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Have Authors Writing About Prejudice & Racism In Literature Gone Too Far?

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Understanding What prejudice & Racism

Despite having studied inequality, prejudice, and discrimination quite recently at university, my cossetted white middle-class mind, whilst having some idea of what happens out in the ‘real world’, really doesn’t appreciate the day to day existence of those who suffer from prejudice and racism, nor does it understand what it actually feels like. 

Only a month or two ago, my teen daughter, whose partner is Vietnamese, casually recounted how a group of girls walking towards them not only made their displeasure clear at the two of them holding hands but actually ‘barked’ in his direction. I was shocked! Or maybe I was naïve… But it started me thinking about authors writing about prejudice and racism in literature.

Despite genuine moves towards equality and away from prejudice and discrimination, with legislation such as the Equality Act (2010), people’s beliefs, stereotypes, emotions and attitudes towards their own and other groups, especially those entrenched in time and generational values, are hard to change. Furthermore, for some, the idea of being ‘ordered’ how to feel about another person in our modern ‘free’ world, is nothing short of invasive and can result in a knee jerk reaction of defensiveness. Despite racism and prejudice being clearly unacceptable on any level, tackling them seems somewhat problematic to say the least.

Changing Perceptions Of Prejudice & Racism For Future Generations

Yet humans have a great propensity for love, an unbending desire for fairness, and a deeply ingrained tendency for altruism. We also have the ability to learn through education, have a conscience, and can understand the concept of right and wrong. So why are we, as a species dragging our feet with this issue, and how can we create a sense of understanding, particularly among young people, whose views, ethics and principles are crucial to future generations?

Whilst the issues of prejudice and discrimination are multi-faceted and complicated beyond belief, a key moment for me was the day I picked up ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. Harper Lee implicitly drilled down the relative unfairness of human existence into my 12-year-old brain, creating a sense of outrage that has stayed with me throughout my life. For some reason, the vehicle of fiction impacted upon my thought processes more than any amount of explicit reasoning had previously. 

Alternative Perspectives on Prejudice & Racism Increase Our Understanding Of The Issues

I have given this much thought. Generally, when I pick up a novel, it is for pleasure. I love to submerge myself in the story, absorb myself in the atmosphere and drown in the description. I’m sure, if you love to read, you do the same. But, within this immersive world, writers are able to catalyse the theme of empathy to serve as a blueprint. In the words of Harper Lee herself “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. . . until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” This key aspect of human nature creates a wonderful opportunity to use literature to tackle, and even help to turn the tide of prejudice and racism. 

An increasing variety of books allow us to peer into other’s lives, creating the opportunity for those more fortunate to understand to some extent the lived experience of others, thus promoting understanding and empathy, and through this change. 

I will most likely never be ‘barked’ at in the street. Neither will I ever fully appreciate how it feels to be subjected to this, or any other form of overt racism. The prejudice I have experienced as a woman, though real, does not give me full insight into another’s suffering. However, shared understanding creates empathy, and empathy is a powerful vehicle for change. Immersing ourselves in other’s experiences, effectively ‘climbing inside’ another’s skin through literature, cannot fail to impact our behaviour. 

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