I’ve been a librarian for nearly twenty years. From the start, I’ve felt most invested in supporting diversity and quality in, and access to, books for children. In my years discussing books--on award committees, in book groups, on the blog I co-author, Heavy Medal--I’ve been frustrated at how difficult it is to discuss race and privilege in children’s books. When the conversation starts to go somewhere uncomfortable, a backlash seems to seek to separate the “political” issues from the “literary” ones, as if they were different.
I’ve sensed this since the 90s, when I was first studying children’s lit, and “political correctness” successfully quieted discussions of cultural authenticity in children’s lit, by aligning this questioning with censorship. I don’t know that I fully understand what happened then, but I know I didn’t understand how to push back. I knew only that I felt cornered, and that something was not right.
When I went with friends to see James Cameron’s Avatar in 2009, I went for pure entertainment, getting myself in the mood for cheap thrills and expensive effects. But instead I was floored by the racism and colonialism that the entire storyline depended on, and asked viewers to buy into from the very start. I writhed through the whole movie. Perhaps I should have walked out. But I stayed with my friends and hoped they wouldn’t notice when I didn’t share in the conversation following the film. I didn’t want to ruin the high we’d each paid eleven dollars for. However, I was drawn out, expressly for my silence, and as I started to detail why I was offended by the film, I could feel the mood spoil. It was not fun, and I’m not sure anyone really wanted to head there with me. But I was among friends, and as painful as it was, and whether or not they agreed with me, everyone made a place for it.
That was the first of several transformative experiences for me as I've started to understand better why these discussions can get shut down. It's particularly difficult online. Time and again, in reading for Heavy Medal, I've self-censored when I see racist perspectives in children's literature because I feel like I just can't deal with introducing it into the discussion. Sometimes I try, and flounder. Often, I don't yet understand what I'm reading, only that it is off, and I need a community of colleagues to help figure it out.
Dana, in a comment to Allie's post, says: "I hope this will be a safe place for me to ask white questions with the full intent of educating myself." That is my hope for this blog too. I expect to be challenged, and I expect to be wrong sometimes, but I'm tired of not speaking out, especially now that I recognize the privilege and White fragility that has counseled me to check myself in the past. I hope this blog is a place to hold up diverse voices in the field, but I also hope it is a place to start dismantling the very entrenched Whiteness in how we evaluate children's books, and some people will find that dangerous.
We risk skirting vital work if we’re not willing to challenge each other; we risk deluding ourselves, and undermining our service to readers. Even if we are not among our own personal friends, as I was while watching Avatar, surely we can cultivate a space of mutual respect and understanding for the necessarily difficult discussions of children’s literature. I think there's a strong tradition of this already in our field.
I've found it helpful to be "mindful" in these discussions, to focus on noticing and to expect discovery, knowing that whether or not that discovery is pleasant, it has value. Last November, I was reading the New York Times Op-Ed over coffee, and came across Lori Tharp’s piece The Case for Black with a Capital B. How could the NYTimes, I thought, in all conscience, hide behind style guides to justify what is ultimately a racist act, refusing to capitalize “Black” by argument that it is not a race? Then the more personally devastating thought arrived: In all my years reading this paper, how could I never have noticed? It took me a very, very long time to feel adequately prepared for work that morning. I was finally able to walk out into the world by telling myself: Well, Nina, now you know. And clearly, there’s more you’ve missed, so get out of your corner and let’s go.
This won’t be easy, but why did we ever suppose it should be? Let’s talk about children’s books.