Top academic warns of 'subtle racism' in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Teachers need to teach pupils about the racist elements in some of the best-known children’s books, a literary expert has claimed

Jonathan Owen

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Pupils should be taught about the inherent racism in well-known children’s books, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, according to a leading academic. 

Professor Philip Nel, an expert in children’s literature, cited Roald Dahl’s well-loved book as an example of a popular story that contains racist elements.

He said: “Dahl’s vision of happily enslaved Oompa-Loompas conveys the idea that some types of people are happier in subservient roles. In the original 1964 version, they were not small white people from Loompaland.”

In an interview with Tes, published today, Professor Nel, who is based at Kansas University in the US, added: “They were African pygmies. Changing their colour in the 1973 [revised] version makes the racism less obvious, but does not erase it.

"They are still ‘a tribe’ who are delighted to be shipped to England in packing cases, and who find life in a factory – where they are literally paid beans – preferable to life in the ‘thick jungles’ of their native land.”

The academic is calling for the racism in children’s books to be talked about more openly. “Racism isn’t always obvious in children’s literature because attempts to clean up classics – like Doctor Dolittle, or Huckleberry Finn – simply re-encode the original’s racism in more subtle ways.”

Rather than banning certain books, schoolchildren should be taught about the racism they contain so that they can learn to guard against subconsciously taking on such attitudes, he said. “It is a less-risky choice to teach offensive books critically, helping students see the ways in which they reinforce racism and engaging in painful, but sadly necessary conversations.”

Teachers should encourage a questioning approach, asking pupils to consider the views of the writers and why books are written from particular perspectives, according to Professor Nel.

Doing nothing is not an option. “If we do nothing to address racism, we perpetuate the problem and sustain a racist status quo.”

The problem is one that persists in today’s generation of authors, according to the academic. He said: “I’ve spoken to living authors about racism in children’s literature and how to avoid it." 

Writers need to be aware that racism is “woven into the fabric of the culture in which we live. It’s impossible to grow up in a racist culture and not have its ideas affect your thinking.”

This is an edited version of an article in the 29 September edition of Tes. This week's Tes magazine is available at all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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Jonathan Owen

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