Sunday, May 31, 2020

Being a “Person of One’s Time” in 2020

Elisa Gall
While the events of the last several days, weeks, and years are unique to this moment in history, none of this: state violence, White supremacy, racist double standards, White liberal racism...none of this is new. 


As a White person, I can’t and won’t ever begin to understand the trauma BIPOC have faced and continue to face every day. I can be horrified, devastated, enraged, and justice-focused, and at the end of the day I’m still White. I will always be colluding with racism and benefiting from it. It is my responsibility to work to understand what this means and pay attention to the complexities at play, especially when I am trying to engage in anti-racist action. It is my responsibility to consider how my ignorance and naivety, my expression of feelings, and my behaviors impact BIPOC. (General reminder: STOP posting traumatic videos of anti-Black violence on your timelines.)


I can’t write as fast as the world spins, but as I am sitting and processing what’s happening around me, I’m thinking a lot about the community of children’s and young adult literature of which I am a part. Thanks to Dr. Laura M. Jiménez and Betsy Beckert’s research, we have the data from 2019 to show how #kidlit is dominated by White people just like any other White supremacist, capitalist industry. Children’s literature has never been separate from the wider world. Everything there is here. It is all connected.


As politicians use racist terms like “thugs” to dehumanize activists and denounce organized action, #kidlit uses terms like “online mobs” to dismiss, silence, and punish expert critique and valid expressions of pain. While White community leaders distort Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy and cry for a mythological “peace” that somehow exists without justice, norms of “niceness” and “professionalism” are upheld and defined by majority-White #kidlit gatekeepers who have a vested interest in protecting the status quo. 


This is all happening in an industry in which BIPOC pain and trauma are routinely commodified, #OwnVoices books (credit Corinne Duyvis) face an uphill path to creation, and racist books filled with straight-up misinformation and stereotypes keep getting published. As Jason Reynolds said last week at School Library Journal’s Day of Dialog: “There is something about the documenting of a thing, that it becomes real. It doesn’t matter if it’s true.” 


I am thinking of the BIPOC in the children's literature community who fight tirelessly for equity. I am thinking about the #kidlit patterns we see, again, and again, when racism in our industry is challenged. I’m thinking of the children that we serve. And one other thing that I’m thinking about today, as I write this in 2020, is how often discussions of racism in children’s literature turn into a defense of racism with the excuse that the creator is (or was) “a person of one’s time.”


What does it mean to be a person of one’s time?


Sure, we are all human. We’re all socialized, we carry ignorance, and even when we are given information our actions have the potential to be racist and anti-racist in the same afternoon. We are all people, yes, and of course we each live during a time. Andrew Jackson was a person of his time. So was John Brown (they lived during the same time actually). Laura Ingalls Wilder was a person of her time, and so was Ida B. Wells (of that same time). Marsha P. Johnson lived during the same time as George Wallace. Helen Bannerman lived during the same time as W.E.B. Du Bois. Fred Korematsu lived during the same time as Theodor Seuss Geisel. Charles Lindbergh overlapped with Langston Hughes. Rebecca Nagle, Judy Heumann, Mari Copeny, and Dolores Huerta all live during the same time as Stephen Millerand us.


As long as there has been racism, there have been people fighting racism. Just as there has always been racism in children’s and young adult literature, there have always been people fighting racism in children’s and young adult literature. One look at the Interracial Books for Children Bulletin Archive organized by Dr. Nicole Cooke and her team shows that.

To say someone is a person or product of their time isn’t just a weird and sort of obvious thing to say to defend racist writings or actions. It functions as an excuse for the racism (and whatever connected systems of oppression are also being challenged in the moment the defense is elicited). When people use “of one’s time” to defend a writer’s work, they are actually naming, even if subconsciously, that the oppressive status quo of that time period is worth making excuses for. Or at the very least, that they are OK with that racist text or behavior being defended in the context of the discussion, which is happening in the present. An “of one’s time” defense claims some sort of time-space neutrality that just doesn’t exist.To quote Jason Reynolds againremixing the work of Dr. Ibram X. Kendi”if you're not being anti-racist, by definition, you are being racist.” 
EDITOR'S NOTE 6/2/20 5:13PM CST: I want to apologize for citing Ibram X. Kendi above, without crediting Angela Davis, who should be cited for the concept and quote: “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be antiracist.”  I'm sorry for this intersectionality failI erased a Black woman's work. Thank you to Stacy Collins for pointing out this mistake. 


BLACK LIVES MATTER
I am a White person of 2020. I am learning, and sharing, and doing my best to fight the anti-Blackness and racism that I’m swimming in and that has been part of my life and this country since forever. I’m a person of my time, and if you’re reading this, you are a person of your time too. And this (*looks around*) is where we are. The status quo right now, today, is NOT okay. 


What each of us doeswhat we defend, what we stay silent on, what decisions we make, what we pay attention to, how we spend our money, and even what we don’t doall are choices. Fellow White people, what choices will you make today? 


You can read our kindred spirits blogs (you should be doing this already, before you read Reading While White) or explore links on this all-ages Anti-Racism Resources padlet developed by Dr. Nicole Cooke. You can purchase titles recommended by the team at We Are Kid Lit (the new list is slated to go live tomorrow). You can evaluate your library’s policies or a favorite curricular text using a critical lens. You can support a local bail fund or a nonprofit like BYP100 or Black Visions Collective.

It’s 2020. We are all people of now. Black lives matter and they have always mattered. Full stop. 





-Elisa Gall

Thursday, May 21, 2020

White Erasure of BIPOC People and Work


A note about the following: I wrote this post several months ago. It was originally scheduled to publish Thursday March 12; we decided not to post it then because the night before, COVID-19 news swept the nation and all attention was focused there.

I know that some of our readers, like me, have time and mental space to read this right now; some do not. Our email and DMs are open; please get in touch if there is any support we can provide, and take care.

On January 31, we published a Links Roundup post. While we published it under the group account, I (Allie) organized and posted it, so I’m primarily responsible for the mistakes therein—namely, that in promoting Lee and Low’s writeup of the 2019 Diversity Baseline Survey, I failed to name and credit Dr. Laura M. Jiménez, as well as Betsy Beckert, as co-authors of the survey. My mistake was part of a pattern in this specific instance (the Guardian also failed to credit Dr. Jiménez and Ms. Beckert for their work on this survey), but it is also part of a larger pattern of White erasure of BIPOC people and work. So with a healthy dose of humility that comes with recognizing myself as a big part of the problem, and with my (and our) sincere apologies to Dr. Jiménez and Ms. Beckert, that pattern of erasure is the subject of this post.

With full credit to the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, we here at Reading While White define racism as “Race-based prejudice coupled with access to systemic, structural power.” It is impossible to exist in the world without having internalized race-based prejudice, and Whiteness necessarily confers a privileged relationship to systemic and structural power upon White people. Therefore, under this definition, all White people are racist. And all White people working on anti-racist activism necessarily bring their racism into their anti-racist work.

It is an inescapable truth that I will bring my own Whiteness and my own racism into anti-racist spaces, and that I will often reproduce racism in those spaces. I can always work to do better, but part of doing better is accepting and sitting with the inherent contradiction of my being in these spaces at all, trying to do anti-racist work while not denying the fact that I am racist.

In a study on how White activists contribute to severe burnout among BIPOC activists, Paul C. Gorski and Noura Erakat identified patterns of White activists “undermining or invalidating the racial justice work of activists of color” and “taking credit for participants’ racial justice work and ideas” as major contributors to BIPOC burnout (among others). According to Gorski and Erakat, “white activists derived benefits from their involvement in racial justice activism at the expense of activists of color who, in turn, were silenced, undermined, disrespected, and eventually burned out.”

Specifically, in Gorski’s and Erakat’s study, BIPOC activists reported that White activists:
  • “appropriate antiracist organizations by usurping power from activists of color”
  • “Need… the spotlight, [which] led some to exploit activists of color either to acquire benefits—leadership positions or speaking invitations, for example—or to win validation from activists of color.”
  • “take credit for ideas they previously dismissed from [BIPOC activists]”
  • “accept benefits, such as credit and recognition, for ideas and work produced by activists of color.” (One interviewee offered, as an example, White Academics “who just want to get their name published with someone who is recognized for doing racial justice.”)
  • “take the work developed by marginalized people and ‘put their name on it.’ [One interviewee] explained, ‘I have white racial justice workers who ... even record me or photograph something I post and use it as if it’s theirs, without giving me credit ... as they coopt it and reappropriate it in a way that is dangerous.’”
BIPOC activists in Gorski’s and Erakat’s study described these White-rooted, within-community conditions as more intense and potent than external causes of burnout: “The racism that propelled participants into racial justice movements was reproduced within those movements. For many participants, this was a particularly disappointing and stress-inducing condition because they had entered movements hoping for a reprieve from the racism with which they coped outside their movements….” It stands to reason that White activists (including us at RWW) have done as much to undermine the anti-racist movement as any external force, and we (White people, including us at RWW) inevitably continue to do so.

There are different levels of White erasure of BIPOC work, from just ignoring it to actively appropriating it. Failing to acknowledge or credit BIPOC people for their work and ideas also erases their very existence and presence in activist spaces, a particularly noxious form of racism.

Big names in the White Anti-racist movement necessarily play a role in this problem. Tim Wise has been rightly criticised for how he dominates, profits from, and moves in general through anti-racist spaces; Leslie Mac, creator of the Ferguson Response Network and much more, wrote: “From Tim Wise to Dixon White - our pain is used for profit. And repeating concepts created by Black folks thru a white lens will always sell.” While I myself have learned deeply from, and am grateful for, the work of White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo, I recognize that she also benefits from White privilege within the anti-racist movement; the BIPOC people with whom she’s collaborated don’t have nearly the same level of national name-recognition, at least among White people (I saw Dr. DiAngelo present at a conference with Darlene Flynn in 2017; both were excellent, and I’ve been bothered ever since that Robin DiAngelo is a household name among White activists and Flynn is not).

We here at Reading While White fall into this category as well. Although we do not have the same level of mainstream attention nationally as Wise or DiAngelo, we do have a disproportionate degree of clout within the fields of librarianship and children’s literature, given that some of our BIPOC colleagues have done this work for more than twenty years (and we turn five this Fall). Ironically, given how I subsequently erased her work, Dr. Laura Jiménez pointed this out to me when I interviewed her three years ago:
The one thing that frustrates me the most--and I’m glad that Reading While White is doing what it does--is that if I say something about a book, if Debbie or Edi says something, we’re all told that we’re not giving the author a chance. That they tried. We are not believed. If you look at the traffic RWW get vs the traffic I get or Edi gets, even though we’ve been doing this for longer, you get more, and the only difference is that you’re White. To be honest, part of me resents that. And, I am glad that there are people willing to amplify our voices. If I write something, and you pick it up, that means so many more people will be willing to hear it. And that is paramount to my work. You get a lot of crap, the same criticism, but at the end of the day, you are heard and you are believed. Without White voices, our message can’t be heard. We are not believed. It’s good that your team realizes it.
I am glad that Dr. Jiménez was honest here, although she was much more generous with us than we deserve, i.e., we do NOT get the same crap; what we get is much smaller, and benign by comparison. I imagine there are many BIPOC people within the children’s literature field who feel similarly—or more strongly—and for good, valid reasons aren’t inclined to tell us that they feel that way (see: Gorski’s and Erakat’s study about burnout above).

You’ve probably heard that Black people—especially women—need to work “twice as hard for half as much” (mainstream White America can thank Scandal for bringing that maxim into our consciousness). Think about what this means for us as White people: We work half as hard, for twice as much.

How does this show up in children’s literature? For one, the bar to be published is infinitely higher for BIPOC creators; and even if you are published, the level of attention and spotlight from the vast majority of bookstores and libraries is disproportionately higher for White creators. While perusing my local Barnes & Noble the other night, I was angered by the number of mediocre books by White people, mostly men, prominently on display in the children’s section. There were several that I’d hazard would never have been published, let alone given the best display space, had a Black woman submitted the same text. This itself is a form of erasure—our insistence upon highlighting the same White men, over and over, causes and allows them to take up space that should belong to BIPOC creators, and by extension, BIPOC readers.

SCBWI Minnesota recently quite literally erased—that is, deleted—the work of Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen when she pointed out that the image they’d set as their banner was a stereotypical, racist image (link included with permission). They also erased the voices of many people who’d commented in agreement with Dr. Dahlen. Deletion of harmful posts is a common form of White erasure; in one fell swoop, the original poster can erase, rather than take ownership of, their mistakes, and can also erase the voices of any BIPOC critiquing racism. In this case, SCBWI Minnesota also decided not to clarify who was responsible for the deletions (link included with permission), thereby erasing their responsibility for that act of erasure and diffusing the blame for this act of racism. Such deletions gaslight the targets of racism (which compounds the initial racism). As Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas noted in a thread about patterns of White erasure she noticed last year, “oppression justifies its violence and power by arguing that the oppressed's receipts are invalid” (quote included with permission).

(A point of clarification here: SCBWI Minnesota later posted screenshots of the deleted content. Another point of clarification: Screenshots that are not transcribed are not accessible to those who use screen readers.)

Erasure also shows up in children’s literature when White creators steal ideas from creators of color and present them as their own. This ranges from the constant entitlement White authors feel to tell BIPOC stories to outright theft and plagiarism. (If you haven’t read Jacqueline Woodson’s Who Can Tell My Story in a while, pause and re-read it now, and also make time for a re-read of Debbie Reese’s An oft-posed question: "Who can tell your stories?"—and actually, also read Maya Gonzalez’ My Story, Your Story, Their Story, Who Gets To Tell It before you read any more of my work). You may also have read David Bowles’ recent, expert pieces on the “harmful, appropriating, inaccurate, trauma-porn melodrama” that is Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt, or Maya Gonzalez’ careful documentation of how White authors Brook Pessin-Whedbee and Kelly Storck, as well as their publishers (Jessica Kingsley Publishers and Instant Help Books/imprint of New Harbinger Publications, Inc.) plagiarized her work. Recently, Tangerine Jones wrote about how authors Katherine Alford and Kathy Gunst, plus their publisher Simon and Schuster, coopted and profit from her work—and the White aggression Alford and Gunst brought against her. White plundering of Native stories and cultural content for profit also echoes the history of colonial invasion. As Professor Rebecca Tsosie says:
Indigenous peoples have property interests, even if they don’t fall within the narrow definitions of Western law. This was a problem in the sixteenth century when the Doctrine of Discovery was applied as an international doctrine to validate the interests of European sovereigns in claiming property in the lands that were described as the “New World.” They said that indigenous peoples don’t really have property rights, they just kind of roam around on the land, and so it’s okay for Europeans to go and appropriate the land and say that they have title. Now that’s what we don’t want to do with intellectual property rights in the modern era... [P]eople can go and basically steal indigenous songs and stories, and then they can copyright them... the harm’s not merely economic, but it can be a cultural form of harm that could be very devastating.
(Many thanks to Dr. Debbie Reese for answering my questions on this subject, and for sending me that link.) All of the above are examples of the different forms that White appropriation and erasure of BIPOC work can take in the world of literature.

[CONTENT WARNING FOR THIS PARAGRAPH - discusses police killings of Black people]
But perhaps the most dangerous, destructive aspect of this erasure is the flipside. If White people leap to take credit and rewards for BIPOC work and ideas—and if we make those White names household staples, while erasing the names and existence of robbed BIPOC people—we also do the reverse, when it comes to blaming BIPOC people for their own murders while simultaneously erasing the White-owned guilt for those murders. I’m talking to White readers, now. You likely can name a slew of Black people murdered by police: Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Philando Castile. Alton Sterling. How many of their killers can you name, off the top of your head? They are: Darren Wilson. Daniel Pantaleo. Timothy Loehmann. Jeronimo Yanez. Howie Lake. Blane Salamoni. Yes, I had to look up most of those. No, they aren't all White, but their lack of mainstream name recognition still protects a White-dominant police force. None were held legally responsible for killing the above human beings. Why were their victims put on trial, their private lives plundered and exposed, by a White-dominant media and public desperate to find a reason to blame them for their own murders? Why have we (White people) done our best to malign their names and their legacies, exonerate their killers’, and erase those of women and nonbinary BIPCOC victims? In the interest of Saying Her Name: Meagan Hockaday. Tanisha Anderson. Mya Hall. Alexia Christian. There are too many more. We should know them.

All of the credit for anti-racist gains, none of the blame for racism… this is still the dominant narrative in every sector of the White community, from open bigots with sheets and torches to the wokest of the woke.

At the White Privilege Conference in 2017, Darlene Flynn and Robin DiAngelo said that “getting educated just makes White folks better racists.” BIPOC activists have raised concerns about White anti-racist activism for a long time; I recently re-read the famous excerpt from The Autiobiography of Malcolm X in which he advises “sincere” White people to “...find all other white people they can who feel as they do—and let them form their own all-white groups, to work trying to convert other white people who are thinking and acting so racist." This passage, among many other things, helped inform our thinking when we first launched Reading While White. I’d remembered the above words perfectly, but had conveniently managed to forget the following:
I have these very deep feelings that white people who want to join black organizations are really just taking the escapist way to salve their consciences. By visibly hovering near us, they are ‘proving’ that they are ‘with us’ … generally whites’ very presence subtly renders the black organization automatically less effective… I know that every time that whites join a black organization, you watch, pretty soon… a black may be up front with a title, but the whites, because of their money, are the real controllers.
What can we White people do, to be and do better? It’s possible to get stuck in guilt, when we reflect on how we can aid and abet racism despite our best intentions. It’s also tempting, while reflecting on this, to outright disengage from anti-racist efforts; and at times, we White people do need to step back, since our very presence can (as Malcolm X reminds us) automatically render BIPOC-led efforts less effective. And we should definitely remove ourselves when we’re told that we’re actively harming BIPOC activists.

White activists won’t, however, help matters by completely and permanently disengaging from the movement. We also won’t help by self-flagellating—especially publicly, which puts a lot of pressure on the injured people to provide forgiveness and absolution. There is no perfect science to knowing when to step up and step back, but we have a responsibility to keep trying to show up when it’s helpful to the movement, and to step back when it’s not.

The study I cited above from Gorski and Erakat suggests that White activists can improve by “policing one another around concerns related to credit- and spotlight-grabbing behaviors (such as coopting the ideas of activists of color) so activists of color do not need to expend energy doing so.” We must hold each other accountable to this, and we must fight the kneejerk defensiveness that so often comes when anyone—fellow White people included—try to hold us accountable. Inviting others to give us direct feedback (and sharing how they can do that easily) is a good first step here, and in that spirit, please always feel free to email us, readingwhilewhite@gmail.com. We must remember, also, that asking fellow White people to hold us accountable should not be an excuse to ignore or dismiss BIPOC people when they do choose to expend energy to hold us accountable, feedback to which we are not entitled but for which we should be grateful.

We can also correct ourselves and each other when we start to subtly usurp and take control of BIPOC-led organizations, as Malcolm X warns is our default. Making finances, funding, and decision-making processes in organizations transparent, and making transparency the norm, can help; we also must listen and act when BIPOC people voice concerns about White leadership or processes. Patterns of BIPOC leaving organizations are almost always a signal that something is rotten in the White culture of that organization, and when we notice such patterns, we must self-examine and ask for help and education from our White friends and community. And above all, when we’re made aware that we’re impeding anti-racist efforts, we must remove ourselves, and commit to change and accountability, before we continue to inflict harm on BIPOC activists and weaken the movement overall.

Gorski and Erakat also advise White activists to “prioritize movement goals over their needs for recognition and validation.” Putting this into practice is easier said than done. Many White people are drawn to anti-racist work entirely for ego- or profit-based reasons; maybe a few are drawn to the work for entirely pure reasons and don’t care about recognition at all. But most of us fall somewhere in between (I include myself in that group). I need to learn, and practice, checking my ego (and letting others check my ego). We White people need to help each other actually do that work of prioritizing movement goals over egos—and this involves having very clear goals, as well as people we trust to hold us accountable.
(A quick N.B.: This language—“prioritize movement goals over your need for recognition and validation”—should never be used as an excuse to give men credit for the work of women and nonbinary people, to give cisgender or heterosexual people credit for LGBTQIA+ work, to give nondisabled people credit for disabled work, or to justify oppression of any other intersecting identity.)

We must also work on doing the flipside of all this. In addition to giving full credit to BIPOC people for BIPOC ideas and work, we need to work to take responsibility for White-owned and White-originated mistakes, harm, and damage. This means making apologies that don’t ring hollow, taking action to correct the damage we’ve done, and working to prevent similar mistakes in the future. This means we openly and eagerly educate fellow White people about our own mistakes, rather than covering them up from each other in an effort to be the best White person in the group.

Dr. Jiménez told us, three years ago, that one of the most useful things we can do at Reading While White is to pass the mic. We have to do a better job of passing that mic, and talk internally often about how we can do better (we’re always open to criticism and suggestions on this subject, as well). Our White readers can also play a role in this, by making sure that you hear what our BIPOC colleagues have to say when we do pass the mic. Read our kindred spirits, and read them before you read us. We make it a point to link to BIPOC articles, essays, and blog posts as often as we can—click through those and read them. If it means you have to stop reading us so you can read them, please read them. Like them more than you like us on social media. Amplify them more than you amplify us. And when they call upon you to take action, listen to them. Don’t wait for us to say “don’t promote books with anthropomorphic monkeys”—believe Edi Campbell when she says it herself.

I’m sorry to Dr. Jiménez—I shouldn’t have erased your work. All of us at RWW are grateful that Dr. Jiménez encouraged us to acknowledge and examine that act; it’s given us a chance to reflect and learn. And in the spirit of this work, we hope that these reflections are useful to you, too.

-Allie Jane Bruce

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Links Roundup May 16, 2020

For those with the mental and physical space to look at some links, here are a few:

Check out CrazyQuiltEdi.blog for a resource-rich series titled I Read Asian and Pacific Islander American Books. Read Edi Campbell’s intro post here, and check back regularly, updates are coming fast!

For the entire month of May (and beyond), follow #31DaysIBPOC on Twitter, bookmark their website, and if you need an intro to #31DaysIBPOC, read Dr. Kimberly Parker’s article: May Means #31DaysIBPOC: Centering Indigenous, Black, and People of Color in Education in SLJ.

Dhonielle Clayton experienced horrifying racism and witnessed equally horrifying fatphobia from teens during an online author visit. Kelly Yang wrote in Elle about similar experiences, in the context of rising fear, racism, and xenophobia directed at Asian Americans (fueled by Trump) during COVID-19: Our Voice Is Our Armor. We send empathy and support to all.

We are all learning about both the possibilities and vulnerabilities inherent in using online conferencing tools. Because of unsettling incidences such as this, we now know that preparing ahead of time for such behavior is something we all must do if we are hosting an event. Outline respectful behavior expectations ahead of time. Make sure you are familiar with the platform you are using and know how to shut things down on the technology side if inappropriate remarks are made regardless. This includes knowing how to change settings so that all participants, other than the speakers and facilitators, are muted and cannot unmute themselves. Finally, it’s not enough for any of us to just condemn such behavior; we must engage in the work of helping students unlearn it. The “Resources” tab of Teaching While White is a great starting place for this work, as is #31DaysIBPOC.

Back in April, We Need Diverse Books launched an Emergency Fund for Diverse Creators in Children’s Publishing. Click through for more info, and to donate if you’re able.

Though we’ve featured it before, don’t forget to sign onto APALA’s pledge to fight the vicious racism being directed at Asian Americans right now.


Beyond Children’s and Young Adult Literature

Here are a few things we’ve been following; please feel free to add more in the comments.

Communities of color—particularly Black and Native communities—are being hit hardest by COVID-19 and its domino-effect fallouts. As devastatingly predictable as this pattern is, given the structural racism endemic to the United States, it is important to understand and expose the causes. We cannot list all resources on this topic here, but you can start with Indian Country Today’s COVID-19 Syllabus, this article from The Root about the disparities in the US healthcare system that COVID-19 is throwing into sharp relief, and this podcast from Slate about the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black communities.

Sign the Color of Change petition demanding the removal of District Attorneys George Barnhill and Jackie Johnson, who tried to prevent #JusticeforAhmaud by letting Gregory and Travis McMichael get away with the murder in broad daylight of Ahmaud Arbery.

The Trump administration is trying to sneak a land-grab in while attention is hyper-focused on COVID-19. They've taken a huge step towards disestablishing the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe’s land, which will have very real, destructive impacts (as well as horrific historical reverberations). Find more info, as well as action steps, here.

Keep an eye on McGirt vs. Oklahoma, a case before the US Supreme Court that will determine whether a substantial portion of Oklahoma belongs to Native nations. Read Rebecca Nagle’s article about it in The Atlantic, or listen to her podcast with Crooked Media (This Land).

Be well, all.

Ed. 5/18: Please also check out this post from Zetta Elliott about fear, spiders, poetry, and Breonna Taylor, who was murdered by police. Thank you, Zetta, for saying her name.

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’.”