Should Students Be Exposed to Racist Works?

I make it a point to show my students many perspectives within the literature I teach in my English classes. We study works that have been deemed “classics,” but we also study works that lie somewhere outside the literary canon. Since the canon has been made up of the “dead white guys” for so long, I like to incorporate other works by women and people of color into my curriculum. The students seem to appreciate this, not only because it shows them that their diverse perspectives are important in the world and in my classroom, but also because, in a world where George Zimmerman can shoot an unarmed Trayvon Martin, these perspectives on race and gender matter.

It’s also no secret that many works within the literary canon are flat out racist. In preparation for my senior Advanced Placement class next year, I have been reading my way through the list recommended works and deciding what to teach. I picked up Joseph Conrad’s famed 1899 work, “Heart of Darkness” — a look at colonialism in Africa at the turn of the century — very early because it is one of the most-used works on the AP test in May. As I was reading it, however, I kept having to stop because I was so appalled that something so racist could be so highly recommended in this day and age for a high school curriculum. When I asked a fellow teacher about this, she said, “Well, it’s a classic. They have to know the classics!”

Do they have to know the classics? Why was this novel deemed a classic to begin with? Most likely it was included in the literary canon because it was written by a white author and was a popular text at the time. We still forgo texts that tackle the same subjects written by people of color — like Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart,” which is a recommended text for AP classes but is not as high on the list as “Heart of Darkness” — because we want our students to succeed and, when we know “Heart of Darkness” will more likely appear on the test than “Things Fall Apart,” we teach the former and hope for the best.

Sometimes, even though a text itself doesn’t appear racist, the author may have views you don’t agree with. People are calling for a boycott of the movie “Ender’s Game” this fall because of Orson Scott Card’s vehement anti-gay views. The book itself is not anti-gay, but the author’s views matter when deciding what to consume as readers and movie-viewers.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Timothy L. McNair, a black man studying opera singing at Northwestern University, refused to perform a piece by Walt Whitman. Whitman, also an author who frequently shows up on the literary canon, was a notorious racist. He called Black people “baboons” and also stated that America is “for the whites.” However, when McNair refused to perform Whitman’s work, he was denied his diploma, a decision that the university backed.

I do think it is important for students to be exposed to all sorts of literature. We cannot shelter them from the world’s racism and discrimination, but we can educate them about it and give them tools to survive in this world. However, when a student refuses to perform or read a work because of his or her political leanings, accommodations should be made.

McNair was not refusing to perform the work because he was lazy and didn’t want to do it. He refused to perform the work of a man who actively denounced black people. It would have been very easy to find another piece for him to perform. Similarly, if I have a student who refuses to read a work I’ve selected because of his or her political leanings, its not difficult to find another text for him or her to read.

As for me, I will be teaching “Heart of Darkness” this fall, but I will also be teaching works by Achebe in an effort to help my students understand the views of all people all around the world. I hope more teachers start doing the same, because situations like McNair’s shouldn’t be common anymore.

Photo Credit: gpoo


Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson4 years ago

racism is a part of the history of EARTH, so yes it is important. We can't just push these views under a rug and pretend the atrocities never happened. To do so would be a monumental disservice to the lives lost

Alan Lambert
Alan Lambert4 years ago

The reason "Heart of Darkness" and "Huck Finn" are classics and why "Ender's Game" will be after Card passes, is the same, They immerse you in their worlds as Huck was immersed in the waters of the Mississippi when the Mercury-laden loaf of bread found him or as Ender and Petra immersed themselves in the quiet Battle Room. That is writing talent, whether the authors were or were not prejudiced.

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill4 years ago

We need to study our past so we are not doomed to repeat it. Just because it makes us uncomfortable or offends someone is no reason to omit it.

Bette M.
Bette M4 years ago

Racism has always existed in one form or another. Racism will always exists as long as minotities see themselves as being different in todays world. In today world the doors are wide open to blacks.
The one minority that receives very little recognition from society today is the Native American indian. There is a great need to bring the Native American indian out of the darkness & give them a very large voince in our society politically & socially.
Afterall this time the white man has shoved the Native American aside & taken this America on as its' own.

Plant and protect Danny's trees for life.

Tim C.
Tim C4 years ago


Lindsey O'Connor
Lindsey O4 years ago

For those who would feed our children's brains with a politically-correct literary diet then you would, of course, have to abolish most literary works from past years. Because those works were products of their times and contained views of a wide variety of people that wouldn't be acceptable in books written today in the West. That's especially true of the depiction of women in most past works.

I don't want our children indoctrinated in the public schools. Instead I want their minds exposed to the best our culture has to offer - and sometimes the best can include elements that make some uncomfortable.

The same people who would ban a book in the schools due to a "racist" or "sexist" or whatever character are likely to be the same people who would howl with outrage if a book were banned by the religious right due to, say, a positive depiction of a homosexual character. But the rationale from the religious rightists would be the same - the protection of our youth from supposedly wrong ideas.

Let's not protect our children to the point of anti-intellectualism.

Lauren Berrizbeitia

Of course they should! Racism doesn't go away because we don't discuss it. A book like Tom Sawyer offers so many opportunities to discuss racism and its history with students. But they need to be read with the clear intention of studying the time and the attitudes as well as reading the story and thinking about the quality of the writing.

Vicky P.
Vicky P4 years ago

no, I don't think so, if they are interested in books that aren't in school, they can always buy them

Koty Lapid
Koty Lapid4 years ago

thank you for publishing it.

Lone Wolf
Lone W4 years ago

A person, in this case children and adolescents, will not be able to determine right from wrong if we hide their heads in the sand. The world, alas is not perfect. Therefore, it is important that they read a diverse literature. Besides, literature is about the language as much as about society. In a same work, we might find the beauty of the language and the ugliness of the society of the time.

Also, please do not make racism a white versus black issue. Tolerance and intolerance can originate from any race or ethnic group for or against any other race or ethnic group. The key is to promote tolerance towards all.