Words can pack a punch, but some can knock you out. And for people who experience racism, sometimes words can cut deeper than any action ever could.
That’s why teachers have the responsibility to appropriately handle racial slurs in the books they teach.
While classic books play a crucial role, many of them contain damaging representations of people of colour, as well as racist language.
One particular classroom favourite, To Kill a Mockingbird, has come under recent scrutiny for its inclusion in the syllabus despite it containing almost 50 racial slurs. Bit excessive for a story written by a white woman.
And with reports of white teachers reading out these racial slurs in full, how are Black students being affected by these archaic texts?
BLOT spoke to Denver Macpherson, an English Literature student at the University of Sheffield, who recalls her white lecturer reading out a racial slur from a set text.
The 20-year-old, of Jamaican heritage, said: “As it was ‘in context’ (despite not being right), it seemed somewhat ‘okay’ and ‘allowed’, so I wondered if it was only me who was completely shocked by it.
Denver Macpherson, student at The University of Sheffield
“However, upon observing the room, you could clearly see the shock on everyone’s faces. Everyone was clearly surprised yet collectively, it was brushed off. But the more times it went on, you could see people’s growing discomfort which became extremely clear as we discussed our work and many people, including myself, voiced how wrong it was.”
Denver was the only person of colour in the classroom.
She continued: “Although the slur was not aimed at me and it was merely a teacher stating a word in the book, it still felt somewhat dehumanising, due to the fact that it was used so casually.
“It made me feel quite victimised and that it was a personal attack.
“I noticed people were looking at me, even if secretly to try and gauge a reaction out of me which made me feel painfully visible.”
Louise Atkinson, president of the National Education Union, said: “All young people deserve learning in which they can see themselves represented and reflected properly.
“We need to make sure that all children and young people, no matter where they are educated, get the broad and balanced curriculum that they deserve.”
Denver admitted that her education felt white-washed growing up, with any inclusion of black authors feeling tokenistic.
She said: “It made me more angry, as rather than putting in an effort to truly admire a piece of literature by a black writer and a genuine desire to study it, they were clinging onto any bit of ‘embracing different cultures’ just to appear commendable, which felt wrong.
“Although the texts that we do study are extremely useful and are great texts which often stand the test of time, including texts from more minorities is not an attack on the books already within the curriculum.”
So if diverse communities feel misrepresented in the books they read, should we scrap the classics altogether?
“Blatantly, no,” says Denver. “I think these texts are extremely insightful and fruitful in allowing us to acknowledge the attitudes towards certain people and societal beliefs of the period.
“I don’t think the texts should be removed as a whole, I just think less ‘fuss’ should be made over the slurs (in terms of people saying it), and it should just be ignored as we focus on the wider idea, which is always extremely clear.”
So what should be taught in schools? Well, it depends on who’s being taught and what’s going on in the world around them. Identity politics, social justice and sustainability are just a few of the topics the curriculum should put under the spotlight.
Education should bring marginalised narratives into the centre and accept the truths of the past, no matter how hard they are to digest.
If you liked this post then read Think piece: is discrimination necessary in works of fiction? Or Why the rise in LGBTQ+ romance novels is important next.
Sophie is a trainee journalist at The University of Sheffield who specialises in feature writing. She has a keen passion for books and would love to work in the publishing industry in the future. She’s particularly passionate about how our ever-changing planet is represented in the books we read.
Favourite genres: Thrillers and Contemporary Fiction.