• Burhana Islam

The Colours of the Classroom

I’ve always found myself falling in love with the magic of written words on a page, the characters they make and the stories they tell. As I’m growing older though, I’m finding myself looking for characters like me or my nieces and nephews, like some of my students or those in my community, and I’m finding out that it’s actually really hard. Somehow, we seem to have made it to 2018 without things changing too much over the past 20 years, which is a poor reflection of the society we live in. Something needs to change.

To those people who always argue that writers just tell stories about their own experiences and sometimes these experiences don’t include diverse characters; to those of you who then have the audacity to throw around phrases like ‘tough love’, 'life's moved on from race' and 'if it’s well intentioned, it’s not racism', repeatedly tossing them around like our opinion matters little, like our opinion is a lie: spit it all back to me when you’ve taught the ghost children in the back of the classroom; the ones who’ve cut themselves because, for some reason or another, they believe the system they’ve been born into; they believe the idea that they genuinely don’t belong.

So lately I’ve been struggling to come to terms with why we live in a place where a Muslim kid feels the need to westernise his name, hide the fact he prays, make excuses for why he won’t be drinking in this day and age. Next to him is the Korean girl, her nose buried in books, covering eyes that she thinks need fixing, speaking an English that falls perfectly from her lips, but somehow that still isn’t good enough. So she doesn’t speak at all because it’s better to be voiceless than be different. Next to them is the Nigerian girl. When she sings, I think of warm honey and the embers that dance away from the hearth on a cold winter’s day. She only does it when her mind wanders; when she’s forgotten herself because she hasn’t confidence yet to stand before an audience whose perception of beauty is whitewashed and, unfortunately, she doesn’t conform to the norm.

My point isn’t to say that including characters of colour in the pages of stories alone will solve this. I’m not saying that at all because the problem of being ‘the other’ is bigger than this. It’s something that’s so deep-seated in the fabric of our history that it’s going to take generations to undo the inferiority complex that so many people suffer. But let’s start with stories because, as a kid, who doesn’t love a good story? I still have those days when it rains and we finish a book and there’s silence, a heartbeat, that moment of uncertainty when somebody is still in awe of the tale they’ve fallen into. Let’s start there. And this year, I plan to because somehow I’ve made it onto the WriteNow mentoring scheme with Penguin Random House. It’s a much-needed initiative that identifies the need to give voices to those who otherwise go unheard. I applied by chance, thinking nothing of it, but now more than ever, I'm determined to see this through. Somebody wise once said ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’. I’m hoping, through this, I get to.


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