I came across Darren Chetty, a teacher and author based in London, when reading the 2016 Readers Choice Award winner The Good Immigrant. Compiled of a selection of essays and stories edited by Nikesh Shukla, The Good Immigrant features a collection of brilliant and talented people who have been marginalised in Britain as ethnic minorities. Darren Chetty features with his essay titled ‘You can’t say that! Stories have to be about white people’ in which he relays the feelings of ethnic minorities in Britain and more crucially, perhaps, how the children he teaches are continuing to feel.
His essay discusses how Black, Asian and Minority Ethnicity (BAME) school children are accustomed to writing stories about white people with ‘traditional’ English names. An article published by The Guardian earlier this year stated that only a shocking 1% of children’s books have BAME main characters. From the same study that was funded by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) it was also discovered that ‘a quarter of the books submitted only featured diversity in their background casts’. Chetty’s chapter within the book displays the devastating impact this is having on children across Britain from ethnic minorities.
Darren spoke to the Islington Gazette of his experiences as a primary school teacher with almost twenty years’ experience, revealing that he had found this issue among children across numerous schools he has taught in. Yet, as he spoke in an interview, he didn’t ever ‘recall it being discussed by teachers in these schools or on any of the courses on writing that [he] attended over the years.’
His chapter within The Good Immigrant explains how BAME children are not represented in the books they are reading as they read about characters based on the majority and therefore their vision of society and how they imagine and feel is based on this. The book voices the feelings of people that are not represented within our society, significantly telling its readers that ethnic minorities living in Britain are isolated in so many areas.
It is very easy to become complacent in our society, only reaching out to those who are similar to you.
There has been a constant rise in ethnic minority pupils within primary schools since 2015, and reading the work of Darren Chetty makes you aware of the isolation these children are faced with when they cannot see themselves represented within literature and, therefore, society.
Within his chapter, Darren Chetty draws on the children’s literature professor, Rudine Sims Bishop, and her belief of books as ‘windows’ and ‘mirrors’. This metaphor really resonated with me and has made me realise that I had spent all of my childhood reading stories that I could identify with. It is very easy to become complacent in our society, only reaching out to those who are similar to you.
To break down this metaphor, Sims Bishop and Chetty write about how reading books as mirrors is an experience where you are reading things that relate to and resemble you. For the majority of the population therefore, this is a very common aspect of reading. However, what Chetty is delivering within his essay is that within our culture and society, BAME children cannot read books as mirrors because there is a significant gap in the publishing world where the books are representing them.
Books as windows are just as important, as they allow you to read someone else’s experience, someone that doesn’t relate to you, but that you can learn about. These are the books that we need more of in Britain, to show children that other people are just as important as they are, and for BAME children, in order that they may feel represented – so they can read books as mirrors too.
The importance of feeling a sense of belonging and security in our society can be achieved by seeing ourselves represented in the books we read, as well as the films and television shows we watch. Surely books, and therefore all aspects of entertainment and our culture, must do more to help young children who are moulded by what they read and see, and reflect the actual diversity of our society, not just a section of it.
Chetty identifies that in the 2011 census, inner London boroughs had a BAME population of anywhere between 45 and 71%, so shouldn’t at least half of the books those children are reading depict characters that resemble them?
Last year The Guardian published an article featuring Cambridge University student Lola Olufemi, who wrote an open letter to the English department at Cambridge ‘criticising the lack of black and ethnic minority authors on the university’s English course’. Olufemi was subjected to racist and sexist abuse following her letter.
It is disheartening that this is evidence of the inclusive majority that is represented on an English syllabus in the UK, precisely relaying the feelings of isolation in BAME children that Chetty writes about.
It is okay to not understand and it is okay to question, but the more we speak about diversity and change the sooner we can make people feel like they belong.
Books are fundamental within our society, and particularly for a child’s development. Chetty’s chapter is marvellous in its ways of expressing this importance. Issues surrounding ethnic minorities are still taking place today, with the deportation and ‘illegal living’ situation of the Windrush generation who have been living and working with us for decades.
Again, with very recent evidence from Brexit, there are plans in place that will mean there will be no preference for EU citizens and workers when it comes to UK immigration. The problems that we are facing as a country show the need for awareness and recognition of our existing ethnic minorities. As Chetty states within his essay, it starts with education and a change in teaching to help our society change.
Change and awareness does, and is, happening in places across the world. Integration is happening actively in cities like Brampton and Markham.
Markham, a city in Canada, shows the world that integration can happen as it is a city where minorities are the majority. The parking signs are in Chinese and the banks serve customers in Cantonese and Mandarin. This transformation within societies can and does happen, and the positive movements within Markham shows the rest of the world that everyone should feel included.
There is a necessary and huge celebration for books like The Good Immigrant and the award winning and Sunday Times Bestseller Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, who open up the conversations that people find difficult. These books, and the stories told, are capturing what it is like to live in twenty-first century Britain as an ethnic minority, and through their writing they are speaking the untold truths of how our society works.
It is okay to not understand and it is okay to question, but the more we speak about diversity and change the sooner we can make people feel like they belong. The representation of BAME children in our media must be normalised for our ever-growing multicultural, multiracial and multi-faith society to flourish.