White Stories Matter More: what the English curriculum tells our students

Raiy Erica Pattinson

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me the most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or had ever been alive.” James Baldwin

Have you ever found yourself midway through reading a book, when a sentence hits you? The author has described a feeling or thought that aligns so perfectly with your values that you have to put the book down in awe. As humans, we have a tendency to believe that our struggles are unique – that the pain or elation we feel was, and only ever will be, experienced by us. It can be a lonely feeling. But the truth is, there are many people who have felt those same emotions, and we realise this when we read. Great books have the ability to translate intimate and complex human emotions into tangible words. It is why we love them. We enjoy art that we think reflects who we are. Now imagine if every story, every single piece of writing presented to you was someone else’s story. If you can not see yourself in a story, how can you connect?

This is the reality for many of our students: our students of colour. The literature texts currently offered at GCSE level in England are blindingly white. Students are assessed on four possible categories of texts: Shakespeare, 19th century novels, modern texts and poetry. Each exam board sets a list of possible texts that students may be assessed on, so for the purposes of this article I will focus on one (which I will not name). We know straight away that our first authorial option is a white male. The second category, 19th century novels, does not sound promising either. As you have probably guessed, out of the 7 possible choices, all are written by white authors. But what about modern texts? That seems more promising. Here emerges our first texts written by non-white authors: 2 out of the 11 to be exact. Kazuo Ishiguro, a Japanese author, and Meera Syal, who is of Indian descent. Poetry, which was recently made optional by the Department of Education (DfE), could allow for more leeway, but again, the majority of poets are white. Out of a total of 30 possible poems, 3 are written by people of colour (POC), with 1 written by a Black poet, John Agard. To summarise, 5 out of 39 possible texts are written by POC, and only 1 out of the 39 by a Black author.

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When I bring up these shocking statistics, I am often asked the question, but what about the student demographics? How many students of colour are there? While this argument detracts from the real issue at hand, I will present the statistics to provide context and attempt to halt this discourse. According to the DfE, 32.3% of students are of minority ethnic backgrounds and 8.4% are Black or Black mixed race. These statistics, when compared to the texts offered at GCSE level, highlight that students of colour are highly underrepresented. Regardless of this fact, we need to reframe our thinking when it comes to addressing underrepresentation within the curriculum.

In Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People About Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge explains that the idea of tokenism in the workplace, the hiring of minorities to reflect the percentage in the population, is the wrong approach. She explains that representation is more about hiring enough people who are dedicated to empowering and working in the interest of the marginalised rather than simply matching the population and leaving the POC (just about) present, but still marginalised. A similar concept can be applied to the curriculum. The curriculum does not need to reflect the exact racial makeup of students in the classroom, but it does need to be representative enough to showcase to all students that marginalised groups’ stories matter too.

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It is not only the students of colour that will benefit from this progression either. White students would greatly benefit from a break in the constant stream that is white stories. Reading is a powerful tool in encouraging empathy, and all students need the opportunity to read about the lives of others to better understand them and to be more compassionate, open-minded and accepting. This would serve them in their future, creating a generation more equipped to promote equity, and navigate the complexities and dynamics of the professional world.

When I questioned this exam board about their lack of diversity, their response was that they are aware of the issue, but are limited in the changes they can make. Explaining that ‘we have to choose suitable texts working within particular parameters as stipulated by DfE subject content’. They also stated that ‘we always try to strike the right balance between retaining popular, more well-known (and subsequently well-resourced) texts, whilst introducing some new, more current texts.’ While I recognise that selecting texts that are appropriate and accessible for all students is a complex process, this is not an acceptable excuse to perpetuate a continued cycle of marginalisation and delay what should be considered an urgent and necessary change. Most pre-1914 texts that are ‘well-known’ are written by white males because they were the only voices allowed at the table at the time. How can we, in the 21st century, continue to provide a platform exclusively for these authors? Surely we know better by now.

It is time that the DfE and our exam boards started working for the interests of all students. We need to decentre whiteness from the curriculum, continue to empower students of colour and work towards making our curriculum more reflective of the diverse world that we live in. We need the DfE to take these matters seriously and begin attempts to amend the curriculum accordingly. It is not good enough to let yet another cohort of students be sidelined and allow our white students to leave education without an opportunity to develop their empathy and acceptance of other cultures. As Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

Sources:

https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/school-pupils-and-their-characteristics

Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People About Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge

Contact me at: pattinre@dukes.jmu.edu

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