To Kill the Mockingbird


Class of 2006, do you remember what we learned in school about racism? Do you remember the book we studied in English class for two years called “To Kill a Mockingbird”? In this book Harper Lee tells the story of Tom Robinson, a harmless black man in a small town in Alabama who is falsely accused of raping a white woman and the court case that follows, from the perspective of Scout, a precocious 6 year old alongside her brother Jem and widowed father who spits words of wisdom throughout the 128 pages of the novel. Pretty big issues for Scout to confront, and also for a room full of sixteen year olds. But thank God they taught us about racism in school, how it was bad and overt and a thing of the past that happened in America. 

I remember being so nervous every time it came to opening that book in class. I was so relieved when it was essay time or poetry time or anything other than reading that book time; the book that uses the word “Nigger” in it over 200 times. To be honest, I have no memory of hearing my classmate or teacher say that word in class. I’ve tried for hours to recall that memory but I appear to have adapted some sort of dissociative amnesia when it comes to that part. I do recall the feelings around the word though, mainly fear, because we all knew it was there and the whole class saw it, even if it wasn’t out loud, over 200 times. 

The title of the book symbolises how harmful it can be to destroy something as innocent as a mockingbird and I understood this. But all I could hear throughout the novel was the word “mocking”, that's what the whole experience of exploring that book in class felt like. And oh how I wanted to kill that mockingbird. 

It was my second last year of secondary school and I was sitting nicely in a comfortable state of identity crisis by now, it had become a part of me. As I went all of my life having my race being ignored, this was really one of the first instances where I was aware that my peers were aware that I wasn’t white and it felt weird, because pretending felt more normal. So I would get anxious whenever we discussed racist themes from the book as a class and I wondered if they could tell that this was personally affecting me or if they really did see me as the same as them. There was no mention throughout the two years of studying this that racism is a current epidemic so any discomfort I felt must have been my imagination. Since nobody directly spoke to me about it, they must see me as more white than black, and seeing as nobody else seemed perturbed by the novel,I concluded that the discomfort must be in my head.

One day though, the teacher did notice me. She read the following line from the book “Worse than being black is being "mixed." Children who are part of both races don't belong anywhere. Colored folks won't have 'em because they're half white; white folks won't have 'em 'cause they're colored, so they're just in-betweens, don't belong anywhere." Then she got us to underline it, turned to me and asked “Adeline, what do you think of that?” I will never forget the burning anxiety I felt as the class turned to me. 

What I think, Miss, is that I will probably take this statement to heart, a lot more than you think. I think that this feeling of not belonging anywhere will follow me around like a confusing shadow I don’t know how to live with. I will spend my life trying to seek belonging in others before I realise that the only way to truly belong is to reject assimilation and accept and embrace my own self, but this will take me a long time. I am in shock that you put me on the spot and asked me this enormous question in front of all of my classmates. I am momentarily sort of thrilled that you noticed me but I can’t process my thoughts fast enough. I am the only biracial kid in the class and you are asking me to speak for all biracial kids and I don’t know the language to express how I feel because we really don’t ever talk about it. 

I didn’t say these things though. I  actually responded by shrugging my shoulders, blushing and mumbling “I don’t know”. I shook internally and lost concentration as I held in tears until class ended. I think that was the only opportunity I ever got to talk to anyone in the whole six years of school about race and I was disappointed I was unable to speak for myself or even string a cohesive sentence together. After some time, the bell rang, class finished, the teacher didn’t say anything more to me and I went back to being invisible, which somehow felt safer. I half expected her to take me aside after class and apologise because surely she could see that the gravity of that question sort of shook my whole world up. Surely she could tell that the whole book was upsetting. There were likely a few of my classmates who were triggered by some of the other themes throughout the book too, they are big themes and look, it's a good novel. But I’m sort of enraged when I remember the lack of sensitivity, the lack of simple consideration. She neglected to follow through and left me alone to carry the weight of that statement. This is the closest way I can describe how it feels to be seen and unseen at the same time. I can’t help wondering if my whole experience of reading this book might have been different if my teacher had spoken to me privately and acknowledged that this could potentially be a touchy subject for me. And asked me directly if I wanted to talk about it. I probably still would have said no but it would have saved me the trauma of being othered like that in front of everyone and potentially some future therapy expenses. 

After class, none of my friends asked me if I was ok. I don’t blame them. I was probably wearing my big girl face and they didn’t even consider that I would be upset by the implications of my teacher's question. This is the problem. We were all taught racial colorblindness was the right thing to do, that saying the words “black” and “white” were wrong. We were taught that saying someone is different is rude. But by pretending that black and other people of colour have the exact same needs as white people, you are ignoring us. I can’t stress how damaging this can be. If any of my friends did notice my discomfort, they probably felt awkward.  I wish talking to white people about race was easier these days. I wish my teacher knew that I needed something different than my white peers that day. I still need something from my white peers today- to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and to not shy away from anti-racism because there is no instant reward for you. If getting to grips with my identity has taught me anything it's that we all play a part in systemic racism and it is a collective responsibility to dismantle. 

I don’t know if this book is being taught in schools anymore. I first opened the pages of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird” 18 years ago and I’d like to think there have been improvements since in both the approach and content that is used to understand social issues particularly those of race and prejudice. I don’t have kids or any direct involvement with the school system in Ireland right now but I am wildly passionate about the power of self education. And I’m not just talking about the curriculum  we are presented with in school and expected to accept without question, I’m talking about the books and articles and podcasts and videos that are readily available to help learn and unlearn the ways in which racism is still alive and kicking.

It’s simply not good enough to just tell yourself you are not racist or claim you have no part in upholding racist systems because you are friends with a black person. You can’t dismantle racism if you don’t understand it. You can’t understand it without educating yourself and talking about it. You can’t understand it if you uphold a fear of finding out what part you play in perpetuating it. In school I was always at best an average student, excelling only in creative subjects but now my world has expanded beyond belief when I realised the luxury of having so much knowledge readily available. I can’t believe it has taken me this long to start taking advantage of it. Of course I want everyone in my life who claims to care about me to do the same but I’m learning that I have no control over this and I can’t let it get in the way of my own growth. I hope one day it will turn into affirmative action but right now I am learning. I am arming myself with knowledge and learning not only for myself but for my family members, potential future children, neighbours, acquaintances, strangers, humans in general and for that teenage girl whose voice got stuck in her throat. Ignorance and denial just won’t cut it anymore. I got you girl. 

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