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B.C. school district removes 4 books from reading list, citing racial equity

To Kill a Mockingbird among tomes pulled, but still available for ‘responsible’ use
Surrey school district has removed four books from its recommended reading list, including To Kill a Mockingbird, and replacing them with more current novels on racism and discrimination. (File photo)

The Surrey school district is getting mixed reviews over a decision to replace four books – including To Kill a Mockingbird – on its recommended reading list with more current novels that discuss race and discrimination.

The step – taken last year, but only made public this week – is described as part of the district’s commitment towards anti-racism that was laid out after a 2021 “equity scan” found many students and teachers were experiencing racism in schools.

In addition to Harper Lee’s novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, In the Heat of the Night by John Ball and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck were swapped out.

But, “We are not banning books,” Ritinder Matthew, communications director at Surrey Schools, insisted Thursday (Feb. 29).

“These books were reviewed a year ago because parents and caregivers shared experiences that their children had in our classrooms where they felt their child wasn’t in a safe situation. We made an equity scan and we made a commitment to make sure our spaces were equitable and that includes looking at curriculum, it includes looking at the resources we’re recommending.”

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While racism is discussed in the four books, the district found that the texts were using harmful stereotypes of marginalized people and were no longer up-to-date, Matthew continued. In particular with To Kill a Mockingbird, which is written by a white person, a slur for Black people is used in the text, but it is normalized as a descriptive term – something Matthew said is “completely inappropriate and offensive.”

Teachers are still allowed to use the four books in classrooms, however, provided they do so “responsibly.”

“This means that they provide the appropriate guidance, context and support to help students understand the historical and social context of a literature, the harm caused by racism to Indigenous and Black communities and the impact on historically marginalized communities,” Matthew said.

While Surrey Teachers’ Union vice-president Lizanne Foster said she supports the district’s decision, some B.C. politicians had a different take on it.

Kevin Falcon, leader of the opposition BC United, called it “unbelievable.”

“I don’t know if it’s the wokeism gone wild or what’s happening but we can’t have books like that taken out of schools. I think it’s wrong,” Falcon told reporters at the B.C. Legislature Thursday.

“To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, I mean these are literary classics that teach important stories about racism and the realities of life at a different time, in the early 1900s or during the depression. I think it’s important. We can’t have a situation that seems to be exploding under this government.”

Premier David Eby, meanwhile, called the decision “crazy” during a press conference in New Westminster on Thursday.

“This is a beautiful book, it’s a profoundly anti-racist book. I think for those who are suggesting it should be banned, they just need to give it a read to understand the power of To Kill a Mockingbird and the story of Atticus Finch, it’s a really special book,” Eby said.

“I just encourage the board to have another look here and give the book a read.”

Throughout the district, more than 5,000 copies of To Kill a Mockingbird are available in school libraries for students and in the teachers’ book resource room. Having discussions with the teacher’s principal on how the book will be used is the extra step required to use books not on the recommended reading list, Matthew said. If the book being requested is not available in the district but the principal allows the teacher to use it, they will then approve the funding for the book to be ordered.

Foster said the district’s decision felt like a natural step to take after a racial equity commitment was made.

“Twenty to 30 years ago, these books were just used in classrooms everywhere, not taking into consideration how a Black student in the classroom might feel, how an Indigenous student might feel, or how students might feel quite uncomfortable with discussions of the racist terms in this book. Thirty years ago, there was no consideration for that,” she said.

Matthew said updating the recommended-books list happens routinely in the district, and that this particular review and subsequent removal decision took one year.

“There are several teachers in our district who are continuing to use this resource but they’re doing so responsibly,” the district spokesperson noted, adding that some teachers may not have this ability so other books are being recommended instead.

Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Brother by David Chariandy and Bitter by Akwaeke Emezi are among books on the list that have a critical analysis of racism embedded in the text and are explained through the lens of the marginalized person, rather than having them as a secondary voice, she said.

The decision to remove the four books from the list was made by a panel of 12 teachers, led by a group of researchers and experts on racial equity and inclusive education. The teachers did independent reviews of the recommended resources, ultimately determining that the four should no longer be recommended, Matthew said.

Surrey school board and the Education Ministry did not approve the decision to update the reading list, as it was not required, Matthew said.

Sobia Moman

About the Author: Sobia Moman

Sobia Moman is a news and features reporter with the Peace Arch News.
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