Thursday, January 17, 2019

What About Shame?


This is a post in Reading While White’s end-of-year retrospective series.

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.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

What To Look For In Data About Diversity In Publishing?

Today, Reading While White is pleased to welcome guest blogger Amy Koester for a discussion of the 2017 CCBC statistics. This post is part of our end-of-year retrospective series.

The beginning of a new calendar year is rife with end-of-year summaries, top ten lists, and other pieces meant to help us put the work and output of the previous year into context. This holds true for diversity in publishing, too, with the anticipated release of CCBC data on children’s books written by and about BIPOC in 2018. As we prepare to consider these newest statistics, we can take some time to consider changes we’ve seen over the course of previous years’ CCBC numbers as well some other pieces of data that can help us to see whether the publishing ecosystem is diversifying.

What do the CCBC stats tell us?

Before anything else, it’s important to recognize that the CCBC does not receive every single book published for children in a given year--so the stats they share represent data about a significant sampling of children’s books, not the full roster of what's published. People looking at this data should keep this in mind throughout any perusal and analysis of the data. One must understand what sampling the data sets represent in order to truly learn anything from them. (For some additional context, the CCBC gives this further clarification about what materials they receive and are counted in their data: most of the trade books published in the United States, some series and formula non-fiction books, and some books from Canadian publishers who distribute in the U.S.) That said, the CCBC data is the most comprehensive data set available about books published for children in a given year, and so this data is our closest proxy to all of publishing for children.

When I’m looking at CCBC stats, I usually use 2015 as my starting place--that’s the first full year for which We Need Diverse Books was in existence, and it’s also the year we got the first set of data about diversity in the publishing field (more on that below). If 2015 could be considered a year in which diversity across the children’s publishing ecosystem became a high profile priority, how do current practices compare? Until the 2018 CCBC data is available, we’ve got the 2017 numbers for comparison.

Books Created by BIPOC

Comparing BIPOC-created books in 2015 and 2017, we see (in order of greatest to least gross increase in titles):
  • There were 98 more Asian American-created books in 2017 than in 2015; Asian American-created books for youth increased 56% from 2015 to 2017, from 176 titles to 274
  • There were 56 more Latinx-created books in 2017 than in 2015; Latinx-created books for youth increased 93% from 2015 to 2017, from 60 titles to 116 titles
  • There were 19 more First Nations-created books in 2017 than in 2015; First Nations-created books for youth increased 100% from 2015 to 2017, from 19 titles to 38
  • There were 14 more Black-created books in 2017 than in 2015; Black-created books for youth increased 13% from 2015 to 2017, from 108 titles to 122
Across all BIPOC-created books, this is a net increase of 52%, or 187 more titles in 2017 than were created in 2015.
What questions do these data about BIPOC-created books raise? Questions for further consideration and research include:
  • How many individual BIPOC authors and illustrators are there in a year of publishing? That is to say, how many BIPOC authors are given opportunity to publish, and similarly how many BIPOC illustrators? How many of the books by Black creators in any given recent year are by Jason Reynolds, for example? If a small handful of BIPOC creators publish multiple books, that implies that the overall number of BIPOC creators is not as large as even these relatively dismal data suggest. (And the goal is not to simply increase the number of creators at the expense of individuals creating multiple books; rather, we should look beyond the idea of more books by BIPOC and think more of supporting more careers for BIPOC creators.)
  • What would an ideal distribution of BIPOC creators even look like? What should be our metrics for achieving greater equity in creation of books for youth? Despite the fact that there was a 100% increase in titles by First Nations creators between 2015 and 2017, there were still only 38 such titles counted in 2017--which amounts to a measly 1% of all counted books created in that year. Data can look impressive--the number of First Nations creators doubled, after all!--while still identifying systemic issues.
Books About BIPOC

Comparing books about BIPOC characters and experiences in 2015 and 2017, we see (in order of greatest to least comparative disparity to U.S. population):
  • Books about Latinx characters and experiences increased 154%, from 85 to 216 titles, from 2015 to 2017, and represented 5.84% of books for youth in 2017 (This is compared to 17.6% of the American population being Hispanic, according to 2017 data)
  • Books about Black characters and experiences increased 26% from 2015 to 2017, from 270 to 340 titles, and represented 9.19% of books for youth in 2017 (This is compared to 13.9% of the American population being Black or African American, according to 2017 data)
  • Books about First Nations characters and experiences increased 71% from 2015 to 2017, from 42 to 72 titles, and represented 1.95% of books for youth in 2017 (This is compared to 2.1% of the American population being American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, or other Pacific Islander, according to 2017 data)
  • Books about Asian-American characters and experiences increased 174% from 2015 to 2017, from 113 to 310 titles, and represented 8.38% of books for youth in 2017 (This is compared to 6.3% of the American population being Asian, according to 2017 data)
In total, 25% of all books published for children and counted by the CCBC in 2017 were about BIPOC characters or experiences; this is compared to 15% of all titles in 2015. Across all books about BIPOC characters in experiences, this is a net increase of 84%, or 428 more titles in 2017 than were published in 2015.
It’s imperative to remember two other things in considering these CCBC data:
  • Comparing representation of BIPOC in children’s books to representation across United States population demographics does not imply that if and when literary representation meets population demographics, diversity will be “achieved”--rather, considering the abysmally underrepresented status of Latinx, First Nations, and Black people in children’s books now, the population benchmarks provide a framework for measuring progress, not for determining success.
  • These CCBC data tell us only the number of books by and about BIPOC in a given year--they do not speak to the accuracy or integrity of the books and the stories they tell. Dr. Debbie Reese makes this point in her expansion of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s metaphor of books as windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors: that many of these mirrors may distort the appearance of BIPOC like “fun house mirrors.” We do well to keep in mind that numerical increases in representation among creators and story characters is not necessarily reflective of better representation.
What questions do these data about books about BIPOC raise? These questions are areas in need of further consideration and exploration:
  • What are we to make of the reality that while both the number of books by BIPOC and the number of books about BIPOC have increased, the number of books about has grown more significantly? This is to say, what are we to make of the reality that, in all likelihood, a significant proportion of these new books about BIPOC are by White creators who inherently do not have an #ownvoices perspective of the content about which they write? What does it say about the publishing ecosystem that this “diversity trend” seems to prioritize stories about BIPOC, for which there is ever-increasing demand, without necessarily proportionately fostering support and empowerment of BIPOC creators?
  • What does it mean that books about Asian characters and experiences are the only demographic group besides White to have a higher percentage of stories about their experiences than their percentage of the national population? To what degree do stereotypes come into play here, in particular the myth of the “model minority”? Given the trends evident in the CCBC data, it’s worth revisiting this 2015 roundtable conversation that was hosted by Zetta Elliott and featured Sarah Park Dahlen, Shveta Thakrar, Mike Jung, Katie Yamasaki, and Sona Charaipotra.
  • Conversely, what does it mean that the proportion of books about Latinx characters and experiences is particularly mismatched with population data? To what extent do stereotypes and White supremacy factor into the landscape that has resulted in this discrepancy?
If we were to break down the about data even further, what would we find in terms of the types of stories being published about BIPOC? For example, what proportion of books about Black characters and experiences are stories of slavery or the civic rights era versus contemporary stories that normalize, not historicize, Black experiences? Similarly, what proportion of books about First Nations characters and experiences take place in modern settings as opposed to historical accounts of First Nations peoples? (To be sure, there’s nothing inherently wrong with historical stories about BIPOC; it is problematic, however, when the majority of stories portray BIPOC as groups relevant only at particular moments in history and/or without presence in today’s increasingly diverse reality.)

Considering diversity in the publishing industry

The number of books published by and about BIPOC is only a piece of the larger children’s publishing ecosystem--to truly transform publishing and ensure that great books by and about BIPOC can get into libraries and the hands of kids, representation among publishing professionals is important to consider, too. In 2015, Lee & Low conducted a Diversity Baseline study to capture demographic data about those employed in the publishing industry at that time. It’s interesting data to look at, and it’ll be the basis for comparison when, later this year, they’ll issue the second survey to capture what the industry looks like four years later. Until we have that comparison data, we’re left with more anecdotal and subjective descriptors of the publishing industry. One such example is this recent article from Publishers Weekly that compiles the stories of how various publishing industry folks got into children’s books--and the folks sharing their stories are overwhelmingly White. Regardless of whether the forthcoming Lee & Low data indicate a publishing landscape dominated by White professionals, articles like this serve to reinforce a narrative of publishing as a White field. That impacts how we think about the larger publishing ecosystem as it relates to diverse books for children.

Thinking about publishing as an ecosystem also calls into question the role of librarians and those involved in youth librarianship. What does it say about youth librarianship when we look for changes in publishing--we want to see more and learn more about diversity in children’s literature--but do not necessarily look for changes in our own practice and how we contribute to this landscape? What can and should we, as library practitioners, be doing to demand and support more systemic change?

As we head into a new year of publishing, the ALA Midwinter Meeting and all the publishing promotion that happens there, and the anticipation of the second round of data on diversity in publishing from Lee & Low, we should all be intentional about considering the different data we’re seeing and what stories they can tell about whether and how we’re moving the needle toward a more diverse ecosystem of publishing books for young people.

-Amy Koester works at Skokie Public Library as the manager of the Learning Experiences Department. She is currently wrapping up her term on the board of directors of the Association for Library Service to Children. She is a member of the editorial board of In the Library with the Lead Pipe, an open access, open peer reviewed journal on librarianship.

Monday, January 7, 2019

The Benefits & Limits of Diversity Audits

This is a post in Reading While White’s end-of-year retrospective series.

Diversity audits! They’re an analytical look at a library collection through a diversity lens: tracking minority representations vs. majority. This can cover a variety of identity markers, but generally what is talked about most is numbers of BIPOC and White creators/ characters. These audits aren’t totally a new thing, but they’ve gained traction over the last year with Karen Jensen’s posts giving guidelines on how-to (also see her more recent post) and Library Journal’s online course “Equity in Action: Taking Your Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives to the Next Level” delving into the subject. I myself have started doing diversity audits, and it’s something my library is pushing for us to continue. Are diversity audits a step in the right direction of more inclusion and equity within our collections and services? Are they a performative trend with no real impact? Maybe a bit of both? But let’s back up a minute... who am I?

Hi! I’m Jenna, the newest contributor to RWW. I live in Chicago and work as a Collection Management Librarian focusing on children’s and teen materials at the Oak Park Public Library. I’m also a yoga instructor and foster kitten caretaker. Like the rest of the RWW team, I am White and working on learning what that means every day. My hope is that my blog posts will encourage you to continue learning along with me (maybe that’s schmaltzy, but it’s true). So let’s get started, shall we? Back to the books!

This blog post will not be a how-to guide for diversity audits or an analysis of the audits I did. Rather, I’d like to spend some time ruminating on the bigger picture of diversity audits. What exactly is their purpose, and what is their potential for impact?

I began doing diversity audits of my library’s collections at the request of our management team. They heard about other libraries doing it, and it aligns with our aspirations of diversity, inclusion, and equity. The intentions of diversity audits are good. They are following the same idea as CCBC’s Statistics and Lee and Low’s Baseline Survey. By finding a baseline, we have a better idea of where and how to grow. However, good intentions aren’t enough if there isn’t meaningful action and next steps to go along with it.

It bears repeating that diversity is not “a trend.” These posts from Jennifer Baker and Ellen Oh are always worth revisiting. If diversity audits are done as a one-off, primarily just so a library or library worker can say they did it, that moves into performative territory. Especially for a White librarian like myself, it’s so important to question why we do things, particularly when in relation to racial diversity. Are we doing these diversity audits because it’s the hot thing to do right now or because we actually care deeply about how we can better our collections? And if the latter, we have to acknowledge the pitfalls of diversity audits and what else needs to be done.

Diversity audits don’t represent quality, accuracy, or intersectionality. Just as books about White kids range from high literary fiction to entertaining drivel, so to should books by and about BIPOC. That said, our collections are really only being truly inclusive if the representations shared are accurate. While not every book needs to be or should be heavily themed around the race of the character, for example, depictions should ring true. And any cultural practices that are discussed need to be correct. A diversity audit might tell us that our collection has a good sized number of books with Black characters, but what if they are all historical fiction with male leads and assumed Christianity? Intersectionality is so important so we can provide books about BIPOC kids in various genres with a wide range of themes.

Another downfall is that even from the onset, we’re approaching diversity audits from a White-normative standpoint, often looking at the data as White vs. all of BIPOC lumped together. Even when separated into further categories (ex. Black, Asian, Hispanic/Latinx, Native American), they are still so broad. And even the books that get categorized as “diverse” can still have a heavy White influence. Consider interracial romances where more often than not, one of the characters is White. Yes, these are still diverse and valuable, but many count that as a diverse title as opposed to a White title when really, it features both representations.

Diversity audits can be really useful, don’t get me wrong. When I did my first couple audits looking at race/ethnicity of author and main character of new titles ordered within a monthlong period for various kids and teen collections, I found it eye-opening. I had thought I was being intentional in my ordering, and while I was to some point, there are so many mid-list titles I was buying that were White, White, White. I’m working on adjusting my ordering practices accordingly, which I think is likely a necessary result of any diversity audits. It’s not just about filling current gaps. It’s looking at our collection practices as a whole.

What can librarians do after performing their audits? How can we create goals to be more expansive and inclusive as we move forward? How do we recognize the usefulness of statistics, while also holding onto the importance of the stories and qualitative information behind the numbers? How can we calculate and use data while acknowledging that a quantity over quality mindset is rooted in White supremacy culture?

I’m still figuring out these answers myself, but I’ll be starting with adjusting my collection development strategies. I recommend using the diversity audits as a starting point to help make a larger plan of how to expand. I plan on setting up a schedule to regularly perform audits to see how the numbers change as my ordering strategies change. Also, I will continue to seek out accuracy and intersectionality with the help of reviews, especially those from experts of a specific identity such as Debbie Reese’s American Indians in Children's Literature (AICL). For more helpful and recommended resources, check out our “Kindred Spirits” list on the side of blog.

Another goal after looking at the audits is not just about looking forward and adjusting ordering, but also looking back, evaluating the current collection, and weeding accordingly. Check out our previous posts here and here. We need to move on from weeding solely based on circulation and take into consideration how stereotypes and bias can shape the stories we provide, prioritizing accuracy and inclusiveness.

So go ahead and do your diversity audits. I honestly do recommend it, but see them as one piece of the puzzle towards creating more inclusive collections. Acknowledge what makes them useful as well as what they aren’t telling us. Collections work is always a work in progress, so let’s make that progress actually progressive by continually evaluating the hows and whys and taking a stand for collections that are diverse, inclusive, and equitable.

-Jenna Friebel

Monday, December 17, 2018

Not recommended: It’s Springtime, Mr. Squirrel


This is a post in Reading While White’s end-of-year retrospective series.


2018 has been a historic year for Native women in U.S. politics. Last month, Sharice Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, and Deb Haaland, an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna, became the first-ever Native women elected to U.S. Congress. At the same time, Peggy Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Nation of Ojibwe, was elected Lt. Governor of Minnesota.


In the #kidlit world, 2018 has been a stellar year for Native book releases, with several #OwnVoices books by Native creators being published and celebrated, including Traci Sorell winning the Orbis Pictus Honor Award last month for We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga. In January, another group of AILA Youth Literature Awards was announced and Dr. Debbie Reese was selected to give the 2019 May Hill Arbuthnot Lecture. In June, members of the ALSC Board of Directors addressed longstanding criticism and “inconsistency between Wilder’s legacy and [ALSC’s] core values” when voting to change the name of the Wilder Medal to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. Dr. Debbie Reese recently posted a Twitter thread highlighting some momentous events from the year.


Screenshot of Facebook conversation regarding
"Native American headdress" flannelboards.
Despite these successes and more, anti-Native bigotry and actions persisted in 2018. Ignorance of Native nations was reflected in Senator Elizabeth Warren’s refusal to apologize for claiming Native identity. (That she pointed to a DNA test as “proof” of her Cherokee identity shows her lack of knowledge. Read this post by Jacqueline Keeler and Kelly Hayes and this piece by Rebecca Nagle to learn more about how both Warren and Trump have exploited and erased Cherokee people and the Cherokee Nation in this fight.) While the professional baseball team of Cleveland, Ohio committed to removing racist imagery from team jerseys this year, there are no plans to change the team name and the team will continue to profit from the racist image, which suggests that the move is more about what looks best from a PR perspective than about doing what’s right. Some educators have shared efforts to teach inclusively in 2018 (learn about how teacher Jessica Lifshitz is confronting Native stereotypes with her students here), but many continue to teach false history rooted in White supremacist, colonialist culture (as seen in the screenshot of a recent Facebook group conversation about flannelboards, the inappropriate use of the words “tribe” and “spirit animal,” and this Twitter conversation about fake tipis being used as classroom decorations). Native survivors of targeted harassment courageously raised their voices  against their abusers in 2018, yet Native women continue to face violence and assault at staggering rates. Companies like Target and Crate and Barrel continue to profit off of appropriative Native merchandise that encourages children to “play Indian.” Native book creators continue to be represented minimally at conferences like #NCTE18. Native stories are mislabeled as “folk and fairy tales.” And racist children’s books are still getting published and promoted. One of these books, published this year in the U.S.A., is It’s Springtime, Mr. Squirrel!.

Cover of It's Springtime, Mr. Squirrel!
Image from Amazon.com.
It’s Springtime, Mr Squirrel! is an international picture book (translated from German) by Sebastian Meschenmoser, author of the popular Mr. Squirrel and the Moon. This is one of those “where do you even begin” kind of books to review - there are A LOT of issues.

In the beginning of the book, spring has sprung and the setting is abuzz. Graceful gray pencil marks are lightened by splashes of color. Creatures scuttle about, and Mr. Squirrel’s friend Hedgehog shares that he’s not hungry because he has seen “...a lovely lady hedgehog.” At this point, pink and blue background fills are used for male and female characters, reinforcing a very stereoptypical gender binary. When “the lovely lady” Hedgehog is shown, it is from behind (this “lady” only exists as an object for the male character to gaze). Because Hedgehog is too shy to approach the lady character, Mr. Squirrel shares thoughts about how to win her heart: “The best way is to gain fame and glory by showing everyone how brave and strong you are.” The omniscient narrator then says, “In order to gain fame and glory, of course you had to win lots of dangerous fights.” Regardless of author intent, the not-so-subtle message is to get what I want out of this, I have to assert male dominance (toxic masculinity 101).

The text then reads: “...if you want to win lots of dangerous fights, you have to look dangerous yourself.” What exactly does it mean to “look dangerous” in this book? First Hedgehog is shown with a butterfly and flowers atop his head, and later with a mushroom-style skirt and a snail on his head (both sexist jabs against anything other than masculine, cisnormative gender presentations). It is only when Hedgehog wears leaves and carries a sharp stick in what appears to be a stereotypical, generic Native outfit that the characters feel ready to win “any dangerous fight.” (To learn about how “playing Indian” is connected to the colonialist history of the U.S.A. and the impacts of stereotypes on Native children’s self-esteem today, read this study, this post, and this book.)
Illustration of Hedgehog with grass skirt and spear. Imagine from
https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Its-Springtime-Mr-Squirrel/Sebastian-Meschenmoser/9780735843103.


In the pages that follow, the characters (both dressed up now) attack unsuspecting mice, birds, and bunnies. When the bear character, who is named as the most dangerous creature in the forest, isn’t scared of them (he doesn’t see them), Mr. Squirrel and Hedgehog feel victorious. They take flowers to the “lady hedgehog,” only to discover that she isn’t a hedgehog at all, but a hairbrush. As they sit with their disappointment, a duck approaches and says, “That can happen to anybody.” To some readers, this ending and its be careful who you are attracted to messaging might also call to mind stories of people who are transgender being violently outed, which often results in trauma and assault.
Scanned illustration of characters chasing mice. 

No doubt there will be readers who want to defend this book by pointing out the creator’s impeccable draftsmanship or use of irony. Meschenmoser is a talented visual artist in some ways, but the thing about books for children is that they are about how every image and piece of text work together to create each page, and how every image and page fits together with the next to tell a story. Each book goes out into the world, the actual world where Native sovereignty is not understood by those with power (and many without), and where Native kids are facing compounding intersecting oppressions. These books are read by real kids, many whose very identities are under constant threat.

If you work with young people, I invite you sit and think with me about the messages this particular book sends to readers, and how it connects to today...to this month...to 2018. How will Native readers and others with minoritized group identities respond to this book? How might readers with privilege and power react? What might they internalize? If you still want to defend this book, I invite you to consider the purpose supporting an artist’s style above all else serves. Who does it protect? What legacies does it continue?

If you choose to read a different book, I’d suggest any of the Hall of Fame recommendations on Indigo’s Bookshelf, the new blog (also started this year) by the group of Florida Seminole and Miccosukee teens who Tweet collaboratively using @OfGlades. If you don’t already follow them, you should. These young people have things to sayand as reflecting on 2018 shows for those us who are not Native, we have much to learn.

-Elisa Gall

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

PART II: False Victimization and White Aggression: David Lubar’s Public Facebook Discussion Following Baskin’s 2018 TEDxTalk



The Reading While White team is pleased to welcome Guest Blogger Sarah Hamburg today.

In Monday’s post, Allie Jane Bruce gave a close reading of Nora Raleigh Baskin’s TEDx Talk, “Artists Mustn’t Fear the Social Media Call-Out Culture,” looking at how Baskin’s talk addresses “call-out culture,” and how that presentation relates to Whiteness and power in children’s literature. Today, I’d like to go back and examine how online discussions following Baskin’s talk reflect those same dynamics. The online conversations about Baskin’s talk are an illustrative example of how White people in children’s publishing define social media culture, and its norms, in ways that both uphold our own dominance, and enact active racist aggression against BIPOC people in the field.

I want to note, especially in the wake of the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, that this conversation is not meant to convey that White people can’t be marginalized along other identifies; White people, including White Jewish people, can still be subject to other oppressions. However, the focus of this post is Whiteness, and an examination of a specific incident of White aggression and dominance in order to identify larger patterns of racism in the field.

After the publication of Nora Raleigh Baskin’s TEDx talk on May 21, 2018, there were many conversations both online and off, but I’d like to focus on one Facebook thread in particular. The thread encapsulates dynamics that occur repeatedly within the social media spaces of children’s publishing. As Allie mentioned on Monday, it’s been several months since the TEDx talk and these specific discussions took place, but a close examination of their scope and impact remains (unfortunately) relevant.

On May 24th, David Lubar wrote a public Facebook post which began, “Once again, a writer has been the subject of an over-the-top assault by Debbie Reese.” That writer was Nora Raleigh Baskin, and the “assault” was Dr. Debbie Reese’s series of tweets critiquing the content of Baskin’s TEDx talk. On May 21st, Dr. Cristina James (who organized the TEDx event at which Baskin spoke) had tagged Dr. Reese on Twitter, with a link to Baskin’s talk and an invitation to, “discuss, contest, argue if you must…” Dr. Reese responded to that invitation on May 22nd with an initial series of tweets expressing her general thoughts on the content of the talk, followed by a longer thread in which she listened to the talk again and live-tweeted her close analysis. (Dr. Reese compiled those threads in a blog post; I highly recommend that readers spend time with her actual words and reactions to the talk, as well as her own response to David Lubar’s post.) At the beginning of the second thread Dr. Reese tagged Nora Raleigh Baskin, and Baskin was then automatically tagged in each of the threaded tweets. That tagging, and Dr. Reese’s presentation of her thoughts and critique more generally, became the primary focus of online discussions about Nora Raleigh Baskin’s TEDx talk. It’s here, in this shifting of focus from the substance of critiques to the manner of their delivery, and the characterizations of responses from BIPOC people as “call-out culture,” online “bullying,” and in this case “assault,” that I’d like to spend time via this post.

The full text of David Lubar’s May 24th Facebook post is as follows:

(Note, this was a public Facebook post, which could be viewed by anyone, and several participants recorded the post and comments as they progressed. Lubar later made the decision to delete the post and the thread in their entirety. In discussing the post, I’ll be relying on screenshots made while it was still active. While the post itself is recorded intact, unfortunately many of the later comments and additions to the thread are not available. My discussion will focus on the comments to the thread before people began intervening. Full disclosure: Allie Jane Bruce and I were both later participants in this Facebook discussion.)
“Once again, a writer has been the subject of an over-the-top assault by Debbie Reese. And, once again, anyone who calls her out is besieged by her defenders, who act as if she walks on water. If those of you leaping to Ms. Reese's defense haven't actually read some of her columns, I think that would be a good thing to do. Much of what she writes is quibbles, false attacks, and weak scholarship. Consider this, from her attack on Susan Cooper: 
[quote] 
Ghost Hawk opens with two epigraphs. The first is from Roger Williams and is dated 1643. Williams tells not to be proudful because ‘thy brother Indian was made by the same God that made the English. That Indian, the epigraph says, is just as wise, fair, and strong as the English man.’ 
The second epigraph is a verse from Woodie Guthrie's song, This Land is Your Land.
Why, I wonder, did Cooper choose those two? It was, by the way, rather patronizing of Williams to assume that his God made Indians. How does he know it didn't happen the other way around, with the Indians’ god making the Englishmen?! 
[end quote] 
Do you see the problem? Cooper's intent was obviously to show that Roger Williams saw all humans as equal. Making things worse is that the actual Roger Williams quote doesn't specify which god he means. Reese basically attacks Cooper for showing something positive about Roger Williams. 
You can find hundreds more examples of this, along with some PETA-like campaigns. She attacked Jon Scieszka twice for calling a Mayan "Kakapoopoohead" (I might have the spelling wrong), and posted links on YALSA book, with his name in the subject. She did this first by comparing this to Mel Gibson's Apocalypto (sp?), and then, seven years later by comparing this to the news hoax about the Chinese crew names on the plane that crashed. 
l have writer friends who have been attacked for absurd things. One had a Native American character cross his legs to play the guitar while seated on the floor. Ms. Reese slammed this sentence for being a stereotype. If you play guitar, you know this is the comfortable way to sit. Yes -- many minorities have been badly portrayed in books. but they deserve a better defender, and Ms. Reese deserves to be called out for her tactics.”




In the ensuing comments on Lubar’s post, a group of primarily White writers wrote to affirm Lubar’s characterizations, and to add further demeaning remarks about Dr. Reese’s work and about her as a person. These comments continued uninterrupted until May 30th, when several people began posting comments pushing back. In the comments from White people adding their support for Lubar’s post, several central themes emerged. Most prominent among them was participants’ stated belief that they agreed with Dr. Reese in general terms, but opposed her “tactics” and ways of expressing herself. I’d like to look at that idea, and its relationship to Baskin’s delivered remarks about “call-out culture,” more closely.

In the very first comment on the post, Jordan Sonnenblick responded to say, “As you know, David, I have tangled with DR in the past. It is frustrating, because invariably, she attacks people who would be _on her side_, but in such vicious and passive—aggressively unfair ways that she divides our little world into venomous little camps.” Others added their agreement to this idea.

David Lubar Well said, Jordan. Your point about attacking people who would he allies is an excellent observation.

Gae Polisner Every time we try to talk about this and what is wrong with it, I am reminded of trying to talk logic with Trump supporters, and it truly, truly terrifies me. Not to mention, the defense is that she's advocating for kids. Well kids are being bullied online in droves. At times this bullying is leading to suicide and outward violence. What kind of message does it send to the kids to watch adults engage in this nature of cruel communication over and over and over again online?

Stephanie Olivieri Gae Polisner Exactly.

Susan Fabricant Hess Gae Polisner l agree and have had it out with her on Twitter. Nothing ever positive comes out of her mouth or keyboard.

Annette Kesterson I hate the toxic atmosphere she creates and Jordan Sonnenblick is exactly right--even when i agree with her assertions, she is so poisonous that I would never support her in them.
Leslie Bermel says, “Alexandra Flinn I agree wholeheartedly. Her voice and expertise could have tremendous impact. It’s her tone and call out methods I take exception with.” And from Lisa Rondinelli Albert, “She does more harm than good with these rants and bullying tactics. What a wonderful antagonist she makes.”


Lubar's initial post does cite passages from Dr. Reese’s work in an effort to show specific instances where he disagrees with the substance of her critical reviews, yet his overall framing is one in which he repeatedly characterizes Reese’s scholarship as “attacks” and “assault.” (The word “attack” appears five times in Lubar’s post.) Lubar cites his disagreement with Reese’s criticisms—whether it’s in her critique of a White author parodying Indigenous naming practices, or in her reading of the implicit condescension in Roger Williams’ words from 1643—as evidence that Dr. Reese sharing her own perspective constitutes an attack. White commenters in the thread then continue this conflation between critique and “attack,” adding words like “vicious,” “venomous,” “bullying,” “cruel,” “nothing positive,” “nasty,” “toxic,” “poisonous.” And “wonderful antagonist.” Disagreement with the substance of Dr. Reese’s reviews and perspective is quickly lost, in favor of discussion of the idea that the White commenters would agree with Dr. Reese, were she not so “poisonous.” The implication in comments from Sonnenblick, Bermel, Kesterson, and other White people in the thread is that they are somehow allies, and would agree with Dr. Reese’s reviews, except that -- according to them -- the way Reese conducts herself unfortunately maintains racial divisions and alienates White people.

On Monday, Allie looked at the ways Nora Raleigh Baskin, in her TEDx talk on the subject, declines to define exactly what she means by “call-out culture.” The result is a conflation between very real online harassment and hate (disproportionately directed at Black and Indigenous people, and People of Color, particularly BIPOC women and nonbinary people) and anti-racist critique from BIPOC readers and scholars. Something similar is happening in this Facebook thread about online culture. In it, White participants’ stated belief that they would agree with Dr. Reese, if not for her “tactics”, fails to define exactly what “toxic,” “poisonous” behavior they mean. The one instance people reference is the fact that Dr. Reese tagged Nora Raleigh Baskin in each of her long series of live-tweets about the TEDx talk. Paul Hankins goes so far as to equate this Twitter tagging with torture, saying, “She uses social media like the walk home from school while being menaced by the bully that will not hit but taunts incessantly. When you go tweet after tweet after tweet, tagging the other person each time, the ‘what abouting’ becomes a form of 'water boarding'.” Hankins continues, “This is not conversation. This is not the way that I would bring a student to a sense of understanding or learning. Because THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD has been on my mind of late (reading with students), I go back to an idea of how Joe Starks rises to power over Eatonville. Zora Neale Hurston writes: ‘They bowed down to him because he was all of these things, but, perhaps he was all of these things because they bowed down… watch authors now take the safe road and write books with more animal characters or natural settings without characters out of fear of DR’s reach and influence.’"


Later in the Facebook discussion, and in her own blog post, Dr. Reese acknowledges that Twitter’s auto-tagging could have been overwhelming for Baskin, and offers an apology for the (inadvertent) multiple tags. But the hyperbolic allusions to violence, “menace,” and bullying do not match the act of tagging someone in a series of tweets. There is so much more to say here, too, about the comparison to Their Eyes Were Watching God, the idea that listening to Dr. Reese equates to “bowing down,” ideas about who exactly is having to take time away from their writing, and the mocking references to animal characters. (For just one crucial series on the subject of animal characters, see Edith Campbell’s posts on monkeys in children’s books.) It’s also worth noting that on other occasions, White book creators and bloggers have criticized Dr. Reese for not tagging them on Twitter, and cited this as an example of Reese talking behind their backs. (For another discussion of the focus on Twitter tagging as a derailing tactic, see this article from Bustle on reactions to Dr. Reese’s critique of The Love That Split the World.) Throughout the discussion on David Lubar’s post, it’s clear that the actual basis for White people calling Dr. Reese “toxic” is the very existence of her critiques as a Native woman, the fact that she expresses opinions that are “negative” (i.e. not praise), and the fact that White people feel discomfort when encountering her perspective. As in so many instances where we as White people point to “tone” or “delivery” as the problem, the argument becomes a circular one: “I would agree with you if not for your tone, and the problem with your tone is that you dare to be yourself and disagree with me.”

Ironically, in a discussion that’s ostensibly about the freedom to express opinions, and about writers’ work in the context of online culture and bullying, White participants in this Facebook thread come together to engage in the collective dehumanization of a Native scholar because of her writing. Dr. Debbie Reese becomes “a wonderful antagonist” and a “menacing bully.” These words disregard Debbie Reese’s humanity, and her right to express her opinions and knowledge through written scholarship (as much an artistic form as fiction writing.) White people join together here, in an online space, to describe Dr. Reese as someone lesser, who exists as a threat. Further, that collective dehumanization quickly moves from words to proposed action. Ed Sullivan says, “I am appalled that ALSC gave her the 2019 Arbuthnot Honor Lecture Award for ‘her strong modeling of inclusion, integrity and respect (ALSC Core Values) via the timely insights she shares on the influential blog.’ It disgusts me to sound like some kind of conservative reactionary but Reese is an example of the worst about political correctness.”
Susan Fabricant Hess says, “If only we could do more..like boycott the Arbuthnot Lecture,” and later, “Time to boycott.”
Finally, Mari Crispano Meli says, “I don't know who this person is or how she gained such power. But I am guessing that it's a good time to call her out on it, as you have done. Unite and conquer!”
That’s right, in a thread in which many White participants have gathered to disparage and demean a Native scholar for her invited response to the content of a public lecture, in which they have characterized a Native woman as a “wonderful antagonist” and a “menacing bully,” and in which some have called for a boycott of Dr. Reese’s Arbuthnot lecture, we arrive here at the words: “Unite and conquer!” The racist and colonial framing could not be any more clear. In this thread, a Native woman’s work and words are a threat against which White people must “unite and conquer.” And the White double standard also couldn’t be more stark. If the supposed problem White people are addressing here is online bullying and group behavior, then what exactly is the group behavior of this online thread? Somehow, White norms about social media and bullying, and kindness, don’t seem to apply to us White people.

David Lubar’s Facebook post and the ensuing discussion, where White people conflate critique of a TEDx talk with bullying and harassment, echoes the content of Baskin’s talk itself. The progression of the Lubar discussion, where White people unite online to disparage a Native scholar, dehumanize her and refer to her in ways that evoke racist ideas of menace and violence (racist ideas with a long, genocidal history), and propose a boycott of her Arbuthnot Lecture, reveals the stakes of Baskin’s talk. Online bullying and harassment are real, and they have real consequences. Again, though, those harsh realities and consequences are experienced most acutely by BIPOC women and nonbinary people, including those in the field of children’s literature. Online harassment, as with most harassment, is most often a means by which those with power—like White people in children’s publishing—enforce and maintain our dominance. As Allie discussed in her post, Baskin failed to address these power dynamics and disparities in her TEDx talk, and refused to own the power that we as White people have in this field. David Lubar’s Facebook post, and the subsequent thread, are both a reflection and a result of that omission. White people aren’t the victims here, and if we as White people can’t name, take responsibility for, and work to change our positions of power, then we are active participants in maintaining our White dominance. And those whose art and personhood are most deeply impacted by these violent inequities will continue to be BIPOC creators—whether fiction writers, or critical scholars.

-Sarah Hamburg

As is always the case, BIPOC writers have explored these issues for a long time, and in much more detail than I address here. I’m both indebted to them and their work in everything I’ve said here, and also recognize that it is their voices White people should be listening to, not mine.

Links:

Debbie Reese's Twitter Threads about Nora Raleigh Baskin's Ted Talk

#OwnVoices Controversy by Mia Wenjen (PragmaticMom)