Yes, we know, many classics had racist stereotypes. That’s not a reason to stop reading them

Every year, it seems, another classic is under scrutiny for containing negative—usually racial—stereotypes, and as a result, is thrown out of classrooms.

A classic case of this, among others, is Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, which has been banned and reinstated repeatedly over the decades in various school districts, most recently in Virginia.

But it isn’t just racially charged books that have come under fire. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s oompa loompas and The Chronicles of Narnia‘s Calormen have been targeted as caricatures as well, and it seems the latest target is Dr. Seuss’s work, which, as it turns out, when not completely white and male, contains a handful of stereotyped Asian and African characters.

As these books are thrown out of curriculums, they’re being replaced by “works about and by people of colour”.

Which is perfectly fine. It’s time people expanded their reading horizons.

But not, I think, by throwing out what’s already there. (Because that doesn’t expand your horizon, it just shifts it.)

I mean, it’s great people are reading stories by people of colour, or “minorities”, or whatever the fashion is to call “those other people” are these days. (Being Asian, I’m not up to date on our latest non-offensive classification. Sorry about that.)

And I understand why westerns schools are so concerned with trying not to mock the rest of us, and thus are so conscientious about culling books that misrepresent us.

But honestly, I think the problem has been blown out of proportion. While it has been “proven” that racism and prejudices get ingrained young and absorbed unconsciously through media like books, I think with a trained specialist around to help the kids, we can still read such books without absorbing the racism in them.

(Hey, wait a minute, that sort of sounds like a teacher.)

Kids in a classroom. Photo by Megan Soule on Unsplash.
It takes years of training to achieve this level of tranquility in a classroom, especially with a photographer there. (Or this photo could be staged. Who knows.)

But there are two things we need to realise before we can proceed. The first is that art mirrors life, and while of course I’m not saying that racist tropes found in books are reflections of reality, what I am saying is that those tropes are how some people view other people groups. And these people, unlike the caricatures they depict, are real.

And the second is that it is futile thinking to think that we can shield kids from reading all of these books we find offensive and distasteful.

So we come back to the question: what do we do with these books? Read them? Trash them? Ban them? Censor them?

As I said, we have teachers for a reason.

The thing is, whether or not kids read, they’re going to have to face these issues, and honestly, it’s a good idea to deal with them early. Because if kids aren’t exposed to these things in a safe environment where they have parents and teachers to guide them, then how will they manage when they first encounter it for themselves?

Do we think just because they’ve been protected from such offensive writing from young that they will automatically reject it—and the ideas behind them—as adults? I think not.

I mean, while it is great that schools are getting kids to read stories written in this century by new authors that deal with issues like racism more tactfully, I think that teachers have the skills to take a book that doesn’t deal with these issues well (or is outright discriminatory) and, in the classroom, teach kids how to deal with these issues.

Because that’s the real point of literature in school. I mean, yes, it is to enjoy stories, but it is also to learn how to appraise and critique stories, and recognise the underlying ideas and beliefs people and characters have without believing them—whether these stories be simply fiction or whether they’re in the news, or in the people around them.

So please, sure, update the curriculum all you want. But please, just because you don’t agree with a book doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be read. Because you can still learn from it.

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