The list goes on and on (and on and on). These are just some of the phrases regularly leveled at BIPOC scholars who utilize anti-racist lenses in their critiques of children’s literature.
Who levels these charges? Overwhelmingly, White people: librarians, teachers, book creators, publishing professionals, journalists, bloggers, and more.
Today, we examine patterns that crop up time and time again as White people create, disseminate, and escalate racist narratives about BIPOC advocates and criticism in the world of children’s literature.
(“We,” today, is Allie and Kazia Berkley-Cramer, our newest RWW member, who you can read more about at the end of this piece. Welcome, Kazia!)
Here is the pattern we’re seeing:
- As per usual in children’s lit publishing, folks from the community get hold of a galley, egalley, jacket copy, art sample, early copy, etc. of a book.
- Folks (usually BIPOC) provide critique laying out the precise ways the work reinforces problematic, oppressive ideologies, sometimes asking others to reconsider their initial enthusiasm--sometimes publicly, sometimes privately, sometimes semi-privately. These are often intra-community conversations.
- White people, especially journalists with mainstream platforms and huge numbers of followers, blow up these discussions--mischaracterizing the nature of criticism, equating critique with attack, ascribing motives that include jealousy, attention-seeking, and downright malice, describing the critical community in ways that depend on racist and sexist stereotypes, crying “censorship” and “book banning” and leaving all nuanced discussions behind.
When the overwhelmingly White, mainstream, media report on these “dramas,” they rarely include the voices of the BIPOC scholars whose critiques are under fire. We highly recommend following our Kindred Spirits (list on the right-hand side of the screen) as they lead the field of criticism as well as discussions about criticism. We especially recommend, in addition to viewing Dr. Reese’s Arbuthnot lecture, these Twitter threads by Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas.
CYCLICAL WHITE SUPREMACY, HYPOCRISY, AND FRAGILITY AT WORK
Many times, White journalists (and non-journalists) cite the fact that many of these conversations happen on social media as evidence of the irrationality and ignorance informing it--conveniently disregarding that many of the people engaging and leading these discussions on social media are experts in their fields, with enormous credentials and decades of experience. White professionals frame the BIPOC who participate in criticism, especially women, as ringleaders, out to censor and damage other authors. This framing is rooted in racist and sexist stereotypes, not in facts. And although the presence or absence of scholarly qualifications shouldn’t ever disqualify someone’s lived experience, framing BIPOC critics doing advocacy work as an “angry Twitter mob” railroads over the fact that many of those prominent critics hold PhDs.
And when White journalists who employ all of the above techniques insert themselves into conversation about and/or among BIPOC critics and creators, they exploit the intra-community nature of these conversations and discredit the multi-varied expertise, opinions, and experience of Black, Indigenous, and people of color--an especially pernicious and toxic form of racism.
As Sam Bloom notes, we as a broad professional community, and White people in particular, need to come to terms with our hypocrisy in discussion criticism--who gets to be a critic, and when? Do we only cite BIPOC criticism when it’s convenient and furthers our viewpoint, or do we genuinely absorb what these scholars say to better form our own opinions? Do we value “professional” reviews over blogging and other social media, thereby prioritizing people who have the privilege of time (and thus also money) to review for journals, either completely for free or very little? While several organizations, including Kirkus and SLJ, have made a particular effort to diversify their staff of reviewers (in the best and broadest sense of the term), those with the time, energy, and connections outside of their “regular” jobs to take on this work are few and far between.
And, accusations of censorship are often wielded as clubs to strike down well-reasoned arguments; who gets to wield these clubs? Who gets to say “this is censorship” and have that sentiment believed? Throughout modern US history, the answer is almost always: White people. When BIPOC cite the CCBC statistics as evidence of the censorship of BIPOC voices, do prominent anti-censorship organizations like the NCAC and PEN throw the weight of their institutional support behind them? We’ve yet to see that.
Furthermore, whose books are canceled or postponed or celebrated by the establishment? Who bounces back, and how easily? We’ve seen an abundance of White authors and illustrators--Sophie Blackall, Jack Gantos, Daniel Handler, Meg Rosoff, Lane Smith, Raina Telgemeier, Jonah Winter, Nora Raleigh Baskin--win awards, headline book festivals, and publish further titles with ease after BIPOC scholars and critics laid bare the racism in their words, works, and deeds. Indeed, each of these authors had a long list of White protectors ready to go to bat for them, and none of them has had books actually canceled due to a public, critical outcry. This is White privilege at work.
Note, too, the pattern of specific anti-Blackness at work here--the protective outcry in defense of Black creators has been strikingly small in comparison to the fervent defense we see time and again of non-Black creators, especially of White creators. We urge anyone who believes Black creators are treated equally in this industry to check both the facts and their privilege.
ASKS FOR OUR FELLOW WHITE PEOPLE
We ask you to consider this: choosing to not buy, not read, not keep, or not lift up books that are not in keeping with values of embracing equity is NOT censorship. Choosing not to provide additional platforms for creators who perpetuate racism and white supremacy is NOT censorship.
We ask that, before you level knee-jerk and irresponsible accusations of “censorship”, you consider this: do you believe that critics have the right to criticize? Or does that not fall under your definition of “free speech”? And, in turn, by leveling charges of censorship, who might you be silencing? We ask you to listen and understand critique for exactly what it is: asks for action, asks for better.
-Allie Jane Bruce
-Kazia Berkley-Cramer is excited to be joining the team at Reading While White! She’s been an avid (but quiet) reader of the blog since its inception, and is honored to be jumping into the fray. She is a White children’s librarian at a medium-sized public library, and in addition to an MS in library science, she also holds an MA in children’s literature. She co-founded the Stonewall speculation blog Medal on My Mind, is a book reviewer, and served as a member of the 2019 Sibert Award committee.