This is a follow-up to the previous swpd post, in response to many of the readers' comments there.
Here's something that I as a white person can never really know -- what's it like for non-white children when they have to sit through an education system that still normalizes and glorifies white people and white ways, more or less all of the time? A system that also still denigrates the contributions and lived experiences of people of color, more or less all of the time?
How, for instance, do non-white students reconcile what they probably perceive at times as a contradiction, a paradox, when they're being taught that some work of unspokenly white art is "great," and yet they know at some level that it's also racist? And worse yet, that the teacher isn't even acknowledging the racism, and can't even seem to see it?
In a YouTube clip, damali ayo (author of such satiric takes on whiteness as How to Rent a Negro and Obamistan!: Land without Racism) describes her experience in class with the n-word, and with hearing it so many times during discussions of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Embedding of the clip has been "disabled by request," so here's what ayo says while discussing two "n-words," including responses to the word "negro" in her first book's title:
[After the book and web site appeared,] license to use the word "negro" grew dramatically in my life. People started calling me negro all the time, and it's like, "No, you guys, it's satire and, you're not supposed to say that." . . . So like, I have to explain, the idea is that the stuff on the site is as archaic, and as outdated as this word.
I remember being in class and reading To Kill a Mockingbird. . . . and I don't remember what that book is about. No clue, zero.
What I think the book is about is the word "ni**ger-lover," because that's all I heard for like, days on end in my classroom, was the teacher going, "Ni**ger-lover, ni**ger-lover, ni**ger-lover, ni**er-lover, ni**er-lover!" And then the kids, "Oh! Ni**ger-lover, ni**ger-lover, ni**ger-lover, ni**ger-lover!"
And I remember looking at Kim Yates . . . she was badass. And I remember looking across the table at her, and we just, our faces sank. And I started to see the other white kids follow suit. She was older than me, and I didn't know if she was going to do something, so I was just looking at her like, "What do we do?" I think we were both just overwhelmed with the inability to control the situation that was being led by the teacher.
Of course, a lot of other "great literature" -- which by default tends to mean "great white literature" -- that gets taught also has racist effects. Toni Morrison wrote a whole book about that, and I'm sure others have written about it too. In that book, Playing in the Dark, Morrison points out that understanding what's racist about great white literature doesn't necessarily diminish it, nor its authors. Instead, such deeper understandings can enrich the literature, further demonstrating how it represents and illuminates human experience, including racism. In other words, such materials don't need necessarily need to be banned; they can be taught in better ways, and they can also be taught alongside other art, created by people who understand racism differently, and better, because they're not white.
Still, so many teachers continue to handle racist material badly, much to the detriment of students of color. Should teachers no longer subject them, and white students, to great literature that's also racist? Maybe it depends on how they teach it.
At any rate, many are clearly not teaching it well. As swpd commenter Jane Laplain wrote about her own Mockingbird experience,
I remember this was everybody's favorite "Race" book in my highschool english class. That and "Huck Finn." Both of these novels made me feel like I wanted to shrivel up and die, just wordless humiliation. What with the teacher and the kids all crowing about how much they loooooved the message. I could never quite put my finger on why I was so uncomfortable. The protagonists after all were AGAINST racism... shouldn't I be happy about that? I just didn't have the tools to dissect the hidden messages then.
Commenter Bingo offered some suggestions for how to better teach the novel -- these and other methods might help to prevent non-white students from feeling the ways that damali ayo and Jane Laplain did:
If I had to teach TKAM I'd...
1. Use the Innocence Project to show how innocent black men STILL lose their lives and freedom due to racism.
2. Ditto for Oscar Grant and other instances of police brutality.
3. Analyze the similarities between Mel Gibson's recent racist statement and the way the defendant is framed in TKAM.
4. Show how treatment of blacks as animals in the media (i.e. Obama monkey toys) ties into dehumanization of blacks in TKAM -- to Atticus blacks are mockingbirds, in the courtroom the defendant is referred to as a "buck."
It seems to me that teachers (white or non-white) who do such things do so because they're more sensitive to the differing effects that racially charged materials and discussions can have on differently raced students. Hopefully, they're also aware that racism has by no means gone away, and part of what they're ultimately doing as teachers is trying to fight it.
What were your experiences in school with racist white literature, and with other forms of great-but-actually-racist art? Did you have any teachers who handled such materials and discussions especially well? And is there any hope that teachers and the education system in general will do better?
h/t: RVCBard and sanguinity. For more on damali ayo at swpd, see "think that apologizing officially for slavery makes a big difference"; an swpd interview with her; and an insightful excerpt from her book, How to Rent a Negro.