about. In some cases, such as Bernard Ashley’s The Trouble with Donovan Croft or Mary Hoffman’s Amazing Grace, the Black British main character is actually based on a real white child. Publishers want books that will appeal to white readers—because, as in the United States, white readers are in the majority. But making the white reader comfortable with a BAME character often means erasing much of what the white reader would find unfamiliar or strange. It often means leaving institutional racism and the status quo unchallenged, giving preference to assimilation, making happy endings that reassure white readers. It also sets up a problematic cycle, particularly in children’s literature, where most of the books are purchased by adults rather than the intended child readers. Book buyers purchase books that make them comfortable; child readers never see the books that might challenge the status quo or better represent BAME communities; these challenging books then go out of print because publishers say that they aren’t viable and/or that BAME children “don’t read” or don’t want BAME books. I’m guessing that most teachers and librarians will find Amazing Grace, if they haven’t already. But I wanted, with my list, to give them something they might not find.

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These are a few of the quality works of children’s literature that I wanted to put on the list, but couldn’t–because they are out of print.

But it wasn’t necessarily easy for me to find those books either. I’m fairly familiar with children’s authors who write about Afro-Caribbean characters; it’s my main field of research. The TES, however, wanted books that represented multiple BAME communities. I had to read a lot, look at multiple blogs and websites, find out about the authors and illustrators—and then find books of theirs that were still in print. Although I double-checked books against more than one bookstore/website, including the fantastic Letterbox Library and independent publishers’ websites such as Firetree Books and Hope Road Publishing, my friends at Seven Stories, the UK’s National Centre for the Children’s Book have already (less than two months after the appearance of the list) tried ordering the books and have found some unavailable. And so far, none of the publishers who let really good classic BAME texts go out of print have contacted me to say that they made a mistake in doing so and have set up a print run for any of the “Bring Back into Print” texts I recommended (okay, maybe this was just a fantasy of mine—but the TES was willing to endorse it!). I hope that this does not put off people—teachers, librarians, parents—who truly want to represent the world through books for their children. Because to be fair, my list is just one of many that have been written over the years. It is up to all of us to keep the pressure on the publishing and book industry to ensure that these books stay in print and that more books are published. That means buying them, promoting them, reading them ourselves. It is an effort, but we who care about books and children must make the effort. As Darren and I say in our article, “when kids start seeing themselves and their classmates in books, they learn that they all have a role to play—in the classroom, in books and in Britain’s literary heritage.”

Thanks to Dr. Jennifer Harrison, who is publishing this blog on her website, The Worrisome Words Blog, as a guest post. Dr. Harrison teaches at East Stroudsberg University in Pennsylvania, and her research interests include reader-writer relationships, thing-theory, and the supernatural; she is a reviewer for the International Research Society for Children’s Literature (IRSCL), as well as the Children’s Book Review. You can read her blog, which focuses this month on multiculturalism, here: http://quantum.esu.edu/faculty/jharrison/.

You can read our article, “Why diversity should start at story time,” in the TES from September 30, 2016. You can download a free poster with my list of 50 diverse titles from the TES at their website, https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/50-books-to-diversify-your-class-reading-list-11397499.

A Good Immigrant of another Time (But the Same Story)

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Salkey’s Danny Jones thought leaving Britain might be the only solution. Illustration by Errol Lloyd.

This week, Nikesh Shukla’s edited collection, The Good Immigrant, appeared, a volume of 21 essays by Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) writers about their experience in Britain. He edited the collection because, as he writes, “while I and the 20 other writers included in this book don’t want to just write about race, nor do we only write about race, it felt imperative, in the light of . . . the backwards attitude to immigration and refugees, the systemic racism that runs through this country, that we create this document” (“Editor’s Note”). Too many white Britons (and Americans, for that matter) see BAME Britons (or Americans) as bad immigrants—thieves of one kind or another, prompting those white Britons (or Americans) to “want their country (or their job or their girl/boyfriend or their place at university) back.” This attitude persists even when the writers are not, in fact, immigrants, but born and bred citizens. White people are entitled, but everyone else has to earn their rights, prove their worth.

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Shukla’s Good Immigrant appeared to excellent reviews–and, hopefully to a more receptive audience than some Windrush Generation authors experienced in the 20th century.

This has all happened before. Multiple times.

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The writer Andrew Salkey, who came to the UK from Jamaica as part of the Windrush Generation. Photo Caribbean Review of Books.

I could write (and have written) about many different examples, but I’m going to highlight just one today in this blog, the writer Andrew Salkey. Salkey came to Britain from Jamaica in the early 1950s, part of the Windrush Generation. The Windrush Generation encompasses migrants from all parts of the English-speaking Caribbean (as Sam Selvon pointed out in Lonely Londoners, white Britons had a habit of lumping all Caribbean people together and calling them, collectively, “Jamaicans” as if there were no other islands or political differences between them) who came to Britain between 1948 and the early 1960s because the UK had asked them to come to fill postwar labour shortages. Salkey, like the other migrants, was British—he had British citizenship as part of the colonial system—and he came to the “Mother Country” to work. He should have been seen as a model citizen. The colour of his skin, however, meant that Salkey had to earn respect through hard work.

And he did. He not only worked for Henry Swanzy’s BBC radio programme, Caribbean Voices, contributing stories and commentary and interviews, he worked for other parts of the BBC as well, including the African Service, the Pacific Service and the General Overseas Service. He got broadcasting jobs because he was extremely well-spoken (you can hear him speak in a documentary on Caribbean Voices, here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02sbplt ) and—in terms of his own stories—he followed Swanzy’s dictates for what a good contributor should do. Philip Nanton, in his article “What does Mr Swanzy want?” (Caribbean Quarterly 46.1, 61-72) says that the answer to this question is simple: Henry Swanzy wanted local colour in work that was publishable by British publishers. That meant that the stories presented on the BBC had to be comprehensible (at least mostly) to a white audience, as well as giving them the ocean breezes, calypso, and other acceptable tropes of the Caribbean that white listeners expected. Most of the contributors, including Salkey, praised Swanzy for the work he did in editing their stories and poems to a “metropolitan standard” because they wanted to be published where it would matter—meaning London, not the Caribbean.

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Salkey’s “disaster sequence” from Oxford University Press allowed him to present a broader picture of the Caribbean to children. Illustration by William Papas.

It was through Salkey’s work on Caribbean Voices that he caught the attention of Oxford University Press, who published Salkey’s “disaster sequence” for children, Hurricane, Drought, Earthquake and Riot. Like his Caribbean Voices work, these novels were set in the Caribbean and were full of local colour. But, because of his earlier success, he was able to do something different. These books showed that life in the Caribbean was not all calypso music and coconuts on the beach—the natural disasters that strike the area affect the economy and its ability to grow. Caribbean people were not all poor and rural (the books center on middle-class families in the capital city, Kingston). The last book in the sequence, Riot, shows labour unrest in Jamaica, subtly laying the blame for problems of continuing poverty and a breakdown of community on the colonial system. Salkey continued in these novels to be well-spoken (they are mostly written in “school” English, not patois) and provide a vivid picture of his “exotic” homeland. But his children’s work shows him starting to become a “bad” immigrant, or at least a “less good” one.

Salkey stopped publishing children’s books with Oxford after Riot, but he continued to write for children, and to support other Caribbean writers. He was one of the founding members, in 1966, of the Caribbean Artists’ Movement (CAM), along with John La Rose and Kamau Brathwaite. By 1968 he was an editor and advisor to Jessica Huntley, a Guyanese migrant who had come to Britain ten years earlier and who had started Bogle L’Ouverture press with her husband Eric Huntley. Bogle L’Ouverture came out of Jessica Huntley’s desire to produce books for Black people, by Black people, in Britain. Salkey advised her on publishing work by Walter Rodney, Bernard Coard, and Linton Kwesi Johnson—all of whom were or became revolutionaries of one kind or another. He also offered Huntley his own work for children, literature that was very different from what he had produced for Oxford, much more overtly political. Joey Tyson (1974) is a fictionalized account of Walter Rodney’s expulsion from Jamaica from a child protagonist’s perspective; The River that Disappeared (1979) details American imperialistic attitudes and drug trafficking in the Caribbean (not the kind of local colour usually looked for in a Caribbean story for children), and Danny Jones (1980) discusses the difficulties of being Black and British in contemporary London. At the end of this last novel, the title character is pondering a “return” to Jamaica, the country of his parents’ origin, thinking it might be the “more hopeful” option than being hassled by the police in Britain just for being Black.

By the time that Danny Jones was published, Salkey had himself left Britain for an academic post in the US. He continued to write for and correspond with Jessica Huntley and many of the writers he had known in Britain, but American universities were happy to do what Britain at the time was not: hire Salkey to teach creative writing to university students. The US, unlike Britain, already had a tradition of African and African-American or Black Studies programmes, and even smaller places were eager to have a professor who could teach a class or two of Black Literature. Britain, on the other hand, has only just begun its first Black Studies programme at Birmingham City University this year.

In the last chapter of Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant, Musa Okwonga writes about how he spent his life in Britain on the one hand being “an unofficial ambassador for black people” (225) and on the other frequently “stop-searched by police, on one occasion merely for waiting by a bus stop” (225). Okwonga went to Eton and Oxford, but this was never enough: “we were still seen as guests, our social acceptance only conditional upon our very best behaviour” (231). Like Salkey, Okwonga finally had enough and left for somewhere he could feel welcome. By not extending that welcome, Britain is continuing—generation upon generation—to lose some of the people who could add to its great literary heritage.