Early in my teaching career one of my students, a young white woman preparing to be an English teacher, expressed her dismay that she had never learned about any writers of colour in any of her university English courses. How was she to teach about them to her future students when she hadn’t learned about them herself? A white male student in the class responded with frustration: “It’s not my fault that Blacks don’t write books.”
Had any of his teachers ever told him that there were no Black writers? Probably not. Yet because he had never learned of any, he had drawn his own erroneous conclusion. Both students had been failed by the glaring omission, but the impact of curricular absence was even greater for their classmates of colour. Why? Because representation matters.
Our sense of identity – of self-definition – is shaped in our youth by what is reflected to us by those around us. Before we can tell the world the stories of who we are, the stories are told to us by others. When we think about identity as it is shaped in schools, we must ask: “How do students see themselves reflected in that environment?”
Imagine the school setting as a book in which students look to see themselves, then think: “What story is being told, and who is included in the illustrations?” Do students of colour see themselves in the story and how? Typically, they don’t see themselves in the curriculum in meaningful and substantive ways. What does that mean for their view of themselves?
Too often curricular invisibility leads to academic disengagement. We all want a good story to tell about ourselves. Historically marginalised youth need information and feedback to help construct that story. The study of literature that is truly inclusive of diverse voices and experiences can be a source of inspiration in that process.
And what about the education of white children? They learn about white authors, scientists, inventors, artists, and explorers – most often male, but not exclusively so. The opportunity to envision oneself in similar roles is offered to white children daily through curricular examples. While the individual narratives they are constructing in childhood will vary with personal circumstances, the group story of what it means to be white is a story of achievement, success, and of being in charge.
But how do white children see others reflected? Are they learning about people of colour as equals or does the curriculum reinforce old notions of assumed white superiority as the result of unchallenged stereotypes and unrecognised omissions about the societal contributions of people of colour? Will their education help them navigate a global society, able to engage effectively with people who are different from themselves? In the traditional curriculum, the story they are offered is incomplete and they are left unprepared. When we omit the intellectual and cultural contributions of men and women of colour, we leave white children at risk of developing the arrogance that comes from ignorance, and as confused as the young man in my classroom was that day.
Of course, none of us can teach what we have not learned ourselves. The inter-generational transmission of incomplete narratives is a problem that we must address in teacher preparation – and as ongoing professional development for in-service teachers. The good news is that resources are available for educators to expand their knowledge base and that of their students. Campaigns such as “Lit in Colour” from Penguin and the Runnymede Trust are enabling educators to tell new stories, and to make a real tangible difference in their classrooms. Such programmes are essential to move beyond the incomplete narratives of the past to prepare all students to move forward into the future with confidence and hope.
Beverly Daniel Tatum is author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and Other Conversations About Race