How is the theme of racism explored in E. R. Braithwaite's To Sir, With Love?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Racism is most definitely a dominant theme in E. R. Braithwaite's autobiographical novel To Sir, With Love since racism draws lines of distinction between the privileged and the underprivileged. Moreover, since both Ricky Braithwaite and his students are underprivileged, though it takes a great deal of time and effort, both are able to bond and overcome their challenges.

Braithwaite is a black man in London who has come from British Guiana. During World War II, he worked for the Royal Air Force as an engineer, but after the war, he is unable to find a job due to being "too black." When he is unable to find a job as an engineer, he takes a teaching position at Greenslade School, a school for disadvantaged students in a poor area of London. After Braithwaite accepts the position, Headmaster Florian outlines for him the ways in which he expects the students to be treated. In particular, Florian doesn't want the students being punished because he knows that they will just rebel against punishment. Florian further explains that he wants the teachers to understand the students are from poor families and severely underprivileged. Interestingly, as Florian continues to speak of how the students suffer at home, Braithwaite begins feeling more and more irate. Braithwaite phrases the source of his ire in the following passage:

My own experiences during the past two years invaded my thoughts, reminding me that these children were white; hungry or filled, naked or clothed, they were white, and as far as I was concerned, that fact alone made the only difference between the haves and the have-nots.

As we can see, even Braithwaite's own racial prejudices emerge in these thoughts. Just as those around him feel prejudiced against him, he feels prejudiced against those whom he sees to be in the privileged white class.

Nevertheless, as Braithwaite continues teaching, he not only sees their disadvantages, he sees ways to overcome their disadvantages. By treating them like adults, he demands their respect, which helps them blossom into respectful adults.

jeffclark eNotes educator| Certified Educator

To Sir, With Love is a work based on biographical information from its author, E. R. Braithwaite. The title comes from the inscription his class places on his end-of-year gift after his first year of teaching, giving the indication that things are going to work out well.

Written in 1959, the book outlines the experience that Mr. Braithwaite had in London's East End in his attempt to find employment after his service in the military. Skin color had never been an issue while he served in his military capacity, but once he was discharged things changed.

An engineer by training, he could not find a position in that field because, he was told, "A black man cannot supervise white men," and if he applied for non-supervisory positions he was told he was overqualified.

He finally getsĀ a job at Greenslade Secondary School because the headmaster, Alex Florian, has a very progressive attitude toward education. After he overcomes the resistance and rebellion of his students by determination, discipline and compassion, they embrace him in spite of his skin color.

Racism, as demonstrated by this story, is a problem that is not confined to any one geographical area, but it can be overcome with persistence and understanding.