Tackling racism and rape culture is curriculum work

With time and training every teacher can start tackling oppressive narratives in their classroom, writes Joy Mbakwe. And once they do, they never go back

With time and training every teacher can start tackling oppressive narratives in their classroom, writes Joy Mbakwe. And once they do, they never go back

16 Oct 2021, 5:00

By virtue of my existence as a Black woman in the English classroom, I’ve always shown a particular attentiveness to the silenced and often missing voices in the tales I’ve shared with my students. It wasn’t born out of a conscious decision to lend my voice to the voiceless. Rather, their existence – or lack thereof in the classroom– spoke profoundly to me in ways that I could not ignore.

For example, while some of my colleagues may have been able to focus solely on Lennie and George’s fruitless pursuit of the American dream in Of Mice and Men, I have never been able to teach the text without drawing attention to Crooks’ isolating and harrowing experience as a Black man in the 1930s.

Other colleagues, perhaps more aware of the inherent complicity in bypassing such glaringly obvious racism, may have been tempted to root and limit Crooks’ grievous experience to the horrors of that period. I, however, have always felt compelled to raise students’ awareness of the residual effects of slavery in America, which permeate both Steinbeck’s tale and modern-day society.

The facets of my identity ensured that my eyes were open to both the experiences of Black characters and the representations of women. My Year 9 classes would also come to honour Curley’s wife. We recognised her identity as dichotomous: undeniably strong and forthright, yet completely dependent on the presence of a man. Steinbeck’s controversial portrayal offered an opportunity to teach about the pervasive nature of rape culture. He may have described her in a way that was suggestive, seductive and even perhaps tempting, she was in no way deserving of a brutal death at the hands of Lennie.

It’s difficult work, but it is necessary work

I have come to realise that this is not an approach that all teachers take when exploring literature, not even all teachers who share aspects of my identity. A marked shift in my own teaching practice after the murder of George Floyd made me realise that it was the result of a learned criticality. My Blackness and my womanhood didn’t automatically result in my anti-oppressive pedagogy; they simply made it easier to access the knowledge required to understand and nurture it.

So when that historic moment in May last year coincided with my promotion to head of English, my beliefs about the power of curriculum and what it should seek to achieve in the lives of the pupils it serves also shifted.

Through departmental training, I was able to spread this burgeoning message of anti-racism, and once our team became awake to it, there was no returning to the complicity of sharing tales and failing to acknowledge the ways they uphold oppressive structures. A whole-school commitment to anti-racism by the senior leadership team means that what might have otherwise become a closeted attempt to create real change in our singular classrooms became a widespread experience for all black students in our school. They are included, seen and explicitly spoken to in the classroom.

Ask yourself: who is the curriculum for? Who does it serve? What do we want it to accomplish? Your response to these questions will determine your readiness and commitment to this work. There are programmes to help you on this journey. We use the Lit In Colour resources developed by Pearson and Penguin Random House, for example. But in the end, the work of anti-racism is deeply personal, confrontational and unyielding.

It requires teachers who may have once resolved to be colourblind to acknowledge the systemic barriers that exist for their Black students. And, if they don’t have any Black students, to ask themselves whether Black voices are ever heard in their classrooms.

It’s difficult work, but it is necessary work. We’ve inherited a society that is more equal than the one our predecessors experienced, and we did so at least in part because of our teachers. But we are not yet in a just society. We can’t yet say we have reached equality. But is it our destination? We must ask ourselves such pressing questions in our classrooms if we are ever to get there.

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