Teaching and discussing identity regarding race, nationality, gender, or sexual orientation are always sticky subjects regardless of if you’re in the classroom or not. People tend to be timid around the topics that could possibly offend or upset. To me, it’s important to think of the word “possibly” from that statement. That leaves the possibility, and I think the more likelihood, that you won’t upset or offend if you are tactful with your words. For me in my classroom, I always try to be as honest as possible with these topics. Most of my students are Hispanic or African American and they always have questions and want to talk about race. I know that these topics may also be uncomfortable for people to talk about, but I truly believe just ripping off the Band-aid is important because kids have questions and want answers (I just listened to a This American Life podcast about this – shout out to Katrina).
Concerning the questions of if you can teach identity in literature without discussing politics or social justice, I think it’s possible, however, I think it’s slightly irresponsible to do so. Thinking about the novels I have taught, or just teaching English in general, the topics in the novels lend themselves to open discussion about life because of the nature of literature. Even when we get a little “off topic”, having these discussions give students an education about the world they live in; it would be irresponsible to not talk about these things with them.
Specific novels that come to mind that I teach that deal with race, nationality, and gender identity are The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, The Giver, and The Book Thief. Race identity stand out particularly in ATDPTI and The Book Thief. For Junior on the Rez, he struggles with his identity as a Spokane Indian who chooses to “abandon” his Indian culture by going to a white school off the reservation in order to better himself by getting a better education and not have to use the same textbooks that he knows for a fact that his own mother used when she was in school. Not only does he feel like an outsider at his new school, Rearden, because he’s the only Indian, but he is also alienated on the Rez because all the other Indians look at him as a betrayer. With this novel, this lends to political discussion as well as nationality since we can talk about the politics of both our country and the treatment of Indians by our government, but also the politics of the Indian community as well.
In The Book Thief, we have the main character, Liesel, who is the foster child to a German family during World War II who is hiding a Jewish man in their basement. She befriends all the boys her age on her street, her best friend being, Rudy, a German boy who is obsessed with the American track star, Jesse Owens. Naturally, race, nationality, and politics must be discussed with this novel. This would be a case where not talking about it would be inappropriate, especially since I teach middle school and a lot of context is lost in reading if students don’t understand these issues. It is also important since many of my students, even though they live in a city where one whole neighborhood is predominantly Jewish and we have Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana off in our calendar, are confused about the Jewish religion and ethnicity. They don’t see why they have been historically discriminated against or how you could even tell who was Jewish or not Jewish. They ask me about this frequently during our Holocaust unit. It’s important to bring up these issues and differences so they can make the connections in their own lives – why have black people and Hispanic people been discriminated against? There is no good or legitimate reason, and these ideas need to be discussed in class because one day or another, students sadly will have a brush with discrimination in some way, shape, or form.
I had a tougher time thinking about novels that I teach that discuss gender or sexual orientation, especially at the middle school level. In The Giver, gender is important because everything is so controlled. When Jonas stops taking his magic pills that take away any feelings he would have, he starts to see these differences, but the bigger theme of this novel I think lends itself to discuss nationality and race more than gender because the government of their community is so overbearing. I haven’t taught The House on Mango Street, but I think it would be a good read for middle school to discuss gender identity and race identity since Esperanza is a young Hispanic girl who is trying to navigate her way through the world of being Latina and being a Latina girl. I think my students would relate to the culture in this book very well. Other books that came to mind that would work with this lense as well, but for high school, are The Catcher in the Rye or The Perks of Being a Wallflower.