You Cannot Be What You Cannot See: The Critical Importance of Representation in Literature For Minority Students

Updated on November 22, 2016
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“You cannot be what you cannot see,” says Marie Wilson of The Whitehouse Project on the topic of representation. While Wilson was speaking on a more general level of representation in the media, there is a similar issue at work in schools. English departments across the country are guilty of selecting books for the curriculum that are from the traditional cannon, a notoriously white traditional cannon. Though schools may throw in the occasional Toni Morrison in an attempt to diversify curriculum, they fail to address the larger problem at work. In order to create a more successful counter narrative for all students, all students need to be represented on a regular basis in classroom literature.

Representation in literature in the classroom is part of a larger process as well. When students see themselves represented in the literature they read in school it helps them create a counter narrative about themselves. A counter narrative at its most basic level is an argument that disputes a commonly held belief or concept. In the case of representation as a counter narrative, representation helps students see themselves in non-stereotypical way.

Think back to the books you read when you were in high school. Names like Shakespeare, Hemmingway, and J.D Salinger probably come to mind. Much of the curriculum directed to English classes in the United States has a very straight white male bias. Students read mostly stories about straight white men or stories that are written by straight white men. This causes more marginalized students to be erased from the literary narrative. It shows them that not only are they not worthy of being read about, but that the work that their people have produced is unworthy of reading.

The Illustrated Langston Hughes

In choosing books for one’s classroom library it is important to keep in mind that books that are representative of a minority group are not just books that include those minority groups. According to J.O. Young:

There are three necessary conditions of something's being a representation. For a start, if something is a representation of some object, it must stand for the object. Second, if something is a representation, it must be intentionally used as a representation. This may be called the intentionality condition. Finally, there is the recognition condition: nothing is a representation of an object unless it can be recognized as standing for the object by someone other than the person (or persons) who intends that it be a representation of the object (128)

To begin with, if a book is going to represent a certain minority group it must do so accurately. In Young’s words, “it must stand for that group.” Ideally, the literature about a specific minority group would be written by a member of that minority group. Toni Morrison and Alice Walker are good examples of authors whose literature is successful in representing the experiences of black womanhood. The literature not only focuses on the stories of black women, it is written by black women. Thus the reader knows that not only are the characters diverse and representative, the reader can trust the representation because it’s written by someone with first hand experience.

Second, Young says, “if something is a representation it must be intentionally used as a representation.” What he means by this is that in a piece of literature you cannot simply have a black character and call it representation. The character must be intentionally used to represent a minority group. The author must address the fact that the character is a minority and that they may experience situations differently than other characters in the book. For example a book like Harry Potter cannot be considered representative for queer people. While JK Rowling said after she’d written the books that Dumbledore was gay, his sexuality is never addressed in the literature. It would be impossible to discern if he was gay without JK Rowling’s announcement. Therefore, Dumbledore is not an example of queer people being represented in Harry Potter.

Young’s last point is his most important. Representation cannot be created if the group it was created for cannot recognize it. If a minority group cannot recognize itself in a piece of literature that was created for it, it is not a representative piece of literature. Something like Brokeback Mountain is an excellent example of this. While the film features two gay men as the leads in the film, it was written and produced by straight people. Though it shows a gay relationship, it relies on stereotypes to create the characters and panders to a straight audience.

Though Young doesn’t outright say it in his three conditions of representation, it is important to make sure the literature that is being selected does not depend on stereotypes to create diverse characters. One of the easiest ways to do this is to use literature that is written by minority groups. Not only does this give students an honest portrayal of what it’s like to belong to a minority group, you can trust the portrayal because it comes from first person experience.

It’s like looking for evidence in history. There are primary sources and secondary sources. If the literature is written by someone within a minority group, it would be an example of a primary sources. These authors and poets have experiences and can voice what it’s like to be in a minority group. If the literature is written by someone outside of a minority group, it would be an example of secondary sources. These authors and poets do not have experiences and cannot voice what it’s like to be in a specific minority group. Therefore, they have to depend on outside sources to help them create a depiction.

Representation in literature doesn’t stop at the text, it is important to take into account illustrations as well. Children’s books are often illustrated. By not including minority students in illustrations or by not using minority illustrators, students are erased from the literary and visual narrative. This idea extends to older students as well as graphic novels are a recent trend. Students of all ages encounter more traditional illustrated poetry such as William Blake’s work that won both the Newbery (writing) and Caldecott (illustration) awards in the same year. However, there are also illustrated versions of minority poetry such as Langston Hughes, Ashley Bryan, and Nikki Giovanni works. These versions often are illustrated by minority illustrators.

Representation in literature is crucial to minority students. But how does it work in practice? How do teachers actually put the theory into practice? Classroom libraries, local libraries, and school libraries are an excellent place to start. However, there are other options such as book bags, school book clubs, and monthly subscription boxes. Overall the biggest change for teachers is going to have to be in the curriculum. Teachers have to adjust their curriculum to include more room for representation.

In order to really fully help students create a counter narrative about themselves, representation in literature must come from places outside of the classroom as well. Classroom libraries are a great start, but if they’re the only place that representation exists then it becomes a microcosm of success. If literature is truly to help students create a counter narrative then representation must be normalized on a larger scale. Students must be able to go into their school library, community libraries, and local bookstores and find representative literature. This is also beneficial for the local community at large as minority groups who are no longer in school have representative literature readily available for them.

One way schools in Amherst, Massachusetts are trying to create a counter narrative through representation is through book bags. In the local elementary schools teachers are distributing bags that are personalized to each student. Each bag contains a week’s worth of grade level books that contain characters that are representative of that student. Students are encouraged to use the books with their parents and guardians during regular story time and free reading time. This not only helps students be represented in literature, it helps students who may not have ready access to reading materials in their home. It also encourages higher literacy among younger students.

Similarly, there is a company called Just Like Me! that has a monthly subscription box that sends a box of books every month to subscribers full of personalized literature. This subscription box focuses mostly on people of color but there are similar programs that have a focus on women, people with disabilities, queer folks, and other minority groups. While these boxes are an amazing way to get literature to minority groups, unlike the book bags they cost money. As wonderful a program as this is, it privileges students who come from a more financially stable background. Students on a lower socioeconomic level would not be able to participate in this program, as they could simply not afford it. Teachers may need to apply for grants or petition their P.T.O. to fund these boxes.

In the end it’s going to come down to community leaders and teachers to provide representation to those students who cannot afford to do it themselves. This is why classroom, school, and community libraries are so critical to getting representative literature to students. These are places where students who are on a lower socioeconomic level can get reading materials for free.

It’s also incredibly important for teachers to adjust their curriculum to include more opportunities for representative literature. Especially considering the climate that has emerged since the election this is going to become even more critical. In Massachusetts teachers are incredibly lucky, there are no books that teachers are required to teach. The English common core and state standards simply state various topics that must be covered. These topics could be covered by a number of pieces of literature.

Another way to help students see themselves in literature is to connect it to relevant current events. This way teachers open up a way for students to have a conversation about events that are directly affecting them in the real world. This also helps them answer the age old “when will I use this in real life” question that English teachers seem to be so constantly asked.

Some might argue that representation isn’t very important and that students don’t absorb much from the literature they read. In her Ted Talk “The Danger of a Single Story” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie addresses this:

I was an early reader, and what I read were British and American children’s books. I was also an early writer…I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading: All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples…Now, this despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria. I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn’t have snow, we ate mangoes…What this demonstrates, I think, is how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children. Because all I had read were books in which characters were foreign, I had become convinced that books by their very nature had to have foreigners in them and had to be about things with which I could not possibly identify (Ted.com).

Adiche’s story of her childhood is a very glaring example of why representation matters. Adiche didn’t see herself represented in literature as a child, and therefore she was influenced to write about things that she had no connection with. On a more subconscious level she was being told that her life experiences weren’t relevant enough to be written about.

Think about it this way: imagine throughout school you’ve read books that are exclusively written and about something that you had no way of identifying with. Would you care about the literature? Would you want to keep reading it over and over with no other option? Wouldn’t you start to feel like you’re unimportant? Wouldn’t you want to read something that you could understand and identify with? Every kid wants to feel like they’re the experts about something; they want to see their identity normalized. When teachers diversify the curriculum and the literature that they’re teaching so that students can see themselves, they start to believe that they can be better than the stereotypes that they’ve had to deal with their entire life.

Further representation in literature is a benefit for majority students as well. Students who may otherwise not have been exposed to the experiences of minority students can learn about lives other than their own. They also have the opportunity to become more culturally aware and open minded through learning about the experiences of minority groups. If the goal of public education is to provide a fair and appropriate public education to all students, then clearly diversified literature is an excellent way to provide this.

By telling a single story in literature minority students are erased from the narrative. They have no outlet in the classroom to see themselves as successful. How can teachers expect students to be successful if they do not show the students examples of others who have been successful? Frankly, minority students have enough to deal with every day at school. Creating a classroom and curriculum full of diverse and appropriately representative literature is a great way to take one of the stressors that minority students have to deal with away.

Representation in literature is critical to the success of minority students in school. If they cannot see themselves represented it is going to be very difficult for them to create a counter narrative for themselves and thusly difficult for them to be successful in school or even care about it. Representative literature must be readily available for students of all socioeconomic levels not only in classroom libraries but also in school and community libraries. Further, representative literature should be quality representation that is ideally written by a minority author. Without a diverse collection of literature and curriculum teachers run the risk of exposing students to a single story which can be incredibly toxic and dangerous for their overall wellbeing.

You Cannot Be What You Cannot See

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