Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Privilege of Nostalgia

When I first learned about Jane Mount’s Bibliophile: An Illustrated Miscellany, I was excited. (I love books! This is a book about loving books? What is there not to love?!) My heart sank, however, when I saw this preview spread of the “Formative Faves” page via Amazon:

Almost every book featured in this spread was written by a White personand one of them is Little House on the Prairie. (I'm not sure that having your humanity denied to you through racist depictions and erasure in literatureboth singularly and systemicallyinspires bibliophilia.) Every human illustrated on this page is depicted with the same shade of pinky-pale skin. I know that this is just one spread of the book, and there are attempts elsewhere to include voices of readers and authors of varying identities; still, the message this particular spread sends to me is that the “Formative Faves” page was made with White readers in mind.

The stories I read in my own formative years are not too different from those listed in the book. If I made a list of my favorite books from when I was a kid, only one title would be a book by an author of color. There are more racist titles by White people in my childhood memories than authentic multicultural stories or #OwnVoices texts. I can’t change what I read as a child, nor can I deny my majority-White authored reading history. I will never know how much I missed out on, how many stories I did not get to hear, because creators were not given opportunities to write or publish their own stories and also because my grown-up gatekeepers did not give me access to all of the books that were published. I will spend a lifetime trying to understand the effect this lack of connection to these stories and problematic representation in these stories had on my development and socialization. I must continue working to unlearn the lessons taught subtly and explicitly through the stories I did and did not (and still today, do and do not) have opportunities to read.

When I think about my childhood reading, I can choose not to think about the racist books I loved. Because I do not face racism as a White person, it is easy for me to (though I am working to not do this) fall into the trap of making racism a “thought experiment” or glossing over what is problematic. This is all a result of privilege. I don’t have to carry the trauma of having to suffer through book lists, read alouds, and a celebrated ‘canon’ of books that dehumanize or erase me because I am White. When I think about my childhood reading experiences and I feel warm and fuzzy, these feelings are a result of all of the books I connected with as a kid, the books that affirmed me, all of the racial mirrors I had (taking Rudine Sims Bishop’s metaphor into account). Those feelings of coziness and belonging are NOT universal, and White readers like me have to stop pretending that they are. Racist books, even those from the past, are not ever reflective of the way all people “thought back then.” As long as there have been books, there have been people fighting racism in booksand today, with more knowledge, I can be thoughtful in choosing which books from my past I want to celebrate in my present.

Nostalgia for a racist institution like #kidlit (or politics, or school, or film, or theater, or fine art) will always support racism. Because children’s lit is an institution brimming with White supremacy culture, nostalgia reflects and perpetuates this reality. In our capitalistic society, #kidlit book nostalgia has also been commodifiedand its racism has been embedded in that too. Do you love Out of Print clothing? Take a look at how many T-shirts you can buy that celebrate books by creators of color (not many). How about MerryMakers dolls or the children’s literature posters made by Litographs? See how few IPOC artists are represented in what is available.

I’m not saying that people should not celebrate a favorite book or author with a tote bag or other merchandise. I am asking my fellow White people to think more about what the tote bag selection says about the industry and its history, and what systems these collections of merchandise continue to support. Book nostalgia and capitalism will never stop chugging out book-themed stuff for us to consume, but librarians, teachers, and readers can work to see how this too is part of the push to romanticize the pastand that ‘looking back’ also impacts our culture of today. Whenever and however we celebrate this past, and assume that readers’ formative experiences were positive and affirming, who are we assuming as the default audience? When White stories, creators, and readers are centered over and over and over againWhite people like me are being told that we matter more. That our stories matter more. That our lives matter more. We see this in the “classics.” We see this in what book T-shirt options exist. And this has a direct connection to the inequities we see today, from the practitioner end (for example, the lack of racial diversity in upcoming conference lineups like #mra50) and publishing (see CCBC’s most recent statistics on racial diversity in children’s book publishing).

Last month I had a chance to visit the American Writers Museum. In the room focused on children’s literature, there is a mural celebrating children’s “classics.” Unsurprisingly, this mural reflects both the lack of diversity in children’s literature as well as the overt (yet unchallenged in this display) racism in titles like Little House in the Big Woods and Island of the Blue Dolphins. Until there is equity in the children’s literature ecosystem, there will never be equity in our culture of #kidlit nostalgia or celebrations of the classics. We can’t erase nor can we forget the past, but we can choose when, why, and how much to focus on it. We can intentionally examine this past critically, following the lead of people doing this now using the hashtag #DisruptTexts. We can work to understand our nostalgia and the purpose it serves. Hopefully this work will translate into action, including conscious choices to focus less on upholding and romanticizing the past and more on what changes needs to happen, and what excellent books can be celebrated, today.

Monday, June 25, 2018

In Support of the Children’s Literature Legacy Award

Reading While White supports and celebrates the decision to change the name of the "Laura Ingalls Wilder Award" to the "Children's Literature Legacy Award."  We salute those who worked over the days, weeks, years, and decades to make this change.  We have a long ways to go, but this is one important step towards equity and towards fully valuing the humanity of every child.  An enormous "Thank you!" to everyone who worked on this in ways large and small.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Knowing Better, Doing Better

A little over a year ago, Edi Campbell reflected on anthropomorphized monkeys in the book Voices in the Park via this blog post. In March of this year, Campbell continued the conversation through this critical analysis of Monkey: Not Ready for Kindergarten by Marc Brown. In April she added even more context through this post, in which she writes:
Monkeys and apes perpetuate white imperialism in children's books. Sentiments combining their images with African Americans began in tandem with the notion of race and they continue to be used to perpetuate racist views. Sure, there's not always intentional misrepresentation, but when you know the history, you know how the images are interpreted. And, when you know better, you have to do better.
Images of apes and monkeys have been historically used (and are still used today, even if subtly and/or unconsciously) to dehumanize Black people and justify or minimize trauma, injustices, and disrespect they endure. This has historic roots and it is still happening, right now, every day. And because kid lit does not exist in a vacuum, in kid lit this is happening right now, every day.

Image from Zack at the Dentist.
Campbell’s writing has helped me to pay better attention to how this type of racist imagery and messaging shows up in children’s literature, and ever since I’ve been reading and reflecting on her posts, anthropomorphized monkeys have been entering my consciousness left and right. There’s the new release from Serlin and Selznick, and the Barnett-Pizzoli early readers that were advertised last year
Image from Zack at the Dentist.
(though there are questions now about if/when these will be released). There’s
Zack at the Dentist by Jonathan London and Jack Medoff, in which a gleeful banana-loving monkey never brushes his teeth and causes a commotion at the dentist’s office. (He leaves with knowledge of dental hygiene, but he still gets toothpaste on his shirt.) And there’s Monkey Needs to Listen by Sue Grave and Trevor Dunton, in which the only monkey in a class of animals cannot sit still and does not listen to the teacher’s safety tips. (As a result of him throwing paper airplanes, hanging from a tree, and shouting out instead of listening, Monkey crashes a go-kart and spoils the group’s go-kart race.) This book has been created for the White-dominated field of educationthe same field in which Black students are disciplined and suspended at disproportionate ratesas part of a “Behavior Matters” series. 
Image from Monkey Needs to Listen.

I have not gone out of my way to search for any of these titles, but the stream of books like this is constant. Consider what this messagingover and over, and rarely acknowledged outrightdoes over a lifetime. Consider the implicit bias it helps to build...the internalized dominance or internalized sense of inferiority...the warped sense of reality...the “fun house mirrors” (to quote Dr. Debbie Reese).

There may be a variety of reactions to these representations from members of different racial groups (no experience is monolithic). I do know the history, however, and that I can't ignore the painful reactions to this imagery many have shared. A common impulse might be to belittle criticisms. “It’s just one book” or “I don’t see it that way” are just two of many predictable defenses. While each book is factually one book, there is much to be learned from taking a step back and working to understand the big picture, the system in which that one book exists. It might be one book AND it is one book that continues a legacy of racist depictions and associations. It is one book, AND that book is supporting a view of society rooted in anti-Blackness. To the person wanting to shout “I don’t see it that way” or “why can’t a monkey just be a monkey?” when someone else has shared how those images function and make them feel, I would ask them to consider how that response affects others and the situation. I would ask that person to think about why it might be, and perhaps what privileges they have, that make it easy for them to not “see it that way.” One might claim to be unaffected by racism, but we are all socialized beings. Whether or not we know it or claim to be aware of it, what is normalized in societyincluding the racism normalized and embedded into our worldhas an impact on us.

To suggest that critics are too sensitive or reading too much into a particular book/image/situation is to ignore many of those critics’ expertise as well as the very real way that racism functions. If you are angry at learning about this imagery and its effectswhy not direct that anger towards the racism, and not the people pointing out the racism? Feedback causes discomfort, and feedback is an invitation to learn and to change behavior in the future. What is one doing when that invitation is rejected?

White people, myself included, cannot honestly claim (whether to others or to ourselves) to be innocent on this. It is our responsibility to listen to the people who have been sharing expertise and information with us (again and again, often thanklessly, often over generations), and to use what we learn to direct our future actions, including the work of creating, editing, reviewing, selecting, and reading books with or for young people. This might mean acknowledging when we see yet another anthropomorphic monkey, even if it is in a book by a favorite author. It might mean making tough decisions about what we read and how we discuss it with kids. It might mean having that awkward, uncomfortable conversation with your colleagueand also working to listen and check your defenses and cut the crap when you are the one getting called in. We need to acknowledge and understand that we are part of a system, and work to hear and listen to the people who challenge our lenses.  Because of the lives we live, the lessons we’re taught, and the experiences we have, we will all have unique ways of seeing and understanding the world but this seeing is not completely static. Or rather, it does not have to be. Campbell’s words (as well as the words of Maya Angelou) again come to mind: “when you know better, you have to do better.” We can do betterand we must.


Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Summer Reading

The solstice might not be until tomorrow, but between the end of the academic year and the start of summer learning programs in libraries across the country, it is safe to say that summer reading time is here.

If you haven’t yet seen the 2018 We’re the People Summer Reading List, please consult it for recommendations of inclusive books by and about IPOC, people with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community. The list, founded by Edi Campbell in 2015, is curated by a team of authors, librarians, and academics: Thaddeus Andracki, Edi Campbell, Dr. Laura Jiménez, Alia Jones, Sujei Lugo, Lyn Miller-Lachmann, and Dr. Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez. 

Titles are organized into the categories of Picture Books, Chapter Books/Beginning Readers, Middle Grade (ages 8-12), and Young Adult (ages 12-18). Each book undergoes a critical review process and is vetted by at least two readers before making it on the list. On the We’re the People website, the team states, “We want readers to become familiar with the names on the list and their creative work and to enjoy the stories they tell and the people they represent.” Readers looking for even more recommendations will be happy to know that past lists are archived and accessible, each organized by the year it was first created. Be sure to check out the We're the People site and the books recommended there.

What books are you looking forward to reading this summer? Please share in the comments. Here are a few titles some of us RWW contributors are excited to read or recommend:

Cover of I'm Still Here
Cover of Algorithms of Oppression.
ELISA: Thanks to a recommendation from my colleague Kary, I just started reading I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown, in which the author shares personal stories and explores "the pitfalls that kill our attempts at racial justice." In August, my local librarian/educator book club will also be discussing Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism by Safiya Umoja Noble. The book invites readers to understand how racism is embedded into our favorite search engines.

NINA:  I’ve bought a copy of There, There by Tommy Orange and am just waiting to get to it; too excited to read something set in my hometown of Oakland. 

Cover of There, There.
Cover of Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer.
SAM: I’m looking forward to Alberto Ledesma’s graphic memoir Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer. It’s sitting there in my pile, just waiting for me to get to it…

ALLIE: For Nonfiction, I’m recommending Stamped From the Beginning, by Ibram X. Kendi (and if you want a preview, do listen to this event he did at the Schomburg Center for Research In Black Culture).  For fiction, I loved This Is Paradise: Stories by Kristiana Kahakauwila, which is a spellbinding collection of her short stories set on the islands of Hawai’i.
Cover of Stamped from the Beginning.
Cover of This is Paradise.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Ellen Oh Answers Your Questions

Ellen Oh is co-founder, President, and CEO of We Need Diverse Books (WNDB), a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing diversity in children’s literature. She is also a former adjunct college instructor and corporate/entertainment attorney. She is the author of the YA fantasy trilogy The Prophecy Series and the MG novel Spirit Hunters: Book 1. Spirit Hunters: Book 2 will be published Summer 2018.

The following is a modified and supplemented version of several Facebook posts Ellen wrote last week.

I am going to be blunt. I am asking you not to get offended with what I have to say but to listen with an open mind and don't take anything personally. This is not personal to any one individual; it concerns the larger community.

When We Need Diverse Books launched, I received heinous death threats and rape threats on such a continuous basis I had to shut down all social media for awhile. At one point, I deleted my Twitter entirely and only came back because of the #whitewashedout movement. I still get accused of promoting White genocide and I have been called the c-word so often it doesn't even faze me anymore (and it used to make me livid). I've had emails from people who clearly knew where I lived and made comments about my children; I had to skip ComicCon due to specific threats that made me very uncomfortable. And all of this, for something I do on a voluntary and uncompensated basis.

And yet, here I am 4 years later still trying hard to teach people that diverse books are not a threat to anyone, but rather, that they make for a better world. So. Let’s talk about fear, confusion, and scarce opportunities that White writers have been complaining about. Let’s talk about how White writers are afraid of asking questions for fear of being labeled bad or racist.

Asking questions is part of the growing process. Being afraid to look bad, or racist, because you asked a question--this doesn't even make sense to me. Just ask me, or any of us who have shown a willingness to discuss this issue. Yes, we are tired of constantly talking about the same thing, but we would much rather answer questions than deal with misrepresentations and hostility. And, so what if your question makes you feel bad, or you are embarrassed? If those uncomfortable feelings are the extent of the problem, who cares? People ask me questions all the time. I have never threatened them with death, rape, or attacked their children for existing. But threats have become a part of my life solely because I advocate for diversity in children's literature. So to me, your uncomfortable feelings stem from a place of privilege that I and other IPOC have never had the experience of, and will not experience, in our lifetime. And I know that it offends people when we point this out. But I would much rather be offended than deal with threats of violence.

Let’s talk about the heart of the question. Do we want people to write diversely? Yes. We do. When you write your White main character stories, you should people those stories with lots of diversity that reflects the world around us. And that should be par for the course. Next question, should you write a main character who is an IPOC? The answer is: It depends. Will your story use a White lens to tell the story? Then NO. Will your story have a White savior theme to it? Then NO. Will your story exploit the pain of a marginalized culture to get you a paid writing gig? Then NO. Would your story be better told by a person writing from that marginalized community instead? All of these points are based on racism, colonialism, and the White lens and how it shapes the telling of IPOC stories. That's why when you do research to write your story, part of your research is to explore these very points to see if you even should tell the story. There are plenty of great writers who can write outside their lanes brilliantly. They don't ask these types of questions publicly, because they ALREADY know these issues, have already figured out if they can do the best job writing these stories, and then they just do it. And you know what? Sometimes even they will still get it wrong. But the difference is, they listen, they learn, and they do better.

I have never ever said that White writers should never write about IPOC. And in fact in every talk, every event, every workshop I have ever given I always repeat the same advice to writers who want to write a story about IPOC:
1. Do you need to tell this story?
2. If you really feel you need to tell this story, then get it right!
3. And be prepared for criticism if you don't.

It is amazing to me that I'm so often attacked as some kind of militant diversity police officer stopping White writers from writing about IPOC. Here's the blogpost that gets me in trouble all the time. I wrote it back when We Need Diverse Books first started, in response to a pattern of White writers calling diversity a "hot trend". They were trying to leverage the sudden interest in diversity to help themselves get published. This problem continues today. The CCBC's data doesn’t lie: There’s been an increase in IPOC books published, but they are mostly by White writers. That was the main point of my blogpost, which is from February 2016. The last paragraph of my post is a paragraph of Don'ts pointing out how not to use diversity to get published. For all those who seem to think this post was telling White people not to ever write about IPOC, try reading it again. And you will see that for every don't, there is a do.

Listen, I know criticism can hurt. My first book received reviews that said it read like a "bad translation of a Shlocky Chinese book". Reviewers also said, “don't read Prophecy for good Asian Fantasy, read Eon or Stormdancer or Across the Nightingale Floor” etc.--all books by White writers. Some bloggers trashed my book so badly that I actually received emails from several bloggers telling me that although they liked my book, they were afraid to say so publicly for fear of being mocked by these more influential bloggers. This broke my heart but it didn't stop me from writing. Receiving criticism--sometimes harsh--is not unique to White writers, but feeling entitled to no criticism--particularly criticism along racial lines--is unique to White writers.

People get so mad at Debbie Reese for criticizing bad Native American representation. They say she is tearing down people who are allies. Why does it matter if they are an ally if they made a mistake? If I messed up, I would thank Debbie for tearing me a new one and teaching me to do better and in the process teaching everyone else. It hurts. Yes. But it isn't about you as the writer, it is about the kids reading the book. And DAMN IT in a world where a major football franchise refuses to give up its racist name, and public schools across the country won't recognize the racism of their mascots, we need Debbie to keep us accountable and to remind us of the pain of an entire community of people.

So yes, ask questions. There are people who will answer them for you, if you just ask. And please don't get offended if we get cranky or short or if we aren't as nice or as polite as you would like us to be. Remember you are not the first, nor will you be the last, to ask us.

-Allie Jane Bruce helped edit this post.

Monday, June 4, 2018

On Owning It

A few years ago, in the early months of Reading While White, I wrote this post, about changing my mind about a book. In it, I asked, “What am I giving up when I can admit something may not be as wonderful as I originally thought?

My answer was nothing. And what I gain is greater understanding and insight. Something to carry with me moving forward, that I hope makes me better at the work I do. And better in the life I live.

Fast forward to now. To the recent discussions that have taken place on social media about critics and the “call-out culture” that devolved into a vulgar display of white-centered thinking.

And I truly wonder: What are people so afraid of? What do they have to lose in listening openly to what critics have to offer them when it comes to representation of lives and experiences beyond their own? To admitting that they might have things to learn.

I’m not naïve enough to think criticism doesn’t hurt. Of course it hurts. But does that mean people should stop criticizing?

Should social justice activists silence themselves, too, because they might hurt the feelings of police officers, or elected officials, or business owners or any of us? Should Black Lives Matter only if those proclaiming it do so nicely? Should DACA activists, or those speaking out against refugee children being torn away from their parents at our country’s borders, or the poisoning of tribal lands or the water in Flint, make sure they speak softly and kindly at every turn?

Racism is racism, whether rooted in government policy, corporate greed, or white-centric views of the work we do; whether found on the streets, at our borders, or in the pages of books for children and teens.

Silence does not equal change. Discomfort unsettles complacency.  

I’m not an author or illustrator. Neither my livelihood nor my sense of accomplishment/ pride/ self depends on what I create. I’m sure it hurts. I'm sure it feels awful, or even scary. It might be infuriating, too. 

Own everything you feel. And then decide what you're going to do with those feelings.

You can say you’re being censored, or silenced, and think of yourself the hero of your own story.

Or you can think about the children and teens audiences of the books you createnot just the reader you envision or the kids you know, but every child and teen. You can own that they're fragile, too. And that they're the point.

You can think about about the need for change in the world in which we live—change that cannot and will not happen if there aren’t those who can tell us from firsthand experience what is wrong with that world. Who is being hurt and how? Who is being left out, left behind, or boxed in? 

And you can think about both the risk and the responsibility that is part of creative work, of sharing your talent, and then ask yourself how you can be and do better.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Contemporary Colorblind Racism & White Aggression

There are many resources available that discuss the consequences of an ideology of racial colorblindness. Many White people in our industry, understanding that colorblindness is a damaging form of racism, have moved beyond “I don’t see color.” But we White people haven’t moved as far as we’d probably like to think. So how does colorblind racism in kidlit function today? 

To me, it looks like White people seeing and naming race, but refusing to acknowledge that race has meaning. For example, we White people have a vested interest in continuing to call for and champion books in which characters’ racial identities mean little or nothing (to us). Conversations and criticisms about what some refer to as “casual diversity” aren’t new, but I’ve seen them showing up more and more in conference sessions, book clubs, and other spaces in recent months. We need to ask ourselves: What is it about the idea of “casual diversity” that makes it so appealing to us White people? 

One look at the CCBC statistics shows the imbalance of power in kidlit, and the need for more stories expressing a range of genres, experiences, emotions, and characterizations. I am NOT saying that there is not a need for increasing books by and about POC and Native people about all sorts of experiences, including books about contemporary, “normal” kids. I am not saying that we shouldn’t listen to people speaking about their own marginalized racial identities and what types of books they would like to see or write more of and why (please let’s do that!). I am asking us White people to recognize that when we have a laser focus on “casual” racial diversity over other issues in kidlit, it takes on a layer of meaning given the overwhelming Whiteness of the industry. I am asking us to recognize that we have limits to our understanding of others' racial experiences and we also have the unearned privilege to define and regulate what is seen and perceived as “normal” or “casual” in the first place. And as fellow RWW contributor Megan Schliesman pointed out to me in a recent email about this post, when we White people categorize #OwnVoices books as “casual diversity,” we are erasing their cultural context whether we understand and see it or not. 

As Laura Jiménez recently wrote in this thoughtful post, kidlit has seen calls for more diverse representation answered with more White people publishing “random non-White, non-straight, disabled, non-neurotypical characters, as long as those characters are just like them. You know, ‘normal’, which is White code for ‘White, like me.’” In our White-dominated industry, racial diversity is sometimes reduced to picking a paint color or a character’s name. This is shallow, and it ignores the realities that people and characters with those marginalized identities live, see, experience, and endure. This way of thinking, publishing, and promoting literature devalues the concept of #OwnVoices and maintains White supremacy culture, spreading a flawed message that the world is experienced universally. Can writers from a dominant culture create characters from minoritized groups that “just happen to have” any oppressed identity? Nobody “just happens to be” a member of a racial group. Race has meaning in our world. Whiteness has meaning. Kidlit doesn’t just happen to be a “white space.” The Whiteness of the industry, just like White-controlled neighborhoods, schools, and institutions, is not an accident. (Note that even our assessments and norms for what “good art” is are rooted in centuries of White dominance that has largely gone unchallenged by other White people.)

Contemporary colorblind racism also shows up when White people support the myth of meritocracy, the idea that White creators today have success because they have earned it as individuals with no added racial privilege, and that criticismespecially criticism from POC and Native womenis just sour grapes, oversensitivity, attention-seeking, or toxic bullying. The belief that calls for equity involve Native people and POC getting opportunities over "better qualified" White people is rooted in literal White supremacy; it assumes that White writers are superior or writing from an objective stance and that critiques against them aren’t the “right” way of thinking or acting. When we White people are afraid of the “D-Word” or attack, discredit, and mischaracterize the work and lived experiences of leader-scholars from marginalized groups, we are refusing to acknowledge the concrete forms of discrimination that have created the way our industry looks like and continues to function today. When White people say we want diversity but then complain about one’s right to publish books about characters outside of our experiences without criticism, often what we are saying is “I want diversity, but I don’t want equity. I still want the power. I am entitled to control.” When we White people complain about how hard it is to be White in today’s publishing landscape when only 7% of children’s books in that landscape are written by Black, Latinx, and Native creators...those feelings might be real, but they are not rooted in reality (and as the saying goes: “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression”).

Whether we White people are miscategorizing criticism against us or trying to control narratives for change, we are refusing to engage. We are refusing to believe. We are refusing to listen. We are refusing to learn. This is where our racial colorblindness and where all of our predictable behaviors of White fragility or White aggression show up. It is willful ignorance and it is incompetence. It is power hoarding and it is aggression. It is racism. Unless we are working on understanding that and working to build the stamina to own it and and try to push against it when we see it in others as well as in ourselves, we are supporting it.