The footage that has gone viral over the past week of a group of White high school students and their interactions with a Native elder and other Native people at the Indigenous People’s March has me thinking about children’s books. Among many other things.
As more time passes and people continue to examine and reflect on what happened, the larger context in which that scene unfolded—the context of our country today, the history we share, and the experiences that we may or may not have in common based on whether our appearance brings us privilege—can’t be ignored.
Whatever you see in that footage—the shorter version originally released, the longer version—it’s an unsettling scene, one that has elicited many responses online.
We have those in our field, too: Unsettling scenes. Many responses. And the responses are sometimes as upsetting—and revealing—as the original concern about racism.
I’m also thinking about Nina’s post last week about shame, and the difference between fleeting/embarrassment shame, and toxic/damaging shame. I’ve been thinking about how fleeting/embarrassment shame can lead to toxic defensiveness.
And I’m thinking about the fact that when something horribly racist happens, whether it’s outside the world of children’s and young adult literature, or within it (and we do have our equivalents), at some point someone always says: “We are more than this. We are better than this.” I know I’ve said it, too.
But, we also ARE this. And by “we” I mean we as a country, and we in the world of children’s and young adult literature, and most especially and particularly we well-meaning White people who turn our attention to the good, and the better, because it’s so damn hard to dwell on the worst. That’s privilege right there. And maybe, if we could agree to acknowledge that privilege, it would be a starting point: A small piece of common ground on which we could all stand as we try to address that reality and do the hard work of being better.
Because while we are more than this: as a country, as a community (whatever that community is), as the field of children’s and young adult literature, we cannot let that essential belief, that essential truth, blind us to the reality of toxic racism and privilege that also exist, and the very real damage they cause.
We cannot ignore that racist depictions of Native people in children’s literature are both a product of, and perpetuate, the scene that unfolded last week in which a crowd of (mostly) White boys didn’t hesitate to do a mock “tomahawk” chop. We cannot ignore that racist depictions in children’s books feed a culture in which Blackface is still acceptable to some, and are part of our lager society in which Black- and brown-skinned youth and adults are dehumanized every day in myriad ways, from micro-agressions to violence at the hands of law enforcement.
We want and need to feel hopeful. We want to be hopeful. In the work we do, in the country we live in. And there are many reasons to be: the long history of work of BIPOC to fight against systemic racism, to educate allies as well as those less willing to listen. The long history of activism within and beyond our field. And so many good hearts.
But good hearts and good intentions without hard, sometimes painful work are just a feel-good starting point.
Good hearts and good intentions can still lead to children’s and young adult books with stereotypes, with whitewashing, with jaw-droppingly insensitive images and scenes.
And when they’re called out, look out. Shame—that fleeting/embarrassment kind—may lead to knee-jerk, angry reactions. The anger may also come from genuine disagreement, or a misplaced sense of entitlement, or even hatred, pure and simple. Regardless, the result is an inability—or refusal—to try to understand the perspective of a critic whose lived experience can speak with authority to the damage and the pain.
This failure in a field where imagination is currency never fails to astonish me. And maybe it brings us back to shame again.
It doesn’t feel good to hurt someone. Anger is sometimes a reaction to the tension of owning/not wanting to own that pain.
And we are so beyond the point of needing to get over that. Instead of lashing out, we need to be quiet and listen; we need to hear what others have to say and we need to listen to our own thoughts, especially when they’re troubling us. It’s hard. It’s uncomfortable. It’s essential.
We who are in positions of privilege we may not have asked for, but cannot deny exist—that is to say, we White people—have to listen more than we speak; we have to be willing to engage in difficult conversations and self-reflection, not defensive positioning. Not if we expect to be believed when we say we are more than this. Not if we expect to be believed when we say that we know that privilege needs to be dismantled.
I want those kids in that video to learn, and to understand. Because regardless of who started what and when, what that scene reveals is that privilege and entitlement are weapons they wield. I don’t know if they understand or care that they’re weapons that cause damage, but we all need them to understand it.
I hold the same hopes for the field of children’s and young adult literature: I want us to learn and understand, too. There is amazing work being done in our field. Amazing books. Amazing criticism. And we need both. Because we are every great book by BIPOC and every great effort to publish and promote those books, and so many other wonderful books by authors and illustrators from every background, and we are also every painful, damaging stereotype and hurtful image, in our past and in our present.
Have you read Debbie Reese's American Indians in Children's Literature (AICL)?(Debbie also provides a great list of other Native activists to follow on Twitter, to support our listening and learning about concerns both within and beyond our field.)
Do you know about Indigo'sBookshelf--Native, Latinx, queer, and disabled young adults writing with knowledge and passion about books they read?
Do you visit the sites of the "Kindred Spirits" we list here on our blog?
Let's commit—or recommit—to reading, and listening, and learning from the voices of those whose lived experiences can educate those of us trying to work with good hearts and good intentions.
Yes, we are this. And yes, we are more than this.