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Government urged to drop novels with 'racial slurs' from Junior Cert syllabus in response to Black Lives Matter protests

Parents, pupils and teachers have called for an update the school curriculum.

Image: Shutterstock/fizkes

THE DEPARTMENT OF Education has said it is considering suggestions it should remove certain novels from the school curriculum in the wake of this year’s Black Lives Matter protests.

It follows complaints from members of the public in recent months about a number of works on the Junior and Leaving Certificate syllabuses which contain racial slurs.

Correspondence seen by TheJournal.ie shows that parents, pupils and teachers called on the Department to update the school curriculum after demonstrations against racism were held across the country and the world this summer.

The global protests started in the US city of Minneapolis in May following the killing of George Floyd, who died after an officer held a knee to his neck until he suffocated. 

Emails to Education Minister Norma Foley show how several people took issue with the appearance of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird and John Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men on the syllabus.

The novels, which are both set in the American South and contain the use of the n-word, are among 20 prescribed texts for second and third year students who will sit their Junior Certificate from 2021 to 2023.

However, many people told the Minister that the books could no longer be deemed acceptable reading material, particularly in light of the Black Lives Matter protests.

“Black children have found it very uncomfortable when made to sit in classrooms where their classmates and peers are reading this material,” a parent of a black teenager, whose complaint was released under the Freedom of Information Act, wrote.

“[They] are often asked to read the book out loud in class and the effect this horrendous word being pronounced in their presence has on them.”

Another parent said their daughter felt uncomfortable as the only non-white person in their class when the n-word was read out by their teacher, to what she said was the “glee” of some other students. 

And in another email to the minister, two students claimed that the books allowed pupils to read racial slurs, despite lacking a full knowledge about how offensive they are.

“We can teach students about racism and read about the racism from these novels without using the racial slurs,” they wrote.

‘Diverse and inclusive’ 

In response to complaints from one parent about To Kill a Mockingbird, a spokesperson for Minister Norma Foley pointed out requirements for schools to have anti-bullying strategies and that schools have the autonomy to determine which texts were suitable.

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The spokesperson also said it was intended that texts prescribed for the Junior and Leaving Certificate are diverse and inclusive, pointing to alternatives by people of colour like Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart and Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman.

Others who contacted the minster also suggested that the Junior and Leaving Certificate curricula should be updated to include more voices and experiences of people of colour.

One person suggested the minister should add Why I Am No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge and The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla to the syllabus, as they felt this would help to diversify the English curriculum.

There were additional calls for the inclusion of more poets of colour, works by Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, and the inclusion of more black history on the History curriculum.

In a statement to TheJournal.ie, a Department of Education spokesperson said it had received a number of queries about the issue of texts featuring racial slurs.

The spokesperson said complaints which suggested changes to the curriculum were “being considered by both the Department and the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment”.

“As part of this Department’s ongoing curricular reform, issues in relation to inclusivity/diversity etc. will be considered as part of the ongoing reviews in relation to the curriculum at both primary and post-primary level,” the spokesperson added.

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