On 20 January the author, poet and teacher Kate Clanchy and her publisher announced in a joint statement that they had parted company “by mutual consent”. It followed a long row that began in August 2021 when readers pointed out racialised and ableist descriptions of students in Clanchy’s book, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. There were references to an “Ashkenazi nose”, the “narrow skull” of a Somali boy, and kids with autism were described as “jarring company”. Clanchy apologised at the time, announcing with her publisher Pan Macmillan that she would rewrite certain passages for an updated version of the book. But the online pile-on didn’t end, and now those plans have been halted altogether.
Clanchy’s case has been proffered as an example of everything wrong with cancel culture – one mistake and you’re banned for good. Support for her has often come from the right – which of course prompts suspicion from the left. This is a shame, because Clanchy’s treatment reveals how counter-productive many of our conversations around racism are.
For a start, her work has been reduced to a few of those misguided but well-intentioned words, instead of the significant achievements she has made in the realm of racial progress. This is a woman who decided that, rather than take the sort of job expected of someone with a private school education and Oxford degree, she would dedicate her 30-year career to working in inner-city schools, mentoring marginalised students and entering them into poetry competitions. Over 20 of her students wrote an open letter to the Bookseller last year in response to the controversy, describing her “unequivocal care and support for us… as poets and as people”.
One student in particular, Shukria Rezaei, who came to the UK from Pakistan as a refugee aged 14, holds Clanchy responsible for where she is now: studying for an MSc in human rights and politics. She described Clanchy’s workshops as the one “safe space where I could write and speak terrible English and not feel ashamed and judged”.
Yet this impact is considered nothing. Her publisher will “revert the rights and cease distribution” of Clanchy’s existing books – and has dropped plans for a new anthology of poems by Clanchy’s students, due to be published this year. The book would have given young people who have fled bombardments in Syria and Somalia an opportunity to express their trauma, as well as providing a foothold in a notoriously white and elitist publishing industry. Now, thanks to the backlash against their teacher, they get nothing.
This is not to say Clanchy has behaved perfectly. Her book’s descriptions of “flirty hijabs” and “chocolate” skin is, apart from anything else, cringeworthy. Worst of all, she initially denied the charges against her, encouraging Twitter users to flag a reviewer on Goodreads who “made up a racist quote and said it was in my book” (the quote was taken directly from Clanchy’s text). It has been alleged too that she treated critics of colour differently, saying in public that she was “frightened” to reply to them – playing into existing racial tropes around people of colour being aggressive when they so much as ask a question.
Her response was undoubtedly unacceptable. But I wonder how nobly I would act were I to receive mass call-outs of my book – the very title of which is about what marginalised children can teach us. Not least when Clanchy apologised: “I don’t really have an excuse, except that I am bereaved and it takes people in different ways.” Defensiveness, not least in grief, is human – but it feels as though Clanchy is not allowed to be human.
Some of Clanchy’s critics have pointed out that other authors – most notably Sunny Singh and Chimene Suleyman, both women of colour – were subjected to a torrent of racial slurs on Twitter after raising objections to her book. In an open letter published last August, more than 950 book industry figures condemned such abuse, explaining that they were “extremely concerned by our peers who have decided to use their power and influence in the industry to ignore and talk over women of colour and weaponise deeply troubling Islamophobic tropes against them, likening their actions to that of ISIS or the Taliban.”
Such behaviour is, of course, abhorrent. But the risk is that the abusive racism directed towards Singh and Suleyman becomes equated with the unintentional racism that exists in Clanchy’s writing; if you defend Clanchy, you are not only considered complicit in any racism in her books, but also the hateful racism that is levelled against her detractors.
A concerning consequence of society’s bid to be intolerant of racism is that all racism is placed in black and white terms, as though there is no spectrum of behaviour. Accidentally using the wrong word is put on the same level as engaging in racist abuse. Indeed, Clanchy is the ultimate proof of what happens when the prevailing sentiment in dialogue around racism, “intention doesn’t matter”, is taken to an extreme – even though, as is often pointed out, intention is the difference between manslaughter and murder.
When it comes down to it, Clanchy’s treatment is contradictory. One of the aims of critical race theory, the Black Lives Matter movement and other racial justice campaigns is to demonstrate that society is inherently, intrinsically racist. From law and justice to the minutiae of workplace interactions, people who aren’t white are treated differently thanks to the way society is structured and the subconscious bias everyone who lives in that society holds.
But now Clanchy is being cancelled for holding those subconscious biases – essentially, for not being born woke. And I wonder whether that has become the most self-defeating aspect of the discourse. When it comes to race, class and disability, none of us have lived our lives without a single “problematic” thought – I’ll bet that even the most well-meaning liberal harbours prejudices that, if uttered verbally, could end their careers. We increasingly lack confidence in our ability to thoughtfully cross-examine them out in the open, so that we might change and learn. Rather, if we want to believe ourselves on the “good” side of the culture wars, we are supposed to pretend they don’t exist, that we are pure. Our unspoken prejudices are tamped down and stifled, where they fester without scrutiny and challenge.
There is also the question of who gets to decide what is problematic in Clanchy’s work, especially given the racial tropes that have become embedded in our shared language. Those who spoke out against Clanchy were able to set the terms of the debate and brand her language as “racist”. Theirs was the narrative that won out. Ignored was the assessment of the “victim” of this racism: Clanchy’s student Shukria, who insisted “I am that girl with the almond eyes. I did not find it offensive.” She pointed out that for Hazara people such as her, “almond eyes” is “a beautiful reference, widely used in our poetry and to proudly describe ourselves”. Indeed, Shukria has said she was “upset” by the idea that such a description was colonialist and racist.
Because someone else thinks Shukria has been duped, a victim of that wily trickster Kate Clanchy, a young woman of colour is not even allowed to own a description of herself.