Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill A Mockingbird is a brilliant book; bustling with themes of racism, dignity, human rights and law. Schools have studied Lee’s masterpiece for decades now, as students learn the power of courage and honesty. To Kill A Mockingbird reminds us that every person, regardless of their race, is a human being and deserving of dignity and the fairness of the law. Atticus Finch, the hero, is a white man.
But he appeals to Scout not through the lenses of race, but through ideas of respect and truth. Therefore, To Kill A Mockingbird is about fairness, verity, civility: rich universal ideas, absolutely fundamental to humanity.
Unfortunately, To Kill A Mockingbird is now ‘dated’ and ‘problematic’ due to its ‘white saviour’ narrative. Of course, many still enjoy Harper Lee’s masterpiece. These are the actions of a vocal minority with power. Yet ‘concerns’ over apparent ‘white saviour narratives’ are not new. Films such as The Help and Dances With Wolves are well known for the controversy caused. Although released decades after To Kill A Mockingbird, these two films are more commonly associated with ‘white saviours.’ As education turned into activism, the removal of To Kill A Mockingbird comes at no surprise.
But it’s still disappointing. The novel in question is spectacular, with flawed characters and meaty themes. Yes, Atticus is a ‘white saviour.’ But is that such a bad thing? For Atticus to help someone against the injustices of a society? Should’ve Atticus left Tom Robinson to die? Those pushing against ‘white saviour’ narratives must consider the detrimental results of what they want. It’s not a bad thing to help others, especially those in pain under segregation. Wouldn’t you want that?
Exposing children to such literature is vital. Students must know the dignity of every human being, and it’s a moral failing to persecute a man for a crime he didn’t commit.
I understand why critics of ‘white saviour’ narratives hate them: they can paint an unrealistic and deceptive picture of racism. But the existence of To Kill A Mockingbird doesn’t stop anyone from writing stories with main characters who happen to be black. This is a crucial problem: individual literary works are not responsible for the overall collective result. To Kill A Mockingbird is not responsible for the ‘white saviour’ trope existing, nor does it deserve all the negative associations.
The term ‘white saviour’ itself is vague and unhelpful. It’s applied to any narrative where a white man or woman helps a minority. Such stories aren’t necessarily bad or harmful, but according to the screeching activists: they are. History and literature must conform to their worldview, and pointing out that yes, not all white people were evil, is now toxic and problematic.
Another problem with the term ‘white saviour’ is how racial it is. It’s only ever used to describe white people. When applied to teaching children, the end result is nasty. Teachers should not tell white pupils that actions of bravery and heroism are racist. More than that, black students shouldn’t develop an antagonistic relationship towards fellow white students. An awful side effect of ‘decolonising’ literature and ‘racial thinking’ is how it makes children think in racialised terms. It is divisive, evil, and counterproductive to conduct a classroom like this.
We must remember this: although children can be quite clever, their grasp on moral complexity is limited. If white children are told over again the problems in ‘white saviour’ tropes, they will interpret it in the most basic way possible. A worrying result is a lack of trust in how students relate to each other.
As concerns over Critical Race Theory capture the United States, it’s vital for educators to not segregate their students or cause further division. Books such as To Kill A Mockingbird celebrate each individuals humanity, as opposed to their race. This is a powerful, potent message. One we should all consider.
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