Books interview: Kalwant Bhopal

The author and professor of education and social justice discusses white privilege, Leonard Cohen, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird

April 12, 2018
Kalwant Bhopal University of Birmingham

What sort of books inspired you as a child?

I was an avid reader and always had my head in a book. I wasn’t brought up surrounded by books, so reading was unusual in my home. I got lost in many Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton books and then remember being enthralled by Dickens and loved reading Jane Austen.

Your new book addresses the continuing prevalence of white privilege. What texts spurred your interest in this topic?

The seminal book by Derrick Bell, Faces at the Bottom 
of the Well: The Permanence of Racism, had a huge impact on my thinking about how racism is such an ingrained feature of American society. It completely changed my understanding of how white privilege works, particularly in relation to the rules of racial standing and how black people – regardless of their class or education – will never be seen as equal to whites.

Are there any memoirs or texts aimed at a wider readership that you would particularly recommend for giving more concrete form to these issues?

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favourites, although I’m guessing all Times Higher Education readers are familiar with it. In that remarkable book, Harper Lee is able to explore racial inequality and heroism. It is a book that I never tire of reading again and again. Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine is a superb mixture of poetry, biography and current events that explores how racism manifests itself through everyday micro-aggressions and language.

Which books would you recommend about the current state of race relations and where we need to go from here?

Stuart Hall’s The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation, based on his 1984 lectures at Harvard University, is very relevant today. It explores how the politics of identity in the UK are so intertwined with how we examine categories of race and difference; and how certain groups are marginalised because of their “otherness”. Zeus Leonardo’s Race, Whiteness, and Education reaffirms a critical perspective on the central role that race and racism play in educational spaces in the US, and how whiteness manifests itself there. The book analyses the ways in which a racially informed critical pedagogy can help us to understand inequalities in society.

What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?

Leonard Cohen’s Book of Longing, to my husband, which I bought while spending hours in the Harvard bookstore. My husband is a huge fan of Leonard Cohen, so I thought that he would enjoy this. It is full of poetry and sketches by Cohen.

What books do you have on your desk waiting to be read?

Far too many! On the top of the pile is White Noise by Don DeLillo, followed by Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally and In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.

Kalwant Bhopal is professor of education and social justice at the University of Birmingham and the author of White Privilege: The Myth of a Post-Racial Society (Policy Press).

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