Teachers, Let’s Stop Assigning Harmful Books

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(Note: This post has been in draft for a few weeks now. I’ve felt more urgency to finish in the last couple of days–especially as I see The Help trending on Netflix. That is NOT the film we need right now. Or anytime.)

The other day I saw a tweet from a teacher asking for book recommendations for their high school literature class. The curriculum already included the usual classics, and this teacher wanted to incorporate more contemporary literature. There was one contemporary text already on the syllabus, Kathryn Stockett’s novel, The Help.

The Help? Why would a harmful novel like The Help be assigned in a high school literature course?

Because it is a harmful novel. It is a story about white saviorism. It distorts history. It centers whiteness. It stereotypes and caricatures Black people. The Association of Black Women Historians published an open letter to fans of the novel and film to explain how the story misrepresents Civil Rights history and activism. Our students deserve better. Our students need better.

Knowingly and unknowingly, I’ve taught books that are harmful. Because I failed to recognize a book’s bias or racism. Because it was part of the curriculum. Because I thought the book’s racism mattered less than what I saw as its literary merit. Once, disastrously, on purpose–because I thought I could use the book to teach criticality, defined by Dr. Gholdy Muhammad in Cultivating Genius as “the capacity to read, write, and think in the context of understanding power, privilege, and oppression,” to pre-service teachers. But I had not yet done enough anti-bias, anti-racist work to be prepared to lead that classroom discussion responsibly.

So I realize it’s not always easy.

And it also has to be said that it’s ok to not yet know. If you have read, enjoyed, taught The Help, To Kill a Mockingbird (teachers, we REALLY need to talk about To Kill a Mockingbird), or countless other white savior novels, you are not alone. I read and mostly enjoyed The Help when it was published in 2009. I didn’t yet have the tools of awareness and criticality I needed to see or understand–much less articulate–why it’s a harmful book. But that’s why we keep working to develop those tools: so we can do better.

It’s ok to not yet know. But as teachers, we need to be actively engaged always in the learning and unlearning that helps us develop and deepen the tools of awareness and criticality we bring to curriculum development and decisions.

How can we do better?

We can position ourselves to learn from those who are teaching. This means we need to follow the teachers, authors, and librarians online who are doing this work, who have been doing this work for a long time. Zetta Elliott, Julia Torres, Tricia Ebarvia, Jess Liftshitz, Laura Jimenez, Alia Jones, and Debbie Reese, among many others, help me read texts more deeply and develop my tools for criticality. (Note: I see many educators new to this work following anti-racist educators this week and asking them for more labor. All of these educators have been posting online about these issues for years. There are literally years of their articles, blog posts and tweets to read before you reach out and ask what you should be doing right now.)

We can listen, learn, and change our minds when colleagues teach us why a book is problematic. How often do I see white teachers push back or even block other educators when one of their favorite books is challenged for problematic content. When someone tries to teach, the appropriate response is to try to learn. It is ok not to know. It is not ok to block out knowledge in an effort to keep ourselves in a state of not knowing. When a colleague with knowledge and experience tells us that a book appropriates, misrepresents, or stereotypes a culture or people or that a book is biased or racist, we need to listen, believe them, and take action in our own curriculum.

We can come to a full stop every time we are thinking about assigning a book by a white author about BIPOC characters and experiences. That goes for books about LGBTQ characters and experiences written by authors who are not LGBTQ. That goes for books about disabled characters written by authors who are not disabled. So many #heartprint books that are teacher favorites are considered deeply flawed and even harmful by members of the communities these books describe. If we paused long enough to research, we could learn and do better.

We can develop the habits and research skills to identify potentially harmful content. Jess Lifshitz offers a simple tool for doing this: an online search of the book title we are thinking of teaching plus the word “problematic.” When I do that with The Help, I get plenty of content that can teach me what the concerns are. Try it with To Kill a Mockingbird.

We can build our capacity for criticality by committing to ongoing learning. Reading is a powerful tool for building our criticality. Many of the anti-racism reading lists that are easy to find right now are good places to begin. #disrupttexts and #CleartheAir are two hashtags to follow, and catching up on all the past reading assignments for #CleartheAir is an education all by itself.

We can learn about books that would better serve our students. We can’t assign or recommend what we’ve never read. Recommended reading lists are widely available online. We can start by auditing our own reading histories and reading lives and working intentionally to develop knowledge in areas where we are weak. We can prioritize reading, sharing, and assigning books written by People of the Global Majority* (See Note below).

We can take responsibility for our learning. We are going to make mistakes. We have so much to learn and unlearn, and it is lifelong work, layers and layers of learning and unlearning. The more I learn, the more I discover that I have to learn. When someone takes the time and effort to correct us, we can say, “Thank you for teaching me. I will read and research so that I can learn.” And then we can use our research skills and growing skills of criticality to search, research, read, and learn.

What else? I’m always looking to learn and grow in this area and appreciate suggestions and feedback.

*People of the Global Majority is language I learned from Lorena German (The Anti Racist Teacher Handbook) and Tiffani Jewell (various webinars). It is white-centering and part of white supremacy to continue to refer to people who belong to the Global Majority as “minorities.” I am grateful to those educators for their teaching. I am also grateful to Shamari K Reid (@shamarikreid on Twitter and see his wonderful interview on Dr. Sheldon Eakin’s Leading Equity podcast) for explaining why “marginalized” is also white-centering.

24 thoughts on “Teachers, Let’s Stop Assigning Harmful Books

  1. Although I am not a teacher myself, I completely agree with your points, and I appreciate you publishing such a useful and thoughtful post! In my limited experience, I think a number of teachers teach too many books just because they are “classics” when there are a number of thoughtful, diverse, sensitive novels being published today that would be far more beneficial in helping students understand today’s world. Thank you for the great post!

  2. “We need to be actively engaged always in the learning and I’m learning that helps us develop and deepen the tools of awareness and criticality we bring to curriculum development and decisions.”. I think that many times we find a book that we like and seems fitting to us only learning later on that there is something problematic about it. Because of changing climates we need to be able to objectively look at our choice and realize what the problem is and then give up the book. There are so many choices out there that will treat the same issues in better ways.

    • I agree with you–and I’ve certainly been guilty of this myself! Reading a book that I like, that I think my students will like, not having the lens I need to read it critically, and then sharing it without doing that research to see what others say that might point out problems that I hadn’t considered. What I hope will happen right now is that we interrogate all of these titles and make changes!

  3. When I read Stamped, I thought I knew but discovered I know very little about what it means to truly be anti-racist. I’ve gotten it wrong too many times. But I want to keep getting better. Thanks for this brave post.

    • Oh my, I can’t imagine. I find that book so problematic. And I have seen it included on so many reading lists as the only text that engages students with race in America. Keep up the good fight!

  4. Thanks for this post. You are obviously committed to revising what is taught and what books are used to teach. Thank you for that as well. I will check out some of your recommendations. As an Environmental Educator (there is work to be done in that field as well), I do not teach literature. But, having my youngest just complete HS, I can attest to the need to use new books…..I’ve never understood why some books, like “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Outsiders” get taught every damn year. There is a reluctance to change what has become entrenched. I applaud your efforts.

  5. A thoughtful and timely post. You have added a lot to my reading list for the summer and to my ongoing thinking. I had never heard the term “People of the Global Majority,” for example, and now that you have introduced it, it makes perfect sense. We have many years of “search(ing), research(ing), read(ing), and learn(ing)” to do.

  6. I would also add that if you continue to use them or HAVE to use them, own it and also be willing to talk about why it’s problematic and why you chose it anyway. I taught a detective lit survey class and we actively talked about the racism, homophobia, and misogyny in the books as well as their place in the canon and how later works were shaped by/responses to them. I also made my students read current detective lit written by BIPOC & LGBTQ writers in conjunction with the old stuff.

    There’s no real excuse for The Help, though.

    • Oh, and I would also remind people that no one group is a monolith either. What’s offensive/problematic to some members of a group may not be the same to others. I have, for example, Asian students who love Eleanor & Park but I also have Asian students who hate it. Both are valid responses so it’s also important not to tell any group how they *should* feel about a book based on this work either.

      Okay, I’m really done this time. Thank you for this post!

    • Yes! I think this is a great approach to problematic texts, and when we’re reading historically, as in your detective lit class, it does make sense to include problematic texts and use our critical tools to examine them. Can you imagine what books we would have students reading in a historical survey to children’s lit?? We’d need ALL the criticality tools!

  7. How is it possible for someone to say “this book is harmful and shouldn’t be taught” without creating the specific harm produced by ignorance and unguided literacy?

    I think students should be able to decide what is harmful and what isn’t. This can be a completely guided process that allows for the expression of all perspectives through meaningful exchange in the classroom. Not teaching a book that anyone believes is harmful eliminates any possibility of peer interaction and value acquisition.

    John Denver’s song Rocky Mountain High was banned from some radio stations, because someone deemed it harmful. He asked what I ask about these matters, “Who gets to decide?”

    I think you should consider the definition of “harmful.” What does “harmful” mean to you, and how would you measure it?

    • I appreciate your feedback and your questions. There is powerful teaching and learning in problematizing texts and in the kind of guided process and classroom discussion that you describe here–which I haven’t adequately addressed in my post. Thank you for taking the time to engage and ask these questions. Your words are helping me think more deeply about the issues that concerned me and sparked this post in the first place as well as about some additional implications of my argument that I need to account for.

  8. “It is ok not to know. It is not ok to block out knowledge in an effort to keep ourselves in a state of not knowing.” I absolutely love this. It is this, I think, that might help us to FINALLY make progress in the civil rights movement. The current zeitgeist has me deeply saddened by the lack of progress our country has made in moving away from racism. Thank you for your thoughts and insights. Thank you for your references, I have added the hash tags and what names I could to my twitter feed.

  9. Pingback: The Week in Reading #imwayr 6/15/20 | the dirigible plum

  10. Your title drew me in, and then your post opened my eyes a bit more. I say “a bit more” because I am currently in a district-wide book study on Kendi’s “How to Be An Anti-Racist”, which is teaching me a new perspective on topics I thought I knew about already. I really like the term “global majority”; that does shift the narrative, doesn’t it? So much to read, think, and act upon; thanks for adding to this conversation.

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