The White Literary Canon: Why Mockingbird Gets More Protection Than It Deserves

#MockingbirdNOTAntiRacist


Allan Crosbie, an English curriculum leader at the James Gillespie's high school in Edinburgh, shared that his department, in their efforts to decolonise the curriculum, would stop teaching To Kill a Mockingbird for its dated depiction of race and promotion of the white saviour narrative. Instead, the department would be teaching more contemporary fiction written by authors of colour.


For any educator doubting the professional judgement behind that decision, or unsure about the benefits of that decision, I am sharing my reflections here in the hope that more school leaders will be brave enough to take similar anti-racist action. I am writing as a non-Black teacher of colour in Scotland who has spent several years researching anti-racism in Scottish education and who has, in the past, taught To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men.


Sensationalist Media Response:

It didn’t take much time for the press to sensationalise what should really be deemed a sound exercise of professional judgement and the practice of anti-racist education. The professional decision to stop teaching an American classic written by a white author became distorted by the media as “scrapping,” “cancelling,” “banning” and “woke.” Instead of using inverted commas around those inflammatory words, the headlines included the words “dated” and “white saviour” in quotation marks to instantly dismiss the valid description of the American classic.


This is no surprise and no coincidence. The press tends to capitalise on the emotional topic of race, causing school leaders to second-guess themselves when doing the right thing, all in fear of the press. This in turn works to preserve the status quo (racism and white supremacy) without leaving space for addressing the complexities of education and anti-racism.



School leaders (understandably) fearing the press, ask yourselves what matters most: the learning outcomes of children and young people in your school, or the temporary noise of the press?

If you genuinely believe you are doing the right thing, then the answer should be clear. I will do my best to support those teachers deciding to stop teaching To Kill a Mockingbird and having to defend their decisions. That is because, contrary to Geoff Palmer, I believe that "dropping" To Kill a Mockingbird is one way to start beating racism.


Roll in The Race Expert:

As an anti-racist activist, I am often seen as an “expert” in many spaces. When an Advanced Higher pupil chose To Kill a Mockingbird for their English dissertation, I was asked to be their supervisor as the “race expert” in the school. In that instance, I was glad to do it because I did actually know what I was doing, but I generally don’t like seeing myself as the expert because there is always so much more to learn about anti-racism. Being rolled in as the “race expert” in spaces that are new to us can lead to brilliant learning opportunities, but we should also be wary of the people (and the press) capitalising on our ignorance as we learn.


I hold Professor Geoff Palmer in very high regard and I am grateful for the scientific and historical wisdom he imparts every time I hear him speak. Palmer has been instrumental in the movement to decolonise Scottish History, bringing light to the role of Henry Dundas in delaying abolition of the slave trade by 15 years. The press turned to Palmer as the “race expert” to comment on the school’s decision to stop teaching To Kill a Mockingbird. Unfortunately, the distorted narrative that the press presented – that of “banning” a text – may have led to Palmer’s decision to warn, if not condemn, the school. Without an understanding of Scotland’s English curriculum or even having recently read To Kill a Mockingbird, I can understand how any "race expert" might not realise the complexity of decolonising an English curriculum.


Problematising the White Literary Canon

First published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird was written by white American author Harper Lee and it is stocked in the cupboards of many English departments in Scotland. Mockingbird has a reputation of being a seminal anti-racist text, an iconic classic about racial justice, primarily because of the court case it presents where a white man tries to defend an innocent Black man who is falsely accused of raping a white woman. In the recent headlines about the James Gillespie school, one journalist argues that “to cancel Mockingbird is to kill the past” and Palmer shared similar concerns that not teaching this text would lead to young people’s ignorance about racism in the justice system. However, the English curriculum leader under attack had precisely chosen a contemporary text which addresses racism in the justice system and police brutality: The Hate U Give by Black author Angie Thomas. This decision was also criticised for “dumbing down” literature for teenagers, even though the person behind that critique confessed not having read the book and admits judging it by the letter "U" in the title. Or does it have anything to do with the fact that The Hate U Give is written by a Black woman making the Black Lives Matter movement, and thus racial consciousness, more accessible to young people? Either way, if teachers are really concerned about challenging literature, then there are definitely other older classics written by Black authors worth considering.


Because of the whiteness of the literary canon, Mockingbird receives far more attention than the play A Raisin in the Sun by Black American writer, Lorraine Hansberry, which was published in 1959, only one year before Mockingbird. Having taught A Raisin in the Sun several times, I can confirm that Hansberry’s insights into the intersectional experiences of racism, sexism and poverty, along with the intergenerational resistance against slavery and movements of Pan-Africanism, are far more valuable and authentic that anything vaguely anti-racist in Mockingbird. While teaching it, my S3 and S4 pupils were able to:

  • make connections between the historical racism in the USA and the UK, drawing parallels between the racial segregation in the housing system at the time and that of contemporary Glasgow,

  • gain a deeper understanding of the intergenerational wealth gaps caused by enslavement in the USA

  • identify the intersectionality of sexism, racism and poverty alongside the myth of the (white) American Dream.

  • empathise with Black American characters, while enjoying diverse representations of Blackness (from the Black American student to the migrant Nigerian Professor, the Black aristocrat to the Black chauffeur, the Black son to the Black grandmother, etc.)

  • reflect on the way “nice” people can be racist too.



To me, it is a true anti-racist classic.

Yet A Raisin in the Sun isn’t widely stocked in the cupboards of English departments and there are no headlines about this American classic being “cancelled” or “banned.” That is how the white literary canon operates: it does nothing to protect the seminal work of Black writers.

Essentially, Palmer and the news articles about the James Gillespie school fail to address what decolonising the English curriculum actually involves:

  1. Questioning the whiteness of the literary canon

  2. Finding those other anti-racist books that tend to be left at the margins, precisely because they are written by authors of colour.

Considering that an English teacher tends to have about 4 hours per week with secondary school classes, decisions have to be made all the time about which texts to teach. That doesn’t mean pupils can’t get books like Mockingbird out of the library to read for themselves. A Raisin in the Sun is one of the many texts out there which does a better job of sensitively helping young people understand the historical and contemporary manifestations of racism, both in the US and the UK (if the teacher helps make those connections). To find out more, and to build your own racial literacy, check out the Anti-Racist Educator and the Lit in Colour (incomplete) reading lists.


If, for some unfortunate reason, you have no choice but to teach Mockingbird, then please consider the many problems with the text before you proceed.


The Dehumanising White Gaze

First of all, To Kill a Mockingbird is a story about white people, not Black people. It was written by a white author and it is narrated by a white girl whose gaze regularly dehumanises the very few Black characters:

- the housemaid who speaks “funny” according to the white child, encouraging the reader to internalise the idea that white people naturally have a superior way of communication

- the housemaid’s church friend who is dismissed as “aggressive,” reproducing the trope of the angry Black woman

- the innocent Black male victim of the court case who needs to be saved by a white person, having no agency and hardly any lines in the entire novel.


This white gaze is present in many texts taught in Scottish schools (such as Ian Crichton Smith’s short story, Home) and teachers should encourage their learners to critically reflect on whose perspectives are missing, especially when they are the object of the white gaze. Unchallenged stereotypes (e.g. angry Black woman), omissions (e.g. Black resistance) and distortions (e.g. Black people speaking “funny”) all contribute to the formation of racial prejudice in young people and thus reproduce racism.


The White Saviour Narrative

Mockingbird presents a narrative of white saviourism, whereby Black people have no agency, no power to resist oppression, and rely entirely on benevolent rich white male characters who fail to reflect on their own inherited privileges (e.g. wealth accumulated as a result of slavery). This narrative is false because it omits the important legacy of Black resistance across the globe. One significant example of Black resistance was brought to the stage by the Black British intellectual, C. L. R. James, whose play preserves the incredible story of Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian revolution.

Going back to Mockingbird, learners should be supported to think critically about the problems behind the white saviour narrative which has historically been used to justify colonisation, as seen in Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden,” and which continues to be enacted in the unequal power dynamics of the international charity industry.


The Classist, Good-Bad Binary of Racism

The simplistic, classist portrayal of racism in Mockingbird encourages the reader to believe that only “bad” people, especially poor, uneducated white people, are guilty and complicit in racism. Meanwhile, none of the white protagonists and heroes think about their racial identity and their role in racism as a system of advantage based on race. Learners should be encouraged to reflect on the ways that racism operates as a system, rather than simply isolated acts of cruel behaviour.


Pupil Voice and Teacher Racial Illiteracy:

Palmer called for pupils’ views before deciding to stop teaching Mockingbird. I agree that pupils should be centred in those decisions and journalists should have included the views of Black pupils in Scotland by contacting anti-racist organisations supporting young Black people such as Intercultural Youth Scotland. In the report by Intercultural Youth Scotland, In Sight, the majority of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic young people felt that, in English, the class did not read books that were about experiences that related to their culture, heritage and background. It is worth noting that Mockingbird relates to a white American person’s culture, heritage and background, as it does nothing but belittle Black American culture and, of course, it focuses on the USA. In England, the recent Lit in Colour report found that 34% of students are of Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic background but only 0.7% of students study a book by an author of colour at GCSE and only 0.1% of students study a book by a woman of colour at GCSE. There is no reason to believe that in Scotland the situation is much different.



When it comes to teaching Mockingbird, there already exists research on pupils’ experiences. Teaching While White has an entire podcast episode dedicated to American students’ experiences of being taught Mockingbird in secondary school. All the pupils interviewed were disappointed by their white teachers’ discomfort and unwillingness to talk about race even though the book was presented as an anti-racist text. The teachers had not reflected on their positionality, their white racial identity, and did not have the racial literacy or tools to lead those uncomfortable conversations about racism. This mirrors the findings in Scotland where teachers tend to lack confidence in talking about race (Teaching in a Diverse Scotland, 2021). In England, confidence in talking about race was equally identified as a major barrier for teaching diverse texts (Lit in Colour, 2021).

When teaching Mockingbird, difficult conversations about race are central to challenging the formation of racial prejudice from the text, deconstructing the white saviour complex and minimising the risks of racial trauma caused by the excessive use of the n-word.

If a teacher does not have the class time or racial literacy to support learners in thinking critically about the racist stereotypes, omissions and distortions in literature, then texts like To Kill a Mockingbird will definitely do more damage than good. As a teacher with a fair amount of confidence and racial literacy, I was able to supervise a white pupil writing their dissertation on the text by regularly talking about race with them and framing their arguments around the problematic nature of Mockingbird as an anti-racist text. At Advanced Higher, there is much more time and space to sensitively do this but I would have struggled with a Third Year class.


In the research carried out by Teaching While White, every pupil agreed that Mockingbird had no value as an anti-racist text and it risked causing more damage than good considering the racial trauma it can cause for students of colour. Similarly, a colleague of mine recently taught the novel in Scotland, surveyed their class afterwards and the consensus was that To Kill a Mockingbird should no longer be taught because there are more appropriate texts out there. I have no doubt that other English department’s making such decisions would consider their pupils’ views and keep their best interests at heart.


The Excessive use of the N-word and Racial Trauma

The racial slur, the n-word, appears almost 50 times in To Kill a Mockingbird and when the text is read out loud in class this creates a major safe-guarding issue for Black pupils at risk of experiencing racial trauma. The verbalisation of that word so many in times in class trivialises the harm it causes and it can lead to non-Black pupils thinking that they have permission to say that word whenever they want. Black respondents to the student survey on the Teaching While White survey shared the stress it caused them in classroom which made them unavailable for learning for the entire novel. In comparison, A Raisin in the Sun contains the n-word only once and the Black characters immediately address the harm behind the word, without requiring any input from white characters. This probably has to do with Lorraine Hansberry's deeper understanding, as a Black playwright, of the psychological harm the word would cause for Black audiences watching the play.


Since the n-word in the classroom is such a requested topic for our blog to cover, and since it does not only apply to the English curriculum and the teaching of To Kill a Mockingbird, I will be posting more guidance on this shortly.

*Click here for my blog post with more guidance.*


To Kill a Mockingbird: Not an Anti-Racist Text

It should now be clear that To Kill a Mockingbird is not an anti-racist text. Analysing it with an anti-racist lens, such as Critical Race Theory, has the potential of creating valuable anti-racist learning outcomes for white pupils, as I did when supervising an Advanced Higher dissertation. However, without that racial literacy and the tools for engaging in difficult conversations about race in education, the book does more damage than good in the classroom. No anti-racist text should require so much time, effort and racial literacy for a classroom teacher to unpack in a way that doesn't create more risks of perpetuating racial prejudice and narratives of white saviourism. And the racial trauma caused by the excessive use of the n-word is a strong enough reason for not counting it as an anti-racist text, let alone teaching it in the classroom.


If any teacher is looking for support in their decision to stop teaching To Kill a Mockingbird or other problematic texts written by white authors, please don't hesitate to get in touch by emailing theantiracisteducator@gmail.com


Please spread the word by using the hashtag #MockingbirdNOTAntiRacist on social media and share your Mockingbird stories on Twitter by tagging us with @AntiRacistEd

References:

Mockingbird in the Classroom: The Student Experience (Teaching While White podcast)

Lit in Colour report

Teaching in a Diverse Scotland: 3 Years On

One example of the numerous articles attacking Allan Crosbie's department for their decision to stop teaching Mockingbird.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

Toussaint Louverture by C.L.R. James

In Sight: Perceptions and Experiences of Black Asian and Minority Ethnic Young People in Scotland, by Intercultural Youth Scotland


Recommendations:

The Anti-Racist Educator blog post on Critical Literacies by Navan Govender

The Anti-Racist Educator webinar on Decolonising the English Curriculum

The Lit in Colour reading list

The Anti-Racist Educator reading list

The Scottish Government Race Equality and Anti-Racism in Education Programme

The Anti-Racist Educator blog post on Difficult Conversations about Race

Framework for Mutual and Productive Communication about Race in Education

The Anti-Racist Educator podcast episode on Racial Trauma, Black History and Black Joy

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