This year, I’ve heard a lot of mulling over how to handle “problematic classics” when reading them with children, or using an equity or de-colonizing lens while weeding library collections. This is hardly a new topic; but this year I heard a new question:
“What about the the parent who wants to read one of these classics with their child; what about their shame?”
I heard this question twice, on different occasions, enough to pique my interest, because I hadn’t heard it before. The context and phrasing was slightly different each time, but the use of the word “shame,” and the centering of this particular type of shame, was the same. In one case we were discussing a small library’s obligation to stock classics; in the other, the appropriateness of offering alternative reads in response to a requested classic. And the gist was a librarians’ discomfort at making a White parent feel discomfort by drawing attention to the racism in a classic children’s book.
So what about shame? It’s critical to take a moment to understand that there are different kinds of shame. A layperson’s tour reminds us that while painful, much shame is fleeting: an embarrassment at seeing one’s self differently, exposed, in front of others. This kind of shame can be instructive if the owner is open to it, or it can be dismissed. Shame can also be toxic, when it is chronically experienced through childhood, leading to damaging feelings of inferiority. Self-esteem and resilience are crucial coping mechanisms for shame.
A clear provocation for children’s shame are dehumanizing stereotypes, including those we find in children’s books. We know that no book is perfect, and that time shapes our understandings of our own humanity. So why should we expect classic children’s books not to be complicated, or difficult? Yes, they are books with widely recognized merit or popularity; but we know we are likely to find racism in older children’s books, so we should expect to find them in our “beloved” classics, and expect that for some readers this will be unacceptable.
Not to do so is to imply that some people’s shame is acceptable shame. This is what we do when we excuse a book as being “a product of its time,” or insist that we can separate out the “bad parts” and enjoy the rest without perpetuating racism. Racial slurs and stereotypes in classics that are not recognized or called out become dismissable, and therefore the shame that many readers take from them, acceptable.
This is what I find so intriguing about the question “What about their shame?” That question suggests that we should accept the shame that we know many BIPOC children experience when reading racist classics, because the shame of the parent embarrassed at having the racism called out is unacceptable. There is a false equivalency at holding these two very different types of shame in comparison to each other, and also a fallacy that they are somehow in competition.
So, since we seem to have a hard time with it, what about the shame of a parent who can’t find a beloved-yet-racist classic at their small library branch? I certainly hope that the library would obtain it for them, if, at the end of the day, it is indeed what they want. But librarians know never to take a request at face value. There’s always more under the first question, right?
Why do most parents or caregivers ask for a classic? It is most likely that 1) they remember reading it, fondly; or, 2) it showed up on a recommended list. Underneath either of those motivations is a desire for the caregiver to do the best for their child, either by creating for them an experience as powerful and positive as they themselves remember, or by following up on the advice of an expert. Those are important, relevant, and valuable motivations. And either of them can be addressed with a variety of recommended books, including the one they first asked for. By listening to the caregiver, we can help them unpack what they are looking for, and supply them with ample and informed possibilities, so that they can make an informed selection for their child.
In fact, being informed is one critical element for managing potential shame, for either child or caregiver. It this is indeed our concern--people’s shame, and building resilience to it (for everyone will experience it, and might as well in their public library as anywhere else)--then we need to focus on building broad, diverse, and evolving library collections and reading recommendations that provide for all children to develop self-esteem, rather than focussing on accepting one person’s shame over another’s.