(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.