Sometimes I think White people working in children’s and young adult literature want to believe that in our little corner of the world, we’ve worked it all out. “It” being racism. Sure, we need more diverse books, but that’s just a matter of time and effort. Otherwise, we’re good, right?
And if you don’t read the voices of people of color and First/Native Nations critics in our field, you might be able to go along believing that illusion, or you could if it weren’t for the fact that a lot of discussion around a handful of books has drawn attention to the fact that White people, too, are asking questions and calling out racism where they see it.
I know White voices are privileged in the creation of children’s and young adult literature. I work at the Cooperative Children’s Book Center where we keep track of the number of books by and about people of color created each year. I always say those numbers tell just part of the story, but it’s an important part. The other part of the story is, of course, the terrific books that come out each year by First/Native Nation authors and artists and authors and artists of color. But oh, how we need more of them. I don’t sense great disagreement on this point among those in the field.
But are we also privileging White voices in criticism?
Of course there’s no simple answer to that question. For one thing, it depends on who “we” are. And I know there’s irony in asking that question on a blog created by White people. It was something we struggled with when developing Reading While White. We owe our existence to the voices of people of color and First/Native Nations within and beyond the field of children’s and young adult literature from whom each one of us has learned. We believe we have a responsibility to challenge racism--it is work that is demanded of all of us. But we have no desire to be heard over their voices, or in lieu of them.
I’m still learning to understand the broader context of racism that informs the perspective of people of color and First/Native Nations individuals writing about children’s and young adult literature, and I know there are other White readers and critics doing the same. Yet when I look online, where much of the discourse in our field is occurring, I also see many White voices that are dismissive of people of color and First/Native Nations critics; sometimes it seems like what those critics have to say is summarily rejected.
It’s not essential that we all agree with one another. I read books all the time that have starred reviews or end up on best-of-the-year lists and ask myself, “Really?” Tastes differ. Absolutely. But when it comes to the critical issue of combating racism in children’s and young adult literature, it’s more than a matter of taste. It’s a matter of knowledge and experience, and we need to be willing to listen to one another, and especially to the voices of those who are speaking from positions of knowledge and experience that those of us who are White do not have. That doesn’t mean White people can’t speak or don’t have valuable things to say, but let’s speak from a place of understanding that acknowledges we may not know everything.
Instead, too often, the reaction is to dismiss a critical response to a book by calling it, or the person writing it, angry or strident or picky or censorious or politically correct when First/Native Nations critics and critics of color point out passages or portrayals they consider problematic. When White critics add voices of agreement to what is being said, we are dismissed as having been manipulated by guilt. And if the book in question is written or illustrated by someone White, reverse racism may be added to the mix of accusations against all of us.
That isn’t showing understanding, or knowledge, or even a willingness to engage. That’s showing a desire to shut the conversation down. And that privileges Whiteness, too, because shutting the conversation down assumes it isn’t important, and that concerns about racism don’t matter.
So at the heart of this post is this question: "Am I privileging White voices in criticism?" Because it's up to all of us who are White to ask ourselves that question.
I hope White readers of this blog will take a look--or another look--at some of the blogs we link to. These are some of the voices of people of color and First/Native Nations individuals who are passionate about children’s and young adult literature—just like you, just like me. They represent a multiplicity of perspectives, experiences, opinions and responses to books and to our broader field. Read what they have to say, and at a moment you find yourself feeling angry, or upset, or insecure, or uncertain (and yes, you will have them; I know I do), take a depth breath and ask yourself, “What can I learn from this?”
In doing so, you may not change your mind, but you might find you have questions or comments that don’t begin or end with dismissing the criticism outright. You might even discover that you do, indeed, have something to learn. Because all of us do. And we are privileged to be able to learn from one another.