Mockingbird Study Must Address Problematic Depictions

Mindy Luo, Visual Media Editor

Few Americans leave high school without having read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird; Campolindo graduates are no different. Considered provocative, the novel continues to be a mainstay in the English 1 curriculum.

Set in 1930’s deep South, the story tackles the small-mindedness and bigotry of rural communities from the perspective of Scout Finch, the daughter of an attorney, Atticus Finch, who defends a wrongfully convicted black man, Tom Robinson.

The motif of racial discrimination is at the heart of the narrative, and therefore, dominates class discussions. However, while the novel may immerse students in the history of the horrific treatment of African Americans in an approachable and slightly diluted manner, the white savior trope that it presents inadvertently promotes is misguided.

The “white savior” presented in this novel is Atticus Finch, who decides to do his moral duty to save the innocent Tom Robinson. Sidestepping the fact that he was born in an incredibly racist era, Finch is portrayed as the epitome of a “good white person,” and is presented as a role model for white students.

It is disappointing that in a book that examines the oppression of people of color (POC), there is little attempt to portray any of the African American characters in a dynamic way. Tom Robinson, the token black man of the story, is afforded few lines of dialogue, and his 2-dimensional character is simply a plot device. He is depicted as a helpless victim, his fate dependent on the mercy of white people.

History tells us that African Americans rarely sat around waiting for a messiah. In reality, they fought restlessly against oppression from the beginning. This is not how To Kill a Mockingbird presents them.

Pushing African-Americans into the supporting roles of a story that’s supposed to be about racial discrimination and stereotyping, Harper Lee’s decision to focus the story on a white family’s struggle to do the right thing, is unfortunate.

To Kill a Mockingbird’s fails to allow POCs to control the narrative, twisting a story of racial oppression into a glorification of white achievement.

The binary portrayal of racism in To Kill a Mockingbird also perpetuates the idea that there is a clear distinction to be made between racist, bad people and non-racist, good people. Extremely racist characters in the book, such as Bob Ewell and Mrs. Dubose, who openly use derogatory slurs, allow readers to find clear distinctions between themselves and these “bad people.”

It leads students to easily view themselves as pillars of goodness and justness like Atticus Finch, which enforces the notion that they are saving minorities by being “good” white people.

The celebration of To Kill a Mockingbird is also part of a larger notion that white people believe that racism is just part of the country’s ugly past rather than a persistent part of American society in the present.

Some may argue that having a white perspective in stories about racial discrimination is as necessary as having a minority perspective, but the fact is that there is a tremendous imbalance in the representation of the white perspective relative to minority perspectives in the literature offered up to students. It is a reality that extends far beyond our English department.

The 2019 Oscars Best Picture winner “Green Book” and the beloved “Hidden Figures” (both of which were directed by white men), cannot escape the conventional white savior plot, as non-POCs are the ones with the pen wiring the storylines.

In recent years, the lack of diversity in the English curriculum has been appropriately criticized,  leading to the adoption of Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime , Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, and Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen. While these books offer an important contrast to the perspectives of old white men, we must also reconsider the way we approach the remaining classics. From the violently sexist portrayals in One Over the Cuckoos’ Nest and 1984 to the racist undertones in The Great Gatsby and the white savior trope in To Kill a Mockingbird, there are still many problematic depictions of marginalized people that must be acknowledged in the classroom.

Removing To Kill a Mockingbird from the curriculum is not the solution. Instead, teachers should be utilizing the problematic aspects of the book to inform students about the impact of the white savior myth and acknowledge how these narratives come about.

Instead of spending class periods talking about who the mockingbird symbolizes or how Scout struggles to fit the expectations society sets for her, we should spend more time considering the problematic portrayal of minorities by a white author. By addressing this, not only will we open up a healthy discussion about race in class, but give students a better picture of how to find the biases and fallacies in all of their scholastic experiences.

Harper Lee’s classic may have taken place 90 years ago, but the stereotypes it enforces is a legacy that still persists today.