Yesterday an old tweet came across my timeline on Facebook and said this “Academia’s obsession with preserving the white man’s ‘classic’ literature within secondary schools’s curriculum is the reason why kids outgrown their love of reading” @kavlangela. The person who shared it also mentioned that the canon also upholds white supremacy. In my friend’s posting there were teachers who felt a certain kind of way about both statements and made comments wondering why change has to come at “the exclusion of ‘dead white guy’ pieces.” The teacher’s thought was that we need to continue teaching these “classics” because otherwise students wouldn’t feel ready for college.
Whoo boy! Needless to say I had to take a moment before I responded as I was just ready to scream, but it brought me to a deeper thought. With folks, teachers specifically, wanting to learn to be anti-racist (and this is a good thing!) many will go buy books to get informed but will still teach the same old, same old. So I ask, if you are truly trying to become ant-racist but still teaching the old western canon and not diversifying your class reading list, are you truly doing the work of becoming anti-racist?
I know I am in a privileged position where I get to choose the books I want to teach and many teachers are fighting their districts to make changes to their school reading list. Those of you that are putting up the good fight – Thank you! This essay is not for you.
This essay is for the teachers who might just need that extra push to recognize the ways they uphold white supremacy without even really thinking about it. If you are able to change your reading list, now is the time to do so. There are so many resources available (like this website) where you can find books from BIPOC authors. There is really no reason to say, “I need to stick to this list so my students feel like they are able to compete in college”. I never read Hemingway until I was in my MFA program and I did just fine. Your students will be fine. They will actually have an advantage over their classmates who only read the “Dead White Men” because they will have been exposed to a variety of voices instead of just one voice. They will have a deeper, more empathetic, view of the world as they will have experienced different cultures, view points, ways of living.
Lastly, just a bit of advice for all doing the work of being antiracist and teaching BIPOC stories in your classroom – be careful of which books you are choosing to share with your students. Please don’t just focus on Black pain, only Latinx immigrant stories, etc. because by doing so you also create harm. While those stories are valid, create empathy, and teach us about life, what happens is that those are the only stories about a group that gets told and not the true, rich, diverse lives within a culture. So, expand your reading list some more. If you are stuck or stifled by your district, choose a short story anthology which you can use as supplemental reading. There really is so much work out there to choose from, that you really have no excuse.
As we are all being pushed out of our comfort zone with distance or hybrid learning, why not push yourself a bit further and change up what you teach? I know I am and I am terrified. But, that is how I will grow as an educator and continue to create unique learning experiences for my students. I challenge you all to do the same.