I was called aggressive for criticising passages in Kate Clanchy’s memoir. But the real problem lies deep in the overwhelmingly white world of publishing

It started with a tweet. Kate Clanchy, author of Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me posted on her Twitter account that a reviewer on Goodreads had “made up a racist quote and said it was in my book”. She urged her almost 40,000 followers to flag the review that claimed she had bigoted views on race, class and body image, and had used terms such as “chocolate-coloured skin” and “Jewish noses”. Prominent authors and columnists swooped in to offer support, decrying how Clanchy could possibly be subjected to such inhumane treatment – including the current president of the Society of Authors, Philip Pullman, who declared: “But of all the people and of all the books to have had this happen … It’s hard to stay optimistic about the human race sometimes.”

However, it soon emerged that those terms were, in fact, in the book. Incredulous that antisemitic and anti-Black tropes could have made it into a book published as recently as 2019, I downloaded and read it. I recoiled as a Somali boy is described as having a “narrow skull”, while one Muslim girl is “very butch-looking … with a distinct moustache”, and another “looked brilliant because she has such a strong skull shape”, which sounds more like something a eugenicist might observe than a trusted teacher. There is a troubling exchange where Clanchy is baffled by a boy who, with his jet-black hair and eyes and “fine Ashkenazi nose”, denies Jewish heritage. She draws her own conclusion that his family must not want to remember that they’re only seven generations down from a pogrom. After reading about Cypriot bosoms – on a child – and “flirty hijabs”, I wondered what readers would have felt about a male teacher describing children’s bodies in this way.

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