Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Are We Privileging White Voices in Criticism?

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.  


Megan Schliesman

8 comments:

Debbie Reese said...

In my experience, people argue that a reviewer has to look at the book and nothing else. The larger societal and historical context from which a Native or person of color views the book is "extra" literary judgment that is dismissed as not being "literary."

The question is, who made those rules about what is acceptable criticism, and in using those rules, what view of the world is a reviewer or review journal putting forth? Those rules keep whiteness at the center of the power structure. They allow whitewashing to occur in the name of art.

Sometimes people defend problematic depictions with "that's what they thought back then" as if EVERY person had that singular point of view (example: Native peoples as savages). Not every white person thought Native people were savages, and certainly, Native people didn't think that of themselves. Many children's books depict us that way (as savages) and many won awards that mean they are taught today, as if the depictions are fine. They aren't, but recognizing they aren't means stepping away from that "literary" valuation and looking at who the "they" is who made such rules.

I think it necessary to stop privileging the white voices that embody that point of view so that "we the people" is inclusive of all the people and how we are depicted in children's books.

Eric Carpenter said...

Debbie I think your question about "who made these rules" is the key to many of the discussions found here and elsewhere this fall and winter.
I believe the short answer is Aristotle made the rules. But in a larger sense the rules have been changing for hundreds of years, and different critics/theorist play by different rules.
I believe a lot of the confusion and disagreements could be cleared up if people were more aware of the rule books they are using. For example if someone comes from a background of Russian Formalism or New Criticism (the lens from which literature was viewed from the late 1920s to the mid 60s) they would expect the author's identity and biography to be ignored. Practitioners of New Criticism would not consider the reader's role either. Instead they focus exclusively on the formal aspects of the text.
On the other hand, critics from a Reader Response background are looking at how the reader makes meaning from the text, in this case, the reader (and author's) identities are important factors.
From my understanding, this conflict between opposing approaches to literature has been going on in university english departments and elsewhere for decades (new critism evolved into structuralism, while reader response took on characteristics of cultural and identity studies).
Is one way of thinking about literature more appropriate when discussing literature for children? I do not know.
But I do believe that much of the defensiveness and push back I've seen over the past three months comes from people trained (possibly as the result of the particular slant of their university's English department) in one form of criticism pushing back against a literary analysis that comes from an altogether different theoretical perspective.

Sam Bloom said...

Maybe so, Eric, but what has struck me most about a lot of the discussion around a few books is the knee-jerk reactions many Whites have had (and which Megan is so spot on in the above post):

"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."

Folks can come from any of those backgrounds you describe above, and maybe many who have been involved in the conversations do, but so much has just been about shutting people down. Not everyone, of course - there was a lot of civil discussion going on too, but it was drowned out by the ocean of angry noise.

And in terms of Debbie's "who made these rules" question, I think if we're being honest with ourselves, the answer would be: White guys like you and me. (Though I do believe there are many, many White men out there, including you, doing their part to move conversations in the right direction.)

K T Horning said...

Debbie, your comment made me think of something a colleague long ago told me happened to her when she was on an award committee. She had critiqued a book under consideration for some "extra-literary" thing -- probably racism or sexism, and a very esteemed member of the committee said to her, "But you cahn't say that." To which she responded, "Well, I just did!"

Emma Otheguy said...

Standards are culturally situated, and they can and should be expanded to serve an increasingly diverse body of literature with a wider array of influences and ideals about that literature. When someone says that a critique from a person of color is "too picky” or "too serious” for just a kids book, etc. I'm always shocked by that "too"--as if standards for literature for children can be "too" high? A whole industry is being asked to raise the bar, and these dismissals just come off as grumbling over the extra effort. Thanks for highlighting the problem with these critiques in your post!

Nina Lindsay said...

Megan, I've been thinking about this post a lot, and it came up for me again in our Mock Newbery discussion. There's something about a collective whiteness in these sorts of situations that makes me uncomfortable, and sometimes I don't honestly know if I'm just being too sensitive. We were talking about comparing the weight of "flaws" in different books, and as an example, one person was bothered by the scene in GONE CRAZY IN ALABAMA where Big Mama slaps Delphine, because it is child abuse but wasn't contextualized as such. I felt it *was* contextualized, within Big Mama's generation, as a way of raising a child is a racist society....not excusing it, or condoning it, but in context. Then, when we spoke about THE HIRED GIRL, I brought up my discomfort with the scene where Joan plays Indians with Oscar. The question was put to me... How can that scene be a deal-breaker when the other was not for me? Isn't Joan acting within the context of her time and culture, like Big Mama?

I tried to argue that I felt they were two different breeds...Williams-Garcia's scene there to establish character... Schlitz's doing nothing useful, really. I don't know how much I convinced anyone... But these two books aside, reflecting, it did make me think... How do we decide what is important, in measure, together, when we are all White? I feel like we often do a gut check around the room... Are you bothered by this? You? You? And measure from there. And for a white person, maybe both these scenes do seem the same, or the "child abuse" worse than "playing Indian." And if enough white people in the room feel that way... It gets very very hard to invite perspectives that are not physically present.

Unknown said...

I agree, Sam. My degree is in literature, and I have university training in the aforementioned schools of literary criticism (as do many others here) as well as experience with those intra-field conflicts regarding different theoretical approaches-- and I don't think that's what these discussions are about. I think they are about race and power. (Though of course, race and power are at work in many of the conflicts over academic scholarship as well.)

Sarah

Megan Schliesman said...

Nina, I agree that the "context of the times" issue can get messy to address, but it's also too often an easy out. I think you hit a key point when you note that there was nothing essential about those scenes in "The Hired Girl." No one would have wondered if they hadn't been included, "Wow, I wonder she never referenced Indians." There was no malicious intent behind their inclusion, but we ARE responsible in our profession for thinking about their impact.

I love Emma's concise and insightful and essential way of stating this: "Standards are culturally situated, and they can and should be expanded to serve an increasingly diverse body of literature with a wider array of influences and ideals about that literature."