Britain’s Youth: Racist and Intolerant
Fifty years after the first publication of The Diary of Anne Frank in 1947 and despite successive anti-racism education and awareness campaigns, Britain has produced a generation of the most racist and most intolerant young people in Europe according to a survey by Music Television (MTV) published in February. The European Youth Survey was conducted by Scantel in October/November 1996 in face to face interviews with 1,600 16 to 24 year olds in eight European countries.
Almost 30% of young British people disagreed that all races are equal compared with 19% of young Germans, the next most intolerant group. 26% of young Britons said they would never consider dating someone of a differentcolour. 29% admitted to having committed an act of racism (compared with 30% of other Europeans). Less than half of young British people said they were in favour of immigration although 55% agreed that multiculturalism enhanced national culture. These figures compare unfavourably with other European countries, including those where extreme right wing factions are causing concern.
Tens of thousands of people suffered persecution under the Nazis in prisons, labour camps and concentration camps because of their sexual orientation and yet when the survey examined attitudes to gay people, only 64% of young British people said they accepted homosexuals, compared with 89% in Holland, 88% in France, 82% in Spain, 79% in Germany and 74% in Sweden. 22% of young Britons, amongst the highest percentage in Europe, saw AIDS as a gay disease.
This issue of BfK commemorates and celebrates the life of Anne Frank whose diary has become one of the key texts of European literature and a symbol, as Michael Rosen puts it, of ‘one of the most horrific and absurd moments in human history’. It is chilling at this time to be again confronted with what appears to be the cyclical nature of intolerance, racism and homophobia. As parents, teachers, librarians, publishers, authors and illustrators it behoves us to consider what role children’s literature can play in a social climate which appears to be only too ready to ignore or deny the painful lessons of the past.
Letterbox Library, a book club specialising in titles that promote tolerance and equality (see p.5), considers the breeding ground of intolerance and racism to be poverty and unemployment which have risen dramatically. In their view ‘there is all the more need to have as a matter of course, in every school, fiction and non-fiction which mirrors – and celebrates – the diverse ethnic and cultural world within the UK.’
The Diary of Anne Frank inspired many of us to fight against racism and intolerance and it continues to inspire young readers today. In her article, Breaking Down the Barriers (see p.4), Julia Eccleshare discusses some recent titles which also enhance understanding by showing in a positive way people who live differently or who believe different things. As she says, ‘Getting under someone else’s skin is one of the things that diaries or fiction do best.’ Teachers can not only make such titles available but play an important part in helping young readers to find ways to engage critically with what may be a contradictory consciousness between such literary experience and their cultural expectations.
It is also important, if tolerance and understanding are to be allowed to grow in our society, that the climate of ridicule and alienation that has grown up around discussion of equalities issues is challenged. When 30% of our young people do not believe in racial equality and only 64% accept homosexuality, there is no room for cynical complacency.