English literature teachers in a large Ontario school board have been urged not to teach the American classic To Kill a Mockingbird because it is harmful, violent and oppressive to black students, and its trope of a “white saviour” makes its black characters seem “less than human.”
“The use of racist texts as entry points into discussions about racism is hardly for the benefit of black students who already experience racism,” reads a directive to teachers in Peel, a suburban region northwest of Toronto. “This should give us pause — who does the use of these texts centre? Who does it serve? Why do we continue to teach them?”
The memo notes that the racist slur known as the n-word appears 19 times in the book. “Though this is not the only way that the novel is harmful, it does add to the violence of the book,” reads the memo, written by a senior school board administrator.
Black parents “detest the idea of their children having to read this novel,” it says. “The idea that banning books is about censorship and that censorship limits free speech is often decried as a poor reason to keep the novel on schools’ reading lists as its racist themes make it violent and oppressive for black students.”
The board denies that the memo constitutes either a ban or an argument to not teach the book.
“That’s not its intent at all,” said Adrian Graham, Peel’s superintendent of curriculum and instruction support services. “We’re definitely not about banning books. We don’t have any English texts that are banned.”
One Peel District School Board English teacher of long standing, however, called the memo “intimidating,” and a “de facto book ban” that tells teachers who dare to assign the book that they will not be supported by the school board if anyone complains.
The teacher was particularly bothered by the suggestion of white supremacy.
“White writers write from their own schemas, their own perspectives and white supremacist frameworks that reflect the specificity of their culture and history on racialized peoples,” the document says.
“That’s a dangerous thing, to refer to a white writer as a white supremacist,” the teacher said.
The teacher said the novel is typically read in Grade 9, and that it is always taught with a critical eye to racism and the story’s historical and political context, and author Harper Lee’s own orientation, as a white woman, to the racism of 1930s Alabama, where the story is set, and the civil rights movement of the 1960s, when it was published.