We commissioned a series of responses to the republication of Kate Clanchy’s memoir, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, as well as the issues revealed by its critical reception and the response of the mainstream media. Here is Jannat Ahmed talking about how the discourse surrounding the book reflects the systemic ways in which racism obscures, protects, and sustains itself.
The published works and recent social media activity of Kate Clanchy (as well as Philip Pullman and J.K. Rowling) represent a pervasive problem in publishing and the media: the insidiousness of middle-class white racism. Much has already been written about Kate Clanchy and her Orwell Prize-winning book, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me (Picador, 2019; republished by Swift Press this month). Sascha Akhtar’s article, ‘There is no witch-hunt against the author Kate Clanchy’, gives a good overview of the backlash it has received and the debates it has stirred regarding criticism, cancel culture, and creative freedom – but suffice it to say that Clanchy’s memoir was racist, ableist, and yet lauded by many, and blurbed by His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman.
In 2021, the contention surrounding Some Kids gained traction after Clanchy tried to incite her Twitter followers to report a Goodreads review that quoted offensive excerpts of the memoir – excerpts which Clanchy initially denied were in the book. As it happened, the quotations were taken directly. Yet, up until that point, the book’s white middle-class publishers, editors, and many of its intended readers had not noticed or did not care about its racism and ableism, because the offensive language and opinions were normal to them, and therefore unnoticeable.
The dominant white middle-class identity in publishing and the media has so centralised itself as to render it invisible. Clanchy’s book was written for people like Clanchy, and so of course they did not perceive the problem. And therein lies the issue: insofar as Clanchy, Pullman, and Rowling’s books contain racist tropes – from Pullman’s desert-residing rapists to Rowling’s racist naming of characters and characterisations of goblins and house elves based on offensive stereotypes – the tropes’ existence also reflects the central narrative of the English reading experience, codifying the voice and perspective of an imperceptible cultural ‘neutral’. White middle-class racism and bigotry masquerading as neutrality is symptomatic of white supremacist thought.
History shows us that the coloniser justifies their colonialism by asserting their own supremacy, and affirming that position as ‘normal’. It is easier to oppress someone when one perceives them to be ‘not normal.’ It is easier for the imperialist – or neo-colonialist capitalist – to maintain this oppression when they can pass off their vision of the world as the natural order of things; when the present circumstances are a point of neutrality from which they can achieve their vision, rather than a state of oppression. It is easier to sell mass-market bigotry to ‘well-meaning liberals’ when they believe they are neutral players preserving the gold standard of publishing and journalism, rather than profiteers and paragons of prejudice, conceit, and selfish disdain for the feelings and lives of others. Despite all this being common knowledge, these common truths are disregarded by those in commercial publishing and the media. Their deliberate disregard means that we are forced to repeat this conversation again and again, ad nauseum.
This world operates on an inherited system of superiority/inferiority across every point of difference: an intangible understanding of what is normal versus not. Those of us who are not white and not middle-class are ‘not normal’ – therefore we must be described, differentiated, labelled, compared, stereotyped. It is easy for mainstream culture, written, directed, and produced by middle-class white writers and white media, to defend their ‘neutral’ position, because they know, like we all do, that the damage has already been done, that change will always come too slowly and that they might as well sit tight till then, because for them, it really does blow over. Despite the harm and traumatising of others, and the reinforcement of their voice and power at others’ expense, they cannot see beyond their own temporary discomfort.
One of the most self-sustaining functions of whiteness is the feigned ignorance of such power imbalance. Instead of disrupting the system, writers like Clanchy and those defending her will manipulate the imperialist white supremacist heteropatriarchal system for their own profit. These writers do real harm because they complain about their alleged injustices via the culture-making machine that is the media: the same one that falsely affirms white neutrality, and decides second by second whether those of us who are ‘not normal’ are (still) the enemy. And we always are. By leaning into the status quo (the preconceived ‘normal’, based on centuries of oppression) such writers reinforce the inequity that allows them to operate with the power of a thousand, never the power of one.
Furthermore, when challenged, the middle-class white writer often chooses denial. They cannot seem to believe in their own prevalence. Instead, whenever a ‘woke’ culture identifies racism, ableism, transphobia, classism, fatphobia, etc. in their books, the middle class (and its adjacent and aspiring communities) are quick to make excuses and defend. In Clanchy’s case, in her media appearances and interviews, she has erroneously rewritten the events of the past year, inhabiting the role of a martyr suffering imaginary cancellation politics, with no thought for how this self-victimisation reinforces racism in the media, silences more women, and emboldens more racists. In their denial, authors like Clanchy are unable to apologise for their bigotry. In some ways, this common trait is a good thing: it is a litmus test confirming that such writers are not sorry for their words or actions, and don’t intend to learn or change. Their own sense of pride, superiority, and supposedly good intentions matter more to them than the lives of those they negatively impact.
In the immediate uproar around Clanchy’s tweet, Pullman, in a now deleted tweet, likened Monisha Rajesh, Chimene Suleyman, and Professor Sunny Singh – three women of colour and critics of Some Kids – to the Taliban. Ironically, Pullman did not compare himself or his own followers to the Taliban, despite his comment helping to fuel racist death threats against the aforementioned women in an effort to silence them. Pullman later retweeted an undercooked and under-researched defe(re)nce of Clanchy, which minimised the book’s blatant and persistent racism to ‘a few of those misguided but well-intentioned words’. This was followed more recently by Pullman’s decision to step down as Chair of the Society of Authors, claiming ‘I would not be free to express my personal opinions’. The idea that he needs space to share his personal opinions is almost laughable, but between Clanchy, Rowling, and Pullman, the latter is the only author to actively choose an option that does not resolutely maintain the status quo.
Clanchy’s second ‘apology’ tweet – where she did not apologise to anyone for anything in particular, but gave a redundant explanation of her imperfections – included a reference to moments of suicidal ideation, and her (incredibly racist) fear of interacting with her critics. But an apology is not an apology when it self-centres; it was manipulative of Clanchy to foreground thoughts of suicide in her statement, making her the focus of the issue instead of the bigotry at hand. This is emblematic of white fragility to the extreme, as demonstrated by the media outlets and Clanchy herself quickly profiting from the developing story.
Instead of approaching her faults with humility, and her actions with regret and a desire to change, Clanchy doubled-down and insisted on making herself the victim, becoming the latest in a historic societal pattern, where middle-class white people face little to no consequences for anything they do, so often do they return to a socially and politically-set equilibrium. It was unsurprising when the commentary surrounding Some Kids shifted from calls for changes in publishing to the usual, pitiable desire to soothe the white ego. Just in time for the book’s change of publisher, new articles appeared to corroborate the false notion that racism is an innocent blunder of mis-chosen words, and that Clanchy is a victim of woke culture.
Such prevarication proves that as well as using disregard, denial, scapegoating, self-pity, and defensiveness to fortify its bigotry, middle-class white racism diverts and redefines the conversation when it is challenged. The middle-class white writer will insist on their rightness by manipulating the conversation in ways that evade the true issue at hand; initiating a lesser, more nebulous, more malleable debate that can be easily skewed to position them as a beacon of virtue. In this case, Clanchy shifted the conversation from racism and ableism to cancel culture. Rather than acknowledge and address her faults, Clanchy and other writers, such as Rowling, would rather hold on to their undefinable liberal politics. They seem to believe that freedom of speech equates to an entitlement to always be heard. That’s what all these articles defending Clanchy, and those defending Rowling and her peers are really saying: we must continue to listen to them, but they don’t have to listen to us at all. They are their own judge, jury, and witness. I can’t help but think that their fear of cancellation is the fear of living as a marginalised person: plenty to say, no one to hear. It’s no wonder really. Given their relative financial stability and sociopolitical/economic/cultural protections, the middle class suffer so little that they must invent and exaggerate sufferings and co-opt the sufferings of others, and often it is on this foundation that their racist, ableist, transphobic views are built.
At this point, I suspect that those defending Clanchy and Rowling are either writing to get attention or vicariously defending their own faults and views because they feel personally threatened. And so they should. Perhaps every notion of cancel culture they conjure up is their own conscience telling them to shut up for once in their lives. Sadly, no self-important person can bear the possibility of obscurity, even though it’s a perfectly reasonable option. No, they must try their hardest to convince us and each other of what they cannot convince themselves: ‘We’re good, really, deep down, we are actually good people, so we don’t deserve this.’ But we know the truth. Anyone who is crying ‘I’m being cancelled’ while still able to say what they want on their platform(s), sell books, and/or make money, has a conscience they aren’t listening to, and they are blaming us for holding a mirror up to themselves. We are the ‘other’ they have invented, the face of insignificance, ugliness, and obscurity that they so desperately wish to avoid. We exemplify the reality that no matter how good, how well-intentioned a person might be, we have inherited a world in which some people can disproportionately harm others, even without fully intending to do so. But I suppose the problem is not just that they don’t recognise the proportion of harm, it is that they choose to harm regardless.
It has become obvious to me that this bigotry is infrastructural asbestos. There is a harmful culture of self-absolution from racism, ableism, and transphobia in publishing and the media. The racism, ableism, Islamophobia, transphobia, and homophobia of imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist heteropatriarchy are the cheap, carcinogenic building blocks upon which modern culture is built. The powerful – the dominant white middle-class in the media – ignore how leaning into the status quo is never neutral, but reinforces and emboldens a society where people are persecuted, discriminated against, endangered, and oppressed. The effects of this discrimination are apparent: we see it in the disproportionate incarceration of Black men compared to white men, the 357% higher death rates of Black women during pregnancy and childbirth compared to white women, the dismissive healthcare given to fat people; the number of COVID-related deaths, and the reporting of deaths, of disabled people; and the higher rates of poverty and mental illness among transgender people.
My hope is that Clanchy, Rowling, and Pullman will read this and recognise that as public figures – and as white middle-class published writers – their staunchly held opinions and unrepentant stereotyping exacerbate the world’s most virulent inequalities. I would ask them to imagine being on the receiving end of their offensive stereotyping, language, and descriptions, on the receiving end of their public self-absolution. More importantly, I would ask them to let their pens and egos rest, and to imagine, for once, what it might be like to live a long and happy life, not merely as themselves, but as an autistic person, a trans person, a Black person, a fat person, a Muslim person, and/or whomever else they struggle to perceive as fully human, worthy of love, respect, life, and all the freedoms that the common white middle-class writer already enjoys. It is deeply ironic that people whose industry depends on their creative abilities and imagination are not able to extend their creativity and imaginations this far.