A call to white readers to expand our horizons
To use Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s words, there is ‘the danger of a single story’ because it limits our imagination. This is one of the ways privilege is created by presenting one story – a white story – as universal. Look at Hollywood or the TV. But we don’t live in a single white society. This is just one of many forms of systemic racism that the #BlackLivesMatter movement wants to challenge.The conversation is more prevalent than ever after George Floyd’s death. Expose ourselves to more than a single story, choose multiple stories to improve our imagination, empathy and understanding.
Why do I care so much?
Reading, writing and teaching are what I know. They are my worlds. I moved from a privileged (white middle-class) background into the rarified academic world earning a PhD in Sexuality Studies along the way. During this time I became ever more involved in LGBT+ activism and work about mental health, partly through my research and because I cared from my own life and work. I realised that having that PhD and the words ‘Dr’ before my name meant that my voice would be listened to and respected. I needed to use it. I began teaching and training but really the moment about decolonising my bookshelves and thinking came aged 25 when I was a young lecturer.
I had the privilege of teaching a course called ‘Body, Identity and Society’ where I gave a lecture and ran a seminar each week to a mixed group of students, mainly working class and BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic). Many told me they’d often been told they weren’t quite good enough but were here anyway. I believed in them. I addressed the elephants in the room, especially when their white teacher had to teach about the impact of white privilege on the media. I thought about what to do and how to go about doing it. Other lecturers before told me that I should be the ‘expert’ in the room at all times. I must be the one who has the authority. But I disagreed.
What could I tell them about white privilege that my students haven’t lived? I’ve moved through the world able to be listened to, respected, not afraid of the police, not afraid that I’ll be distrusted just because of the colour of my skin. I have that privilege. It’s been easy for me. It was a learning moment for me. I gave a short historical lecture on the Irish, whiteness and otherness to explain some of the nuances of privilege. Introducing tools (Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 paper on White Privilege), using the black feminist Kimberle Crenshaw’s concept of ‘intersectionality‘ to help unpack the intersections of identity with more care). But this course saw a shift in how I approached teaching. I wasn’t the ‘expert’ but rather unpicking the power dynamics and wanting to hear from my student’s voices and experiences. Start with what they know and care about. I needed to listen to them. This changed how I taught, as my students were the starting point for each lesson: what they thought and knew about a topic before moving into theory. Then – as this was a university course where I designed the assessments – they applied theory to their own autobiographies. I learned that I needed to expand what I read, listen more to BAME voices and know when to be quiet.
What can us white teachers, readers and writers do about this for ourselves? First, acknowledge your privilege. Second, educate yourself and learn from BAME writers. Don’t ask BAME people to educate you. This is your moment to embrace and acknowledge that emotional labour. Do it yourself. Third, change what is around you and what culture you absorb. This is where decolonising our bookshelves comes in.
But why does this matter?
What we read affects what we can imagine. It changes our perception about the world. It changes the narratives available for us and for others. The ‘English’ literary canon is heavily white men with a smattering of white women and even fewer BAME writers. If this is the only kind of stories you read, then what happens if they don’t include you? How do you imagine yourself in the story?
I hear you thinking now, ‘Oh but that’s easy.’ But let’s pause for a moment. Imagine you’re from Afro-Caribbean background and you’re a young girl with black skin and tightly curled hair. You read fairy tales and you look at the picture books, always searching for a girl like you. There are some but few and far between. Even fewer in many schools – austerity and budget cuts have not helped here. What is the result? A Year 2 teacher recalls how all students gravitated towards white ideals in terms of their names and appearances. Black girls often draw and write about white children when they’re asked to include characters. Why? That is what they read in stories (Chetty 2016). This is a small example but it shows that unless we think about this explicitly and critically we can cause symbolic violence. We squash a child’s imagination right when it needs to be at its most playful.
Ok. Ok. I hear you, but I don’t have children, so why should I care?
Look at your bookshelves. How many books by white men? white women? What do you have written by BAME? Look at the numbers. They alone are revealing. Similar to children, what you read and what you buy affects the views, perspectives and narratives you inhabit. The whiteness of the canon and being aware of the inherent politics within what material is shared or discussed is a problem. It helps to perpetuate the idea that the white voice is the one that needs to be heard because those books sell more. It is a systemic problem. White writers often sell more and are sold as being for ‘everyone’; BAME writers are seen as ‘niche’. Help to change this narrative by buying some different books by BAME writers. It won’t instantly change the problem but it’s a start. Thinking critically about whose voices you hear and whose you don’t will make you aware of ways that white = privilege.
Here’s a few suggestions to help you get started on the journey of decolonising your bookshelves.
- Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People About Race. A searing read encouraging white people to consider the role of privilege and to take accountability for the continual oppression of people of colour.
- Nikula Shukla’s The Good Immigrant – Writers explore what it means to be Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic in the UK. It’s really accessible and filled with short essays.
- Gal-dem “I Will Not Be Erased: Our Stories Growing-up as People of Colour’ UK focused on young people.
- David Olsuga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History – informative and accessible book that describes how black and white Britons have been entwined for centuries.
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ted Talk: The Danger of a Single Story. She explores why it is so important to consider multiple narratives, as otherwise there is a homogenous single story e.g. colonialism.
- Paul Gilroy’s There Ain’t no Black in the Union Jack. – a theoretical work exploring the complexity of race in politics, specifically in England.
- Robin Diangelo’s White Fragility that explores why white people struggle to talk about racism. Again an accessible introduction.
- More writers to look out for: Sara Ahmed, Patricia Collins, Kimberle Crenshaw, Angela Davis, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Ta Nehisi-Coates, Cornel West
- Bernardine Evaristo’s ‘girl, woman, other’ – 12 characters in Britain but a new version than you’ve read before.
- Angie Thomas’s ‘The Hate U Give’ – YA that confronts American racism.
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘Americanah’ about being a Nigerian in America and discovering ‘race’.
- Malorie Blackman’s ‘Noughts and Crosses’ – an alternate world where black is privileged and whites are the underclass that exposes privilege.
- More writers to look out for: Patience Agbabi, Monica Ali, Maya Angelou, Kathleen Collins, Diana Evans, Hari Kunzru, Hanif Kureishi, Jhumpa Lahiri, Andrea Levy, Helen Oyeyemi, Zadie Smith, Meera Syal, Alice Walker
Chetty, D. (2016). ‘You Can’t Say That! Stories have to be about white people.’ In N. Shukla (Ed.), The Good Immigrant (pp. 96-107).