During his fourth year of teaching in the U.K., primary school educator John Luk noticed something concerning about his classroom resources. While looking at a set of phonics flashcards produced by Read Write Inc., he realized that the Asian characters were illustrated with slits for their eyes.
Instead of staying silent, Luk took action. He wrote a letter of complaint, noting that the flashcards in question — a revamp of a previous set of cards that depicted fewer POC characters — are currently being used in schools worldwide. According to Luk, children aged 4 to 7 in the U.K. must learn phonics, and only a few organizations create phonics schemes to be distributed to schools across the U.K., with Read Write Inc. Phonics being one of them. Their popular phonics cards, which are published by Oxford University Press, are used in more than 5,000 schools in the U.K., as well as in nine states in the U.S. and hundreds of schools around the world.
Assuming Good Intent
In his letter, Luk — who was born in England but considers himself to be “primarily and fundamentally wholeheartedly Chinese” — wrote about his confusion as to why Read Write Inc. published two versions of the flashcards. He acknowledged Read Write Inc.’s attempt to reflect more diversity and inclusiveness in its newer version by replacing some of the cards’ white characters with characters of color.
“I can only assume that there are good reasons to have two versions of some cards,” Luk wrote to the company. “Maybe you realized that the diversity of the imaginary world of Read Write Inc. Phonics was somewhat lacking and wanted to diversify, show that you were in solidarity of the BAME [Black, Asian and minority ethnic] communities and to be more inclusive than all the white characters that you had previously.”
“I kind of understand the direction you went towards and the thought process behind it and I respect the fact that you wanted to be part of the change,” he continued. “What I do not understand is how this was considered an appropriate image to be drawn for the South East Asian community (I don’t want to sound too presumptuous and say that the characters involved are Chinese, but I honestly have no idea).”
A Mini Victory
Luk addressed his letter to Ruth Miskin, who developed Read Write Inc. Phonics. He included images of the old flashcards with white characters, as well as images of the new ones with characters of color.
He then identified his main issue with the cards’ Asian characters: “We. Have. Eyes. They might look different to other races, but one’s race might find it a bit offensive if their most defining feature is the shape of their eyes. In light of everything that’s been happening over the last few years, with [the] BLM movement, racial equality and discrimination, Islamophobia, a push for tolerance and acceptance of other cultures and races, I feel like there are double standards in terms of how other races are portrayed compared to Chinese/Korean/Japanese/other South-East Asians.”
Luk provided examples of Asian characters without slits for eyes, such as Luo Bao Bei, “Big Hero 6”’s Tadashi Hamada and “The Name Jar”’s Unhei, to show that there are illustrators who have found more appropriate ways to portray Asian eyes.
To address the severity of the issue, the U.K. educator explained why a children’s illustration could influence students from an early age. “Children’s minds are malleable, mouldable, and easily swayed by whatever information they are given,” he wrote. “They will subconsciously take in whatever racial bias or stereotype that is thrown at them and if they have the unfortunate fate of doing RWI (the scheme is fine, I’m talking about coming across these specific cards), then they are subject to these images at least twice a day.”
“If you still don’t agree,” he continued, “think of the position that I have been put in. What happens if a 5-year-old asks me (and it’s a perfectly valid question): ‘Sir, why do these people have funny looking eyes?’: how am I meant to respond? To take it further, how would a Chinese, Korean, Malaysian, or any Asian child feel if they are in the class when this question is asked? In school, we try our best to teach them that they are special and unique and different and to embrace these differences, but I imagine it’s quite hard to do that as an Asian child if school resources are illustrating caricatures of Chinese people.”
Luk received a reply the following day. After a few email exchanges with representatives from Ruth Miskin Training and Oxford University Press, a “mini victory” occurred. Luk was given an apology, as well as an offer to receive replacement copies of the cards with amended illustrations for his school. In these new drawings, the Asian characters no longer have slits for eyes, and certain attire — such as a hat that “loosely resembles a straw hat that one might link with to a paddy field” — has been altered to look less stereotypical.
Despite his small win, Luk has decided not to accept the new cards for his school. “I respectfully declined the free replacements, due to the fact that it was only offered to my school even though over 5,000 schools across the U.K. are using their resources and would still have the racist images,” he told NextShark.
NextShark contacted Oxford University Press for a statement and received the following emailed response: “We take any concern raised about our content very seriously, and as a result acted swiftly to address John Luk’s initial complaint about the depiction of South East Asian characters on some of our RWI Phonics Flashcards. We immediately corrected the artwork, involving Mr Luk in reviewing and approving the new illustrations, and did everything within our immediate control to ensure that RWI trainers and customers had access to updated content as soon as possible. We corrected the downloadable versions of the flashcards available as part of the RWI Phonics online subscription and, in addition, had a quantity of cards locally printed and supplied to Ruth Miskin Training Ltd, to ensure that their trainers were equipped with an up to date set of physical Flashcards when working in schools.
We have committed to further action to amend and distribute updated content in print form to all RWI Phonics customers, working to the best of our ability within an incredibly challenging global production and supply chain context. We have kept Mr Luk informed at each step and remain committed to action as soon as this is feasible. We thank Mr Luk for bringing this matter to our attention, and for his patience and understanding with regard to the logistical delays impacting further action at this time.”
According to Luk, the representatives from Ruth Miskin Training and Oxford University Press will not issue a public apology nor replace the flashcards that are currently in use by thousands of schools. It has been more than two months since the representatives last emailed the U.K. educator, but he still hopes to find possible alternatives and spread more awareness about this particular issue.
When asked what he would say to anyone willing to battle injustice like he did, Luk said, “Every individual, no matter how insignificant you feel you are, can make a difference as long as you decide to speak up… I spoke up not expecting anything great to come from it except to voice my concerns, but now I’ve managed to provide better and more appropriate resources for a quarter of the primary schools in the UK, which would never have happened if I suffered in silence.”
Featured Image via John Luk for NextShark