Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Sending Thoughts of Compassion, Strength, and Hope

We are so sorry to those whose lives are in turmoil due to COVID-19. To those who are ill, or with loved ones who are ill; to those whose economic situations have been upended; to those battling anxiety and fear during this time of crisis, we hold you in our hearts.

We strongly support this pledge from APALA to fight the rising racism and xenophobia we’ve seen against Asian and Asian/Pacific American people. Please take a look and sign your name.

Our email and DMs are open. Please feel free to reach out if there’s any support we can offer you.

Take care of yourselves, take care of each other.

-The Reading While White Team

Friday, January 31, 2020

Links Roundup!

It’s been a while since we’ve done one of these roundups, but there’s been some big news lately, so here we go!

Lee and Low published their 2019 Diversity Baseline Survey.  This is an update to a study they did in 2015, and to sum up their results in one line, they've found that "There is no discernible change to any of the other racial categories. In other words, the field is just as White today as it was four years ago."  If you won’t have time to digest the whole survey until your next 3-day weekend, catch the highlights on Lee and Low’s Twitter thread about the survey. EDITOR'S NOTE (1/31, 9:45 AM EST): We'd like to acknowledge an oversight in our original post – Dr. Laura Jiménez, PhD, led a team at Boston University with graduate student Betsy Beckert that analyzed and aggregated the data for the survey. This is especially galling considering how often BIPOC are uncredited for their work. We apologize for our mistake.

Aaaaaaaaand… there’s so much great news from the Youth Media Awards!! This was the first year that all Caldecott recognition went to BIPOC artists, that a Native author won the Sibert Medal, that the winners of the Coretta Scott King Author AND Illustrator Award also received Newbery and Caldecott recognition, that the American Indian Youth Literature Award winners (featuring a truly fabulous set of books) were revealed at the YMAs… the list goes on (add more fun facts in the comments, please!)  Read the complete press release here.  We at Reading While White were glad to see Dig, a novel that wrestles with Whiteness head-on, get Printz recognition, and we highly recommend this article from Public Books about Dig.

Amidst the celebrations, we’re trying to make space for criticism of the awards, and to honor the complexities therein.  We recognize that as a White blog with the mission to examine Whiteness in children’s literature, it is almost never appropriate for us to criticize BIPOC work, so we almost never do so.  A rare exception to that rule: We highly recommend this thread about White Bird from Ingrid Conley-Abrams, a school librarian in New York City.  We continue to wrestle with the systems that grant unearned advantage to White people at the expense of BIPOC people in the publishing and library worlds; and, we want to promote authentic Jewish representation in children’s literature.  We have a long way to go on both subjects.

What have we missed, here? What are you reading that’s caught your attention, of late?  Leave a comment!

Thursday, January 16, 2020

On Growth & Progress

2020 is here, and I’ve spent some time reflecting on the last decade: ups and downs, lessons learned, triumphs, and challenges. Looking back on my own growth since 2010, a lot of feelings bubble up. There’s joy, for relationships cultivated. There’s gratification, for some progress made and successful activism of which I’ve been a part. There’s also shame and anger at the world and at myself—because ten years ago there was so much I didn’t know I didn’t know. As a result of my ignorance (whether willful or unintentional) I hurt people. I’ve made mistakes for which I am 100% responsible; I’m aware of only some of them. As I exist in the world as a White person and try to engage in anti-racism and other anti-oppression work, this will surely continue. 

I like to think that I’ve embraced the kind of shame that Nina described on this blog as “instructive if the owner is open to it.”  I can’t deny those feelings, but what I do with them is up to me. As I reflect on all of this, a few throughlines emerge. In the spirit of learning and looking forward to the next ten years (and beyond), I’m sharing them below.

Changing Outcomes Over Minds

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi wrote in How To Be An Anti-Racist,  “An activist produces power and policy change, not mental change.” Dr. Kendi’s examination of history suggests that anti-racist policies can influence changes in perspectives held by people in oppressor groups—but changing someone’s mindset doesn’t often influence policy. 

It is easy for me to spend a lot of time thinking about changing hearts and minds. Changing minds and changing policies can go hand in hand, but if I am more focused on changing the thoughts of the privileged than I am concerned with anti-racist outcomes, I am centering those from oppressor groups and falling into what Paul Gorski has described as a “racial equity detour.”

I don’t think this means I should stop interrupting racism when I see it, or refuse to engage when opportunities for learning and growth arise for myself or others. This is not necessarily an either/or. (Let’s remember binary thinking is rooted in White supremacy culture.) What it does mean is that learning and thinking are not action alone, and it is naive to assume that changing people’s minds will end oppression. 

Change Requires Discomfort

Comfort is not a word I use to describe any big shifts, whether mental, behavioral, or political. As a result of my socialization, a degree of defensiveness and discomfort will always be present when the mirror is held up to me. Owning this is easier said than done, but when I think about how some of my biggest moments of growth have also been some of the most uncomfortable, I get a sense of clarity. 

Looking back, only through direct communication (and in some instances SERIOUS PRESSURE) from others did I “move” on an issue or change my behavior. It took courage and intentionality for people to tell me that I was wrong or that my thoughts or actions hurt them. Every time I reflect on an uncomfortable moment of progress for myself, I notice that someone cared enough to help me see the need for change. They could have just walked away (and if I had hurt them, they had every right to) but they didn’t, and that means something.

Feedback can come in many forms. (We White people need to check our tone policing, especially when it masquerades as White cries for “calling in.”) No matter how the criticism feels, it is a gift. My actions and my responses are my responsibility. It is probably still going to be hard, but that discomfort is where learning happens.

I Am Not Entitled to Forgiveness

In So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo shared this scenario:

Say you get drunk in a bar and punch a stranger in the face, spend the night in jail, realize that your life has taken a turn for the worse, get treatment, stop drinking, and dedicate your life to anti-violence work. To the person that you punched that night, you may forever be the person who assaulted them. The person who made them scared to go into bars for a while. The person who made them feel violated. To the people you have helped since, you may always be a hero. The person who made them feel safer in the world.

These are both who you are, they are both valid and do not cancel each other out. If you run into the person you punched years later, they may well still be afraid of you, they may react with anger. They will treat you like someone who punched them, because you are. And even if you respond to that anger and fear like someone who abhors violence, because that is also who you are, you have no right to demand that they see you differently.

It can be really difficult to know, that as Oluo writes, “to some people [I] will forever be the person who harmed them.” Working to do better and working to earn forgiveness might be connected endeavors, but they are not the same thing. While both are certainly context specific, I believe time spent on the former should be prioritized. It is, after all, that over which I have (and should have) control. Forgiveness may or may not come—but no one is entitled to it. 

(Privilege is also tied up with forgiveness and how White people have systematically been afforded more chances to “try again,” as Dr. Ruha Benjamin details here.)

Change is Constant

There’s one specific pattern of equity pushback that I’ve noticed in recent years when it comes to change. It looks like this:
Once upon a time, I supported X.
My mind/actions around X shifted (likely as a result of feedback).
I talk about my learning and work for change against X.
Person in support of X declares, “You used to support X. Here’s proof! Therefore, you are in no  place to push against it and you are the thing that is oppressive, not X!”

This type of pushback is a non-argument and a form of  whataboutism. It is a distraction that makes use of something true (past support of X) and throws in a nonsensical curveball. “You used to love X” does not mean that X is not racist, sexist, ableist, heterosexist, classist, or oppressive in myriad ways. Evidence of past support is just that: evidence of past support. 

Change alone is neither ethical nor unethical, but purity and perfectionism are ideals in White supremacy culture. Stagnation is never the only option, nor are any people or institutions doomed to be frozen in one place and time forever. History exists, and new histories are created every day. How we acknowledge the past and what we decide to do today are up to us. 

This last discussion is one I expect to see more of in the #kidlit world well into the 2020s. 

Change might look like me raving about a book and later retracting that recommendation after listening to critical perspectives from people with insights and identities different than my own. It wouldn’t be the first or last time I deemed a book “excellent” and had my mind changed. (If creators, publishers, or review journals make edits to their work as a result of feedback, this also wouldn’t be new.) It’s worth noting the importance of aiming for transparency in these experiences; if I try to brush a mistake under the rug, the learning stops with me and I am not taking full accountability.

Change might look like celebrating the evolution of a book award, even when I once uncritically supported that award as-is. 

It might look like increased interrogation of norms that have been embedded into my professional networks: conventions like organizations expecting free labor and financial sacrifices to be made by people in their membership without any questions asked; conventions like book criticism’s “Look at each book for what it is, rather than what it is not.” (Vicky Smith has already pointed out the limits of taking some of our field’s esteemed guidelines as a be-all and end-all.)

Change might mean embracing ambiguity and challenging interpretations of librarianship’s critical terminology, especially when those interpretations conflict with the profession’s core values. I believe “professionalism” and “intellectual freedom” are important for everyone and I believe it is necessary to question what it means that not everybody has equal power to define these values for the masses—and gatekeep what these values can look like in active, everyday practice. 

Change might mean a lot of things, only a few of which I’ve shared here. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that wondering what “2030 Elisa” will think of me right now kind of freaks me out. Still, worrying about that is energy better spent elsewhere, and doing nothing only supports the oppressive status-quo

As I look forward to the next decade, I’m left with hope and resolve, and also with these words recently shared by Edi Campbell: “There’s no ‘woke.’ Only ‘waking’.”

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Newbery, Caldecott and Perspectives on Excellence

Each year leading up to the announcement of the Newbery and Caldecott awards, there are discussions of eligible books and attempts to predict the outcomes, while those serving on the committees quietly go about their work. They are quiet by design: while the award criteria are public, the work itself takes place in confidentiality that, regardless of intent and purpose, is also exclusionary. 
I understand the desire for confidentiality during the process, although I don’t think that confidentiality needs to extend in perpetuity. I was a member of the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) board that voted to ease some of those rules, making suggestions, nominations and justification statements accompanying nominations for post-2016 committees available after 50 years. I’d love to see future boards go farther; for example, allowing the changes to apply to 2016 and earlier, and expanding the transparency to balloting results. 
My rationale is about more than desire for greater transparency. I’m concerned that the aura of secrecy around the Newbery and Caldecott has led to a cult of mystique surrounding the awards, one that promotes the idea that they are somehow bigger than the work we do in the field of children’s and young adult literature. In fact, they are, simply, part of the work we do, and require the same vigilance as other forms of critique and evaluation when it comes to awareness of how Whiteness impacts the work we do.
The fields of publishing and librarianship and criticism, and those of us in them, are struggling and striving when it comes to understanding this. We still fail more than we thrive at it. 
The Myth of Special Insight
For me, one example of our failure is the idea that only those who have served on one of these committees, who have “been there,” can understand the rigor of the award process. The “I have served” argument, intended or not, is an insidious way to silence those who have never served on the committees, whether in the context of sitting around a table conversing socially or weighing in on critical issues in our field. The “I have served” argument automatically puts some of us on the inside and some of us on the outside. It’s essential to consider the implications of that exclusionary stance not only in general, but specifically as it relates to White privilege, given that Newbery and Caldecott committee membership across the years has been largely inclusive of White people, while Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) are greatly underrepresented. 
BIPOC individuals have served on the Newbery and Caldecott across the years, bringing their own critical perspectives and experiences, but too often they have been solitary members of a committee--something slowly, happily, essentially changing. Yet even as ALSC works toward greater diversity on its award committees, there are barriers that may preclude some from serving. Some can impact both BIPOC and White people, including the cost of attending conferences, and employer support for the necessary time away. There are also barriers that can impact BIPOC disproportionately, including the critical work they may be doing in other contexts to push the publishing profession forward when it comes to authentic representation, and in promoting diverse voices and books. (Today, service on an ALSC award committee requires giving such work up, or doing it anonymously, when it comes to eligible books during one’s year of service. Those who serve agree to this, but it’s a requirement that may make some decline the opportunity.)
I also find the “I have served” (with its implied “and therefore understand while you don’t”) argument problematic because, quite simply, I think it’s untrue. Those who have been on the Newbery and Caldecott committees don’t have membership in a special club with a secret password. Nor have we participated in a sacred ritual that gives us shared insight. My experience on Newbery was deeply satisfying. But the only deeper insight it gave me was into the dynamic for the year I served, along with a deeper understanding of how the discussion and critique, as intense as it is, is also, inevitably, subjective, shaped by who is part of it. 
Subjectivity By Any Other Name...
The rules of confidentiality mean the details of how the Newbery and Caldecott committees arrive at their decision are considered irrelevant in the big picture. And yet, known or not, those details matter. The individual perspectives of each committee member matter. Everyone contributes to the discussion and the dynamic. Everyone contributes to what is—or isn’t—nominated. Everyone contributes to what is—and isn’t—considered when it comes to individual books as committee members read and suggest and reread and nominate and discuss the eligible books in light of the Newbery and Caldecott award criteria. 
Committee members’ work is informed by their individual identities and opinions and insights and experiences as they participate in a process that is far from empirical, although it sometimes seems as if we’re expected to believe that it is. The award criteria they consider to arrive at a decision doesn’t make the definition of “most distinguished” a fixed, objective target. Nor does the fact that it’s an effort shared among 15 people working toward numerical consensus. It is a process deeply informed and shaped by who is participating. And when award committees have been majority White, there is added danger in not acknowledging this subjectivity when it comes to thinking about how we do what we do.
I don’t think individual committees operate with an agenda regarding what kind of book will or won’t win. But the awards don’t occupy some rarified space in which they aren’t influenced by the individual identities and group dynamics of those involved in their choosing. They are influenced by both. 
The truth is that each and every year, a group of different individuals would most likely have chosen a different winner. In fact, that’s what I often say when talking about the awards to librarians and teachers. I also note that these awards are two of many “perspectives on excellence,” to quote a phrase I learned from Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) Director Emeritus Ginny Moore Kruse, because there are many children’s and young adult literature awards, and many wonderful books worthy of acknowledgment each year.
Representation Matters
This doesn’t mean each and every committee hasn’t worked incredibly hard to reach its decision. This doesn’t mean winners aren’t chosen with integrity. But it does mean that representation matters, in books, and on the committees, and even, perhaps, in what is—or isn’t—stated in the award criteria and definitions.
ALSC added a statement about “Diversity and ALSC Media Award Evaluation” to all its award and notable committee manuals in 2015. Among other things, it states,
As individuals serving on committees evaluate materials according to the criteria outlined for their specific charge, they should strive to be aware of how their own perspectives and experiences shape their responses to materials. Every committee member brings unique strengths to the table, but every committee member also brings gaps in knowledge and understanding, and biases.  Committee members are strongly encouraged to be open to listening and learning as well as sharing as they consider materials representing diverse experiences both familiar and unfamiliar to them.
This statement touches on the ideas of cultural competence and cultural humility without naming them, but I wonder what it would look like to have tenets of cultural competence and cultural humility built into the definitions and/or criteria for individual awards as committee members are asked to consider what it means for a book to be “distinguished.”  (Or, as Hal Schrieve asked, how can the award decenter Whiteness?)

How, for example, might the Newbery criteria stating “Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization” be further clarified, especially around that thorny concept of “accuracy”? What might be explicitly asked of both the books and of committee members evaluating a work when it comes to an author writing about—and committee members reading about—experiences beyond those they’ve lived or have close knowledge of? In what way might committee members not just be asked but required to consider their own cultural identities in relation to the works they are evaluating and the comments of one another? How might the definitions and criteria for these awards reflect White privilege in ways I don’t even see?  (I am aware that ALSC may be limited by legal agreements under which the awards were established when it comes to the “terms,” which is why I’m referring here only to “definitions” and “criteria.”)

I have been skirting around these ideas, and hesitating on this post, for awhile. I don’t want to silence or ignore the history or experiences of BIPOC who have served on award committees. I don’t want to ignore or diminish the contributions of anyone who has served on the committees, which are an incredible commitment of time and effort. Nor do I want to diminish the honor of being chosen a winner or honor recipient. 

But my biggest concern is that I don’t know all the questions to ask, let alone have the answers.  What I do know is that critical perspectives on how the Newbery and Caldecott are chosen are not the sole purview of those who have served on the committees.

Megan Schliesman

Thursday, November 7, 2019

When White Feelings Dominate

In an October 28 article titled “Yes, But… One Librarian’s Thoughts About Doing It Right” in OLA Quarterly (a special issue devoted to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion), librarian Heather McNeil shares her thoughts and feelings about a variety of subjects related to racism. Her piece is divided into four sections, titled as follows: “Collection Development”, “Dr. Seuss”, “Debbie Reese”, and “Reading While White.”

It is impossible for me to respond to this piece without appearing, to some at least, to be operating from a place of defensiveness; any assertion to the contrary will be met with some incredulity. Nevertheless, regardless of whether we’re believed, I can honestly say that this piece is not the result of, or meant to be a response to, the criticisms McNeil directs at Reading While White. If you want to read what she says about us, you’re welcome to check out her article, and to agree or disagree with her at your discretion.

I am, however, deeply troubled by the blatant disrespect Ms. McNeil directs towards our colleague Dr. Debbie Reese. McNeil’s language, and the content of her attack on Dr. Reese, are part of a larger pattern of White dismissal of Dr. Reese’s work; I’ve heard many White people disparage Dr. Reese using similar tactics.

Before you continue reading the rest of this post, please read Dr. Reese’s response here if you haven’t already.

Now, here are my own reactions.

1 - Never does McNeil refer to Dr. Reese as “Dr.” She calls her “Debbie Reese” and “Ms. Reese”, ignoring and erasing the scholarship and qualifications that Dr. Reese brings to her work. She also neglects to name that Dr. Reese is Native (she is tribally enrolled, Nambé Pueblo), thereby dismissing the lens of expertise Dr. Reese brings to her work through her lived experiences as a Native person.

2 - McNeil titles the paragraph “Debbie Reese”. She does not title it “American Indians In Children’s Literature” (the title of Dr. Reese’s blog) or “An Indigenous Critique of Whiteness In Children’s Literature” (the title of Dr. Reese’s Arbuthnot lecture, which McNeil criticizes). In titling the section “Debbie Reese”, McNeil levels an attack on Dr. Reese as a person, rather than criticizing Dr. Reese’s ideas, words, or actions.

I’m speaking to my fellow White people now. If you retain only one thing from this response piece, please let it be this: When you name your BIPOC colleagues without their permission, you are potentially putting them in danger. The words that seem innocuous to you can become lightning rods for some (like Neo-Nazis and the alt-right) who seek to do real harm to BIPOC people. I am so grateful to the BIPOC people who have educated me about this.

3 - McNeil begins the passage about Dr. Reese thusly:

“Hoo boy. Opening a can of worms here.”

This is, in written form, what many of us have heard countless times in conversations in professional spaces. Someone says “Debbie Reese” (almost always omitting the “Dr.”) and follows it with a sigh, a chuckle, a groan, or some equivalent of “Hoo boy. Opening a can of worms here.”

This is racism in action. This is the moment when we White people enter into the unspoken agreement that Dr. Reese, as a person, constitutes a Problem--and we agree to unite to contain and constrict this Problem.

4 - McNeil then goes on to say:

“Believe me, I admire her work.”

This is another key component of the unspoken White agreement. This is the part where we White people cover our bases. We are “the good ones”, so we say something meaningless about how much we support Dr. Reese in theory, before going on to dismiss her in actuality.

And therein lies the crux of the issue. Many of us White people like the idea of supporting Dr. Reese in her work, but balk and withdraw when Dr. Reese doesn’t prioritize our comfort in how she conducts her work.

And when the lived reality of fighting racism doesn’t live up to our White expectations and imaginations, that’s when we write articles about our White feelings, and because we’re White, get them published in peer-reviewed, academic journals.

-Allie Jane Bruce

Postscript: Yes, I’m aware that Ms. McNeil can, if she should so choose, point to this post and say “See? Reading While White DOES want me to feel bad.” There’s really no way to counter this self-fulfilling White fragility, so I won’t try, especially since according to her, the damage is already done; we already made her feel bad. Ms. McNeil is free to read this post or not, to feel however she may, and to process those feelings however she may wish. My only suggestion is that she process these feelings in private and with other White people, so as to not task BIPOC people with still more White-feelings-oriented labor. Ms McNeil: We are ready and happy to have a conversation if you wish to talk; just email us.

Ed. 12/11/19 1:45pm: With apologies for the lack of timeliness, I want to highlight this piece by Max Macias. Thank you, Max, for providing the link in the comments below, and thank you for your activism.

Ed. 2/3/19 12:20pm: Please also see the American Indian Library Association's Fall 2019 Newsletter, available here, which contains a formal rebuttal of McNeil's article.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Reviewing While White: Exile from Eden

Andrew Smith’s Exile from Eden, the sequel to his award-winning Grasshopper Jungle, had its book birthday last week (September 24, 2019). There is… a lot to unpack with this book, and today I’m going to highlight some of the racism and sexism that abounds in Smith’s latest YA novel. Quotes and page numbers are from the advanced readers copy. Spoilers ahead, if you care about that sort of thing.

Before we dig in, some background: At the end of Grasshopper Jungle, protagonist Austin, his best friend/boyfriend Robby, Austin’s girlfriend Shann, and several of their parents move in to a massive underground bunker (aka "Eden"). There, they hope they will be safe from the ginormous, horny praying mantises (also sometimes called Unstoppable Soldiers) that have taken over Iowa and also possibly the USA. Austin is unethically nonmonogamous (he is dating Shann while also dating Robby, which Shann knows about but does not consent to) and at the end of Grasshopper Jungle has sex in the bunker with Shann. Exile from Eden is set sixteen years after the end of Grasshopper Jungle and is narrated by their son, Arek.

One of the few characters we meet from beyond “Eden” is a twelve-year-old boy. Described as “brown-skinned” with “wild dreadlocks,” his name is Breakfast (edible brown child, much?). He is frequently described, by himself and the narration, as “completely wild” and he is obsessed with the idea of having money. “‘You have to be wild to survive,’ he told Olive. ‘Just look at me, wouldja? There’s no denying I’m wild. Who’s got money? Me. I’ve got money. Wild’” [16].

Breakfast (again, the only brown character) spends most of his time naked because he “hates wearing clothes”, and he is constantly “scratching his balls,” spitting, and urinating. He is described as animalistic: “Roaring incoherently like an animal, which was basically what Breakfast was anyway” [107-108]. Also, wait for it: his only companion turns out to be a CHIMPANZEE who doesn’t talk (because, ahem, she’s a CHIMPANZEE) and whom he GENUINELY BELIEVES IS JUST A VERY HAIRY GIRL WHO NEVER TALKS BECAUSE SHE JUST AGREES WITH WHATEVER HE HAS TO SAY. Holy cow. Just let that sink in.

The three main human women in Exile from Eden fall neatly into the maiden/mother/crone series of archetypes, existing with few hints at any interior life beyond their relationships to Arek.

Arek’s love interest is his only peer, Amelie Sing Brees, a biracial (Chinese and White American) teen girl who is his aunt by partnership (Arek describes his father Austin’s partner Robby as his father as well, and Amelie is Robby’s half-sister). Arek constantly puts her on a pedestal, regularly saying she’s braver than he is, and she simultaneously has no shame about and no knowledge of anything related to Arek’s sexuality. In keeping with the “maiden” trope, which requires sexual purity and vulnerability simultaneously, Amelie is almost sexually assaulted by a rogue ex-soldier (human, not praying mantis). Even this, though, is really about Arek; we learn almost nothing about how Amelie feels and it is a plot point primarily used to further Arek’s emotional development and increase “drama” (*ahem* #menwritingwomen). Arek’s mother Shann is described as an emotional deadweight whose depression is oppressive (“Thirteen was a bad year for me. My mother’s sadness and anger became a stormy ocean inside the hole, drowning me, and I think Robby was only trying to make me happy” [13]) and whose parenting is overly controlling (“‘Why have you never taken me outside like this before?’ I asked. / My father shook his head. ‘Your mother and grandmother would never stand for it.’ / Robby nodded. ‘There will be hell to pay when we get home, Porcupine’” [34-35]). Arek’s grandmother (Shann’s mother) is described as uptight, obsessed with the perpetuation of traditional nuclear familial structures and traditions, and in particular obsessed with circumcising Arek. The symbolism is… rich.

Arek’s primary influence seems to be his father Austin, the misogynistic protagonist of Grasshopper Jungle, and unfortunately the two-dimensionality with which he views and treats women seems to be a patriarchal lineage. Unsurprisingly, Austin constantly perpetuates toxic masculinity by both ignoring the women who make up a *literal* 50% of his community and passing that misogyny onto his son. Austin completely ignores Shann as a co-parent, undermining and belittling her role. Likewise, Arek is vaguely aware that his mother’s emotional distance may have been caused by something (gee, I don’t know, maybe the MASSIVE AMOUNT OF UNACKNOWLEDGED TRAUMA she experienced since the finale of Grasshopper Jungle??), but he has no interest in understanding her better.

In perpetuating these most basic systems of oppression without using his text to push back against them, Smith makes readers complicit in that oppression and further perpetuates the idea that this representation--inaccurate, harmful, and insulting to his readers--is acceptable. This is not a surprise; we all remember the “keep YA kind” debacle of 2015. Nevertheless, it’s frustrating and disappointing that Smith, his editor at Simon & Schuster (David Gale), and his agent (Michael Bourret) have chosen to yet again ignore both the specific critiques Smith has previously received (it’s been almost exactly four and a half years since “I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female” and the street date of Exile) and the important work of scholars like Edi Campbell and Kyla Wazana Tompkins, who highlight the problematic associations of black children with monkeys and brown children as comestible. When you’re been gifted the tools to do better, it is shameful to fail so greatly.

--Kazia Berkley-Cramer

Friday, September 13, 2019

The Stories White People Tell...and Control

We recently received a question: Why are so many picture books (often biographies) written by White authors and then illustrated by a BIPOC artist? And often these stories are labeled as #OwnVoices [credit: Corinne Duyvis] when really it’s a White person telling the story of a racial minority. If the publisher came up with the idea, why not choose a person from that background to both illustrate AND tell the story? If the author came up with the idea, what does this say about White people and our insistence to control the narrative? And ultimately, what is the impact of this pattern of White-authored narratives about BIPOC on child readers?

A few of us at RWW thought we’d explore this question, and we are sharing our reflections below.


ALLIE: There is an overabundance of “overcoming pain” narratives in these White-authored, BIPOC-illustrated, non-fiction picture books. I think of what Zetta Elliott termed the “White appetite for Black pathology.”

We have decided not to list examples because we do not want any BIPOC illustrators to be dragged into the spotlight against their will, or feel compelled to respond to this piece, or, especially, feel pressured to justify their choices. We ask that our readers--especially White readers--be mindful of this dynamic as well, should you choose to comment or respond to this piece.

But the pattern is undeniable--just look for picture book biographies in your library, if you need a starting point. And as a pattern, these books indicate a system that favors White authors telling stories of BIPOC pain, a system in which a BIPOC artist’s role is to illustrate those White author’s words. Giving these books a BIPOC illustrator doesn’t solve the problem of that White appetite for BIPOC pain.

SAM: One obvious issue - how much (and what kind of) research has the White author done about this subject? Can we trust this person to tell this story? I think the answer a great majority of the time is a resounding NO, and yet… we still see these books, over and over.

ELISA: I think there are so many factors at play, including what you wrote about, Allie, and how White-controlled school curricula can often reinforce and motivate these pain narratives. I’m also thinking about how much nonfiction authorship has traditionally (even if implicitly) meant expertise in a subject area, and how we White people are all too often regarded as an expert on everything--even experiences that are not our own.

I would think that the way picture books are acquired has to do with this too. Unless the publisher has the idea outright (as our questioner brought up) it is my understanding that manuscripts are often acquired first, and then the illustrator is assigned later. Assuming that is true (at least most of the time), this would mean publishers are signing White creators’ manuscripts first and then inviting BIPOC creators into the projects. In which case, the White lens is still the one on which the entire project is based. A White author received a book deal about a BIPOC subject - and this could very much mean that a BIPOC author did not.

Still, I do not in any way want to devalue the impact of illustration and visual literacy! Reading pictures is as important as reading text--and talented artists have and will continue to share their voices and make their mark in ways that are incredible.

ALLIE: Oh, I totally agree. Especially for the youngest kids, who will dive into these books by sitting with and absorbing the pictures long before they can read the words. BIPOC illustrators can imbue their artwork with an authenticity that will speak to young readers in ways that words cannot, and that is invaluable.

The term #OwnVoices gives a name and identity to a crucial piece of the puzzle of inequity in children’s literature: the ability and access people from marginalized groups need in order to tell (and publish!) their stories, rather than be crowded out by dominant voices who overwhelm that ability. It is one of many important markers to note and track in books’ subjects and authorship, and at the same time it is a complex issue. Unfortunately, the term can be and has been weaponized by people attempting to police what topics BIPOC can and cannot write about. We do not live in a binary world in which a work is completely “OwnVoices” or “Not OwnVoices.” (For more on this topic, I highly recommend these FAQs by Corinne Duyvis, who originated the #OwnVoices term and hashtag.)

So while we might all agree that an #OwnVoices illustrator is a positive… it is not a systemic fix. It feels more like an easy and comfortable halfway-path for the Powers That Be… a way for publishers and marketers to be able to put a book in the “OwnVoices” category (that false binary) without addressing the deeper problems with inequitable representation and the White fixation on BIPOC pain narratives. In short, it’s part of a system that preserves the power White people have to tell BIPOC stories.

ELISA: I remember hearing about White male authors negotiating language in their book contracts requesting BIPOC artists--especially women and nonbinary people--be hired to illustrate their manuscripts. This can prevent all-male or all-White projects and can have the impact of increasing the numbers of BIPOC illustrators publishing books. At the same time, I can also see where this might end up assuaging guilt and supporting that “comfortable halfway-path” you describe.

If someone is thinking we’re reading too much into this, one challenge might be to look for books where a BIPOC author has written about any nonfiction subject, and a White artist has been hired to illustrate it. Can you think of any? (I can think of only a few.) That it is harder to list the latter and super easy to list the former shows that this pattern is undeniable.

Looking at biographies about BIPOC subjects written by White people can also reveal (through the topics and themes that keep emerging: pain narratives, books about athletes and musicians from more than a half-century ago, etc.) where White adult interest lies. When White creators and publishers control the industry, White people are determining what is interesting, which stories are worthy of exploration, whose stories are being told, and how they are told through text (White-authored books, even biographies about BIPOC subjects, often appear to speak to White readers as a default audience). What topics, themes, or subjects might emerge (or how might these same stories be written differently) if these books were not authored by White people?

SAM: I think you’re both right about this pattern being more palatable for the White-dominated publishing world. Think of the White authors who have made a career writing books about BIPOC subjects - I wonder how often one of these authors thinks to themselves, “Hmmm, maybe I should step aside and let an insider tell this story.” Recently I heard a story about a White author being asked what research they did before writing a book centered around a culture that wasn’t their own. The author’s response? That they “probably should have.” (I asked for and was given permission to link to the post in question.) The sheer audacity to not only try to tell the story instead of using one’s privilege to leverage a BIPOC voice, but also to show such flippant disregard for authenticity? That’s a White people thing.

ELISA: That’s an all-around yikes and YES. Another thing we White people like to do is pretend that because informational texts are rooted in facts, that they are somehow race-neutral and that the identity of the creator does not matter. (Pretending Whiteness has no meaning is a pretty effective strategy to both ignore and maintain White dominance.) Remember when the Tham Luang cave rescue happened last year in Thailand? I remember listening to voices on Twitter talking about what an awesome children’s book the story would make, but also joking that a White person would probably write and publish it first. Sure enough, that’s what happened. All books contain a point of view--including informational texts. And that’s before we address how many children’s books claiming to be nonfiction actually contain misinformation, stereotypes, or nothing at all about BIPOC (straight up erasure).

ALLIE: I also think about the impact on BIPOC illustrators, to have these projects so constant and prevalent. Your job is still to illustrate a White person's words. And the message implicitly sent to White illustrators: You don't have to deign to illustrate the books that "those people" write.

These messages are deeply dangerous. The CCBC statistics we’re all so familiar with are highly useful, but statistics alone do not tell the full story, do not encapsulate all the subtle methods by which White people cling to a White-dominant world--in this case, by controlling who gets to tell the story.

SAM: So where does this leave us; namely, what can I do as a _____ (fill in the blank: teacher, librarian, caregiver, general kidlit person, etc.) to make sure I de-center the dominant White cishet male gaze in books about marginalized people and groups in as many ways as possible - the writing, the visuals, all the way down to the editing and publishing - in my interactions with the children in my life? How do we (speaking now about the wider kidlit world) make sure we de-center the dominant White cishet male gaze in books about marginalized people and groups in as many ways as possible - again, the writing, the visuals, all the way down to the editing and publishing? Should publishers hire sensitivity readers for nonfiction titles in which the book creators do not share the same identity/identities as the person or groups that the book centers? We in the kidlit community need to consider the ramifications of this pattern.

ALLIE: Well, I’m a definite “yes” on that last question, and I know many publishers do indeed hire sensitivity readers for nonfiction as well as fiction (good on them.)

I think for me, it comes down to recognizing that this pattern is part of a system of White oppression in children’s literature. That system is nuanced and tricky. It adapts to challenges to its power, and those adaptations aren’t always immediately obvious. We won’t out-smart racism by introducing more binaries (“#OwnVoices Only!!”) into the equation, but we can recognize racist patterns for what they are, and use the tools available to us to fight (e.g. the OwnVoices identifier) against these racist patterns.

ELISA: Agree. And I'm pushing myself to remember, always, that although there are a lot of adults in the kidlit ecosystem, it is young readers who are on the receiving end of these patterns once these books are out in the world and into their lives.