Friday, September 20, 2013

Eliminating Racism and Stereotypes in Literature

Bill Bigelow’s “Lord of the Lies” article focuses on the racism inherent in the literature still present in today’s classrooms.  Besides his own thoughts, Bigelow discusses educator Michelle Kenney’s and author Jay Griffiths’s reflections on racism in literature and the effects it has on students – particularly in relation to the novel Lord of the Flies by author William Golding.

Bigelow, Kenney, and Griffiths all believe Lord of the Flies clearly pinpoints the racist stereotypes prevalent in our society.  According to Griffiths, the novel “opens with misadventure, as the children are stranded on the island. An odiously racist text, it describes the group of boys who become the cruel killers as a ‘tribe’ of ‘savages,’ hunting, dancing, chanting, and ‘garlanded,’ with their long hair tied back: ‘a pack of painted Indians.’”

The article ends with Bigelow’s call to action for teachers.  He claims that the last types of books we need in our classrooms are those that offer “a cynical portrait of our inner savage.”  Although humans certainly have tendencies to be violent and greedy, Bigelow believes we as educators must focus on the qualities of cooperation, kindness, intelligence, and solidarity. In order to be effective teachers and minimize the feelings of racism in our society, we need to choose literature that nurtures the aforementioned positive qualities in our students.

In chapter two of Nieto and Bode's Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education, the authors discuss the importance of combating racism in the classroom (p. 44). Clearly, if Language Arts teachers incorporate works of literature into their curriculum that promote racism and stereotypes, they are not doing a very good job of combating these negative thoughts. 

Now, I have never read Lord of the Flies, so I'm not sure how much I can say about that particular novel; however, I firmly agree with Bigelow in that educators must pay close attention to the types of literature they teach in their classrooms. Let's say an American Indian student is reading Lord of the Flies as part of his high school study course and comes across Golding's references to "savages" and "a pack of painted Indians." How might that make the student feel? Additionally, how might those phrases affect the other students' views of Indians or other ethnic groups? Nieto and Bode also discuss in their chapter how students' limited backgrounds affect what they learn because they are only learning a fraction of the knowledge available to them (p. 46). As educators, we need to focus on introducing our students to the wide range of knowledge that is out there; we should be careful not to further limit our students by what we teach them. For example, if a social studies teacher is teaching about the American Revolutionary War, he/she should not only teach from the American perspective, but from the British perspective as well. Our goal as teachers should be to expose students to the wide range of perspectives available in society in order to expand student awareness of other ideas and the implications of other points-of-view.

As a middle school Language Arts teacher, I hope to instill these types of principles into my students. I desire for them to see that there will always be another perspective; there will always be a contrasting opinion. Just because two people don't see eye-to-eye does not mean someone is incorrect. Through literature and writing, I hope to move my students along a path of open-mindedness, all the while encouraging critical thinking and intellectual inquiry. If I can help my students "understand and empathize with a wide diversity of people" (p. 48), I will be preparing them for a world that is slowly but surely moving in the direction of multicultural understanding and awareness. 

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