One of the best things Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the incredible supreme court judge who died recently, ever said, was:
“When I’m sometimes asked when will there be enough [women on the Supreme Court] and I say, ‘When there are nine,’ people are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.”
That’s exactly how I feel about diversity in educational reading lists. Kids read enough books and see enough art made by white people in their daily lives. Reading lists should be filled with art from people of other races , genders and sexualities. People often call this a radical belief, but personally, I think it’s a bloody radical belief to think that kids should only read work by straight white men.
Clearly I’m not alone in thinking that reading lists in educational establishments, primarily schools, should be more diverse. A recent campaign is highlighting the issue and pushing for more exam boards and schools to focus on work from a wider range of authors.
The campaign, launched by Penguin Random House and The Runnymede Trust, aims to improve diversity in GCSE reading lists, but, frankly, we need to improve diversity in all parts of the UK’s education system.
Even at university, the reading lists are often dominated by straight white men. I did a post-colonialism course at the University of Chester, which was run by a guy who had limited knowledge of the genre and felt like a filler course designed to offer greater variety on a course list that was almost exclusively feminist work and romantic poetry. Most of the texts were by white male authors, such as E.M. Forster and Ryder Haggard.
The few that weren’t written by white authors were discussed the least, and it was only when I did my Master’s degree at the University of Exeter that I got to discover a truly diverse reading list of post-colonial work by non-white writers who had actually experienced the issues that they were discussing. My course was taught by a woman, but still a white one, and we had few non-white lecturers.
At schools, the same issue can be seen, with only one exam board offering students the chance to read a diverse range of texts. As the examples from my own university days show, one of the key issues behind the lack of diversity in education reading lists is that there isn’t enough diversity throughout the education system.
Many members of the BAME community are from poorer backgrounds, and they often find themselves struggling to earn the expensive and time consuming qualifications required to become a teacher. Even if they do succeed in becoming a teacher, they struggle to make their voices heard and achieve the leadership positions needed to influence decisions such as school reading lists for exams.
This struggle to reach the top is prevalent in practically every industry, and it’s one of the main problems with the world today. However, in education, it often means that kids of all ages and backgrounds end up reading and learning about the world from a very narrow viewpoint; that of white men.
If we want a world where there’s less police brutality, institutional racism and general ignorance of other cultures, then we need to start by educating our kids. Diversity shouldn’t just be the topic of the odd school assembly; it should run through the curriculum to penetrate kid’s minds early and give them the chance to become the open-minded people we need.
If all they’re reading is stuff like Of Mice And Men, written by a white guy and with only a passing mention of slaves, and where black men are all slaves and given that cheery ‘I’m a slave but I like it’ persona, then kids will take longer to understand the real state of the world.
There are already many campaigns out there that seek to drive the UK’s education landscape to teach more BAME history, but in my opinion, this needs to go further. Diversity needs to penetrate to the books kids read; not just when studying literature, but also their textbooks.
As someone who suffered through years of whitewashed schooling, I can tell you that it took me a bloody long time and a lot of hard work to truly understand the importance of diversity and reading stories that aren’t just about the BAME community, but that come from within it. Many school boards probably sit and pat themselves on the back for including texts like To Kill A Mockingbird, which are about black rights. However, that text and most of the others studied in our schools, colleges and universities currently, are written by white people.
While that isn’t to say that they’re not valid, these books can hardly been seen as truly representative of the lives of real black people. We need to read more books from BAME writers, of which there are many. It took me a lot of work and research to find out about them, having been raised on mainly white voices until I started studying for my Master’s in my early 20s.
As a fairly privileged person with access to education and resources that many others don’t have, I consider myself bloody lucky to have achieved a reasonably rounded education, which I had to give myself, because the institutions I attended did not provide it. Part of the reason why I was interested in reading the works of non-white authors was because I spent a lot of time among members of the BAME community and was encouraged by them.
However, it’s not their job to push white people towards a greater understanding of race and prejudice, nor is it each individual’s own responsibilities. Schools and education providers have a duty to provide a rounded, comprehensive education, and that starts with creating reading lists that aren’t dominated by ancient classics written by old white guys.
So, in the future, I personally don’t think it’s unreasonable for parents and community leaders to demand that school reading lists become dominated with works by members of marginalised communities, telling their stories in their own words. We’ve had it the other way around for centuries; it’s time the tables were turned.