Representation in Reading Material
If you have looked at the ‘projects’ session of this website, you might be curious about our book project, an initiative to source, fund, and place a selection of books into schools across South Wales that both represent BAME characters and storylines, and that cover topics such as racism, inclusion, and BAME history and race relations, particularly in the UK. What prompted this, and why do we think it is important?
The idea first came through personal experience from our director, but also from others we have had conversations with, regarding racism and exclusion experienced in school. We might like to think that as a nation we have progressed so that this is no longer an issue, but the accounts from both parents and children clearly show otherwise.
We then started to conduct research on a wider scale, both of racism in schools and of potential causes.
A recent NSPCC report states that; “Race hate crimes against children have reached a 3-year high. This included crimes against children under one. Children told Childline they were being targeted because of how they looked, and reported being told to “go back to their own country”. Some tried to change their appearance using makeup, while others said they didn’t want to tell their parents because they were worried about upsetting them.” (source: nspcc.org.uk)
Discrimination is often fuelled and fed by fear, unfamiliarity, and lack of understanding. Children who grow up with little exposure to people who don’t look like them more readily absorb and perpetuate racial stereotypes.
BAME children who are living in areas that are majority white are not only facing a lack of friends and acquaintances who look like them, but also a lack of representation in the books and learning materials which surround them.
The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education, known as the CLPE, published an in-depth study of racial diversity in children’s literature over the past three years. They found that only 7% of the children’s books published in the UK through 2017, 2018, and 2019 featured characters from BAME backgrounds.
There has been a year-on-year rise in ethnic diversity in the years studied, but still only 10% of children’s books published in 2019 featured BAME characters, while only 5% had an ethnic minority main character. 6478 children’s books were published in 2019, and of those just 680 featured BAME characters in some way.
The knee-jerk response to this (primarily from a white British audience) might be to ask what the problem is. Isn’t Britain primarily white, and aren’t books therefore only accurately reflecting the percentages of cultural diversity?
Not so. The same report goes on to show that in 2019, 33.5% of school children are from BAME backgrounds. Now think – that 33.5% of children only see ethnic minority characters as the main character in 5% of the children’s books on the market.
Take that a step further. That 5% of BAME characters covers all non-white characters. So a black child, for instance, may see Asian characters in books, but not see themselves. A child from a Native American background may see black children in books, but not themselves.
And our statistics cover children’s books published. Commonsense will dictate that the percentage of those books that any one child has access to will be lower again.
Diversity varies hugely across the UK. There will be some BAME children growing up in areas where they see a fair amount of ethnic diversity, and it may be that those children do not face as much social isolation as a result of this.
AriSEE is based in Caerphilly county borough in the South Wales valleys. The population is 98.4% white.
So take just one moment to think about this. Imagine being one of the only children, if not the only child, from a BAME background growing up in a school where the vast majority of your peers are white. There may be overt bullying, marginalisation, or misunderstanding from other students or from teachers. Now add on top of that the experience of everything from posters to library books mirroring those you see around you, but never representing you and your family.
Representation matters – it matters for white children who need to be exposed to and familiarised with others, and it matters for BAME children who need to be able to feel that they are seen, known, and matter.
The CLPE states; “We know that learning to read is a social process, to be successful you need to connect with your reading material, you need to be able to see yourself, in some way, in what you read. The under-representation of Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic characters means that readers from a range of backgrounds do not always have the opportunity to make those connections.” (Source: Reflecting Realities)
No child should have to face racial discrimination and bullying. School should be a safe place for students to grow, to interact with teachers, learning materials, and one another in ways that build confidence and promote learning. Instead, for many BAME children, school becomes a frightening place.
An article by the Guardian references heartbreaking examples –
An 11 year old black boy in Cornwall called a slave and the n-word by his classmates, stating that “It makes me sad…when I wake up in the morning, it’s like a burden.”
A 16 year old girl from a Muslim background being told to “go back where she came from” and called a terrorist, driven to a point where she says “I usually just put my head down and get on with it but it’s getting to the point now where I genuinely feel like I might get attacked.”
An 11 year old girl Chinese girl being bullied, called names, and told her skin is yellow, telling the NSPCC that; “I hate the way I look so much, I think if I looked different everyone would stop being mean to me and I’d fit in. I’ve tried to change the way that I look by using eyeliner so that I fit in more.”
A 10 year old sharing that “I’ve been bullied ever since I started school. The bullies call me nasty names; it makes me feel so ashamed. My friends won’t hang out with me any more because people started asking why they were friends with someone who had dirty skin. I just want to enjoy going to school.” (Source; The Guardian)
Caleb Hills, a mixed-race Kent schoolboy, was just 10 years old when he tried to hang himself in 2019, driven to desperation after experiencing constant racial abuse from other students. In the two years leading up to Caleb’s suicide attempt, over 200 racial incidents had been recorded at his school. A school with 101 pupils overall, just four of whom are BAME.
When challenged over the bullying, one teacher remarked that Caleb needed to “build resilience to racism.”
A poll from the YMCA found that 70% of black British children feel under pressure to change their natural hair for school, 95% hear racist language at school and half think racism and their teacher’s perceptions of them are their biggest barriers to educational success. (Source; Young and Black)
Evidence also points to an increased risk as children return to schools after months of isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic. A poll commissioned by The Diana Award in September 2020 found that 46% of children have been bullied at school at some point, with 78% saying it caused them anxiety, 14% wanting to self-harm as a result and 9% feeling suicidal, while over a third of young people are worried about returning to school after lockdown. (Source; The Diana Award)
These are deep-rooted problems that will take years, if not decades, to change. It is our hope that we can start to effect changes for students in our own local area, starting with representation and education. If we can help BAME students to see themselves as confident and capable, if we can help teachers to challenge and work past any unperceived biases they may have and give them the tools to combat racism in their classrooms, and if we can help white students to understand the grave effects of bullying and to respect, accept, and build friendships with their peers regardless of racial and cultural differences, then our programs will be a success.
However, we can’t do this alone. We need the help of our community – as volunteers, to provide feedback and input, and to help spread the word. If you are interested in helping out or learning more, please contact us. We would be thrilled to hear from you.