Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Not a Contradiction

All of us working on Reading While White are active believers in and promoters of intellectual freedom. And none of us find it contradictory to suggest that librarians think about stereotyping and bias when they are doing the hard, essential work of collection management.

Because here’s the thing: for too long, selection decisions have been made with too little regard, and sometimes no regard, for stereotyping and bias. How do we begin to respond to that? How do we take responsibility for educating ourselves as a profession and as individuals to think critically about that aspect of the work we do in regard to book evaluation and collection management decisions?

There are a lot of things we can do, but one thing we must do is include statements in our professional guidelines that encourage and even demand we consider stereotyping and bias as part of what we look at when evaluating materials and making collection decisions. This is part of the broader framework of challenging racism across all aspects of our profession.

Will we eradicate stereotyping and bias in our collections if we do this?  Of course not. Will we be snatching books out of young reader’s hands? Please. Every librarian knows that collection development and weeding decisions are made taking multiple factors into account. Every librarian knows the collection they are managing is going to have things they and/or others find objectionable.

But every librarian charged with collection management also has a responsibility to evaluate and select materials and assess the collection thoughtfully, usually according to specific criteria outlined in their library (or school) policies and procedures. When we as a profession incorporate language that encourages us to consider stereotyping and bias as part of our decision-making, it does not suggest specific kinds of books be excluded. It simply codifies a criteria that will make us more responsible and responsive to everyone in the communities that we serve.

Acting on that responsibility demands more of us, as individuals and as a profession.  Where are we turning to for professional recommendations? Are those resources culturally competent? If they aren’t where else can we turn to find out more?

None of this is necessarily easy; not for the individual librarian making collection management decisions; not for reviewers and review journals, not for many award- and best-of-the-year list committees and others. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t the right thing to do. More important, it’s the necessary thing to do.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Open Your Eyes

At some point during my first full year teaching 3rd grade in Indianapolis, a veteran teacher said something that has stayed with me for nearly two decades. The topic of conversation was the racial make-up of our respective classes, and this teacher—who I respect greatly, by the way—said, “I don’t even notice whether my students are Black or White. They’re just kids.”

I can still recall my reaction to this comment; I wondered what was wrong with me that I couldn’t be “colorblind” to the kids in my own class. I felt guilty that I could have told anyone the exact number of Black and Latina/o kids in my class. And so I kept my mouth shut, feeling a sinking sensation in my gut: I had SO MUCH to learn.

Well, yes… I DID have a lot to learn (still do, in fact), but one thing I’m certain of: the notion of “colorblindness” is a hugely flawed one. In a recent post on the open book (Lee & Low’s excellent blog), Tu Books Publisher Stacy Whitman points to research showing that the approach is damaging for children of all races, writing, “[N]ot addressing difference does not make children colorblind—it only encourages them to absorb the implicit racial messages of American society.”

That is a pretty huge deal. And think about it: this slow and insidious poisoning of our children (sorry to pull a Mrs. Lovejoy, but it’s true) is happening across America simply because most White people are too “polite” (i.e., wimpy) to take a risk. Because it is risky to bring up race as a White person—most of us simply don’t know what to say. I will readily admit that I struggle to have conversations about race with anyone, be it people of color and First/Native Nations or other White people. But that is no excuse not to try, or to simply ignore race—if I close my eyes, it will disappear, right? Nope. And make no mistake, the “colorblindness” is yet another manifestation of White Privilege. I can afford to not think about my Whiteness. But think of how devastatingly easy it is to find proof of just how often a person of color and First/Native Nations is reminded of their race (and that link is just the tip of the iceberg). The idea of a colorblind/Utopian society where we all eat Bon Bons and ride on shiny unicorns is something we White people really need to put to bed. It’s up to us to take that risk, to start the conversation, and not just to hear what is said, but also to see who is doing the talking. So pull up a chair, open your ears and your eyes, and let’s start a conversation.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

"Do I have the right to write about ______?"

A question that flies around the Children's Literature field quite a lot:

"Hey, ________.  You're ________.  Do I have the right to write about ________ people?"

I will address this as I see it applying to White people (like me) because really, it's not my place to tell people of color and First/Native Nations people what constitutes appropriate writing.  So let's suppose that the person doing the asking is White.

This is the wrong question to ask.

The answer is easy.  Yes, you have the right to write about whatever you want, in the USA, at least.  The constitution guarantees free speech (although, and this is key, it does not guarantee consequence-free speech).  So, yeah--we White people can write pretty much whatever we want and nobody will send us to jail for it.

But either or both of the following might be true:
1) You might drown out or overshadow (effectively silencing) marginalized people who justly want to tell their own stories.
2) You might get some stuff wrong and evoke criticism from people whom you misrepresent.

And nothing you do can alter either of these truths.  Not even asking permission from someone from the culture about which you're writing.

Let's face it--often, those who ask for permission from marginalized people are really asking for insurance and the ability to, in the event of criticism, point to the permission-grantor and say "But!  Look!  __________ said I could, and she's _________!"

And even if someone asks for permission with the best intentions, wanting nothing more than guidance from an expert, the time that __________ has to spend pondering the question (and how in the world to answer!) is time away from __________'s job/family/friends/garden/gaming.

So, White people:  Please stop asking people of color and First/Native Nations people this question.  It's the wrong question to ask.

Instead, ask yourself, and your White friends/colleagues:

"What do I have the responsibility to write about?"

And the answer is: Your Whiteness.

White people, we have to look at White culture, White norms, how we enact them, and how we oppress people with them.

Some starting places:

-Robin DiAngelo on White Fragility and White Women's Tears
-Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun on White Supremacy Culture
-Gail K. Golden on White Supremacy As Addiction

And after we've done that for the next 500 years or so, we can re-visit that first question.

One final thought, and then I'm done:

As a teacher, I have, indeed, seen many books for children written by White people about marginalized people that are exceptionally well done.  These are books that are exhaustively researched and thoughtfully written with a child audience in mind.

No, they are not all problematic.

But as a teacher who tries to have honest conversations with kids about race, what I really need is a book that gives a detailed and developmentally-appropriate explanation of Whiteness, White culture, and White dominance.  I'm still waiting for that one.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Thanks to Debbie Reese

In her post the other day, Megan mentioned a recent exchange on Debbie Reese's blog American Indians in Children's Literature.  In my home and at work AICL is a frequent topic of conversation. I try to check in on it on a regular basis to see what's new. Sometimes I go there to see if Debbie has reviewed a particular book I have questions about. And other times I first hear of an ongoing lively discussion on AICL via Facebook or Twitter.

Debbie gets people talking. And she gets people thinking, too.

Debbie Reese
It was thanks to Debbie that we were initially inspired to create this blog. At the ALSC Day of Diversity last January, during a question-and-answer session, she called on all of us to raise our voices and join in the ongoing discussion of diversity (or lack thereof) in children's books, saying,  "I can't do this alone." So, thank you, Debbie, for putting out the call to action. I'm sorry it took so long for some of us to respond.

I want to tell you something else about that day that has always stuck with me. You probably won't ever find it in any recap of the day, so you would only know this happened if you were there.

After one of the sessions, people lined up at a microphone to speak. Some had comments, some had questions for the panelists who had just spoken before. Debbie had been about third or fourth in line, patiently waiting her turn, and just when she got up to the microphone, a White woman hopped up from her seat and jumped in front of Debbie to take the mike. I don't remember what she said, all I can remember is feeling shocked that someone would be so rude.

It probably shouldn't have surprised me. White people have been "taking the mike" from people of color for generations.

But isn't that what we're doing here on this blog? I hope not.  We envision Reading While White as an opportunity for White people to add their voices to the discussion of race in children's books in addition to and not instead of those voices like Debbie's, and Zetta's, and Sujei's, and others you will find on our list of Kindred Spirits. We hope you will read their words and think about them.

White people have a hard time discussing race. I know because I am a White person and it's hard for me, even though I have been discussing race for many years. I see other White people struggle in these discussions. We worry about saying the wrong thing. We get defensive on behalf of the entire White race. ("But that's not me!")  We often get upset when confronted with something that challenges what we think we know about history or social relations. Zetta Elliott recently sent me this definition of cognitive dissonance that describes this feeling perfectly:

I often experience cognitive dissonance when I read Debbie's blog. I can find myself getting angry, especially when she is critical of a book I love or an author I admire. It hurts. But I try not to take it personally so I can open my mind and learn from Debbie's perspectives. I try to hold my defensive feelings in check.  It's not always easy but it is ultimately worth the effort.

When it comes to discussing race and racism, I think we White people need to develop a thicker skin. That's how we'll learn and evolve, thanks to people like Debbie Reese.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Lessons in Reading While White

There are lessons I’ve learned about how my Whiteness informs the way I read and respond to literature that slowly insinuate themselves into my psyche and my understanding, and lessons that hit me with force.

In a recent post on American Indians in Children’s Literature (AICL), Debbie Reese shared a quote from an anonymous commenter:

“I find the idea of a reader -- particularly a child -- having to wait to see herself humanized an inherently problematic one. Yes, it might accurately reflect the inner journey many white people take, but isn't the point that our dehumanizing views were always wrong?”

I’ve been thinking about that ever since. Wow.

One dimension of challenging racism is sharing the experiences of those learning to see it and respond to it (although at this juncture in our history, I think it’s even more important that the voices of those underrepresented for too long are amplified). But the way that story is told matters. Of course it does. 

Near the end of another post, Debbie Reese recently wrote, "the work I do here on AICL and elsewhere privileges the children who will read what writers write." Another wow. Privileging the child as reader. And of course implicit in this is all children -- First Nations/Native children and children of color, not just White children. That's a thought I want to carry with me, too. I think it struck me profoundly because while I'd like to think it's stating the obvious -- isn't that what we all should be doing? -- so much of what I see and hear tells me otherwise.

So now, going forward, I have two new things to carry with me as I read while White.

But how do I make sure I'm privileging all children, or at least trying?  It begins with an essential awareness that I must bring to all of my reading: that I am White, and because of this there are many things I don't understand. I can try to understand; I do try -- in part by reading as many books written by people of color and First Nations / Native authors as I can; by reading critical commentary from those who are cultural insiders; by engaging with what's happening around me. But this is external knowledge I'm working to internalize; not understanding rooted in my existence as I move through the world.

The truth is this: I am always going to be discovering yet another way I do not get it because I am White. And I have a choice: be paralyzed by shame, become defensive (and sometimes I do), or ask myself when I’m feeling uncomfortable or challenged: What can I learn from this? 

I read a lot of books in the course of each year, looking for outstanding ones to share with teachers and librarians. But I can't do this responsibly if I don't evaluate books for racism as part of my assessment. Only then can I begin to privilege every child. It's my responsibility to learn what questions to ask. I won't ever learn them all, and there won’t always be a single answer or definitive opinion when I ask the ones I do know, but every effort I make to find answers is going to give me more knowledge to carry with me into my future reading.

I'd like to think I have a good foundation, one on which I'm continuing to build, but I still can't always articulate why something I'm reading makes me uncomfortable. This isn't for the reasons Nina discussed in her post last week -- not because of the backlash that always seems inevitable -- but rather because my sense of something being wrong, or not quite right, is too vague.  I'm still learning.

At other times, I completely gloss over things that others find problematic. Sure, this can be a matter of opinion. It can also be a matter of not knowing enough to see what's there. I'm still learning.

And sometimes, I'm simply dismayed.  Really? Someone just said, “Let’s powwow”? Really? Pidgin English?  Really? A diverse classroom in which there isn't a single brown-skinned child who is dark rather than light?

Whenever I encounter something unsettling like this in a book that I appreciate for many other reasons, I struggle with how much weight to give it, especially when it's a single line or brief scene in the context of a lengthy novel. It seems so small. But I am White. Who am I to say that it's small, that it's any different, or less damaging, than the glaring omissions, the misrepresentations, the dehumanizing that are all still far too prevalent?

Book to book, publishing year to publishing year, painful moment to painful moment, the weight of these things should be unbearable for all of us.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Some Housekeeping and Links

Periodically at Reading While White, we will share links and/or short posts between longer pieces. But before you scroll down for our first set of links, please take a look over to the right of this post; below our contributor bios you’ll find our Mission, a set of FAQs, a glossary (which is currently empty; let us know what you would like to be defined!), and a resource page. Please take some time with each, but keep in mind that these are by no means set in stone—we expect to revisit and tinker with each of these files as we go. Similarly, we may very well add to our list of Kindred Spirits—blogs by folks we hold in the highest esteem (below the aforementioned documents).
And now, the links:
  • Here’s a sobering bit of news from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) at UW-Madison: 2015 is not shaping up to be a banner year for the publishing of diverse books.
  • Lee & Low publisher Jason Low has extended the deadline for publishers to join the Diversity Baseline Survey, in which Low is trying to (as written here) “establish a baseline that shows where [the publishing industry is] now so we can start taking concrete steps to address the problem,” namely the dearth of books by and/or about people of color and First/Native Nations. With MacMillan and Scholastic coming on late (among others), things are looking up.
  • In related news, Mira Jacob writes, “We are ready for a publishing industry that represents the world we live in, and it will ignore us—writers and readers of color—at its peril.” An insightful and hilarious piece of writing about the troubling trend of whitewashing books.
  • Finally, Chicago school librarian extraordinaire Elisa Gall shares a thoughtful take on a picture book that is getting a lot of buzz (and starred reviews), Emily Jenkins’ and Sophie Blackall’s A Fine Dessert. Not to play spoiler, but let’s just say Elisa is less taken with the book than many others.

Until next time!

Friday, September 18, 2015

On Being a Non

Terminology nearly always figures into diversity discussions, especially when White people are involved. We want to say the right thing -- and the right thing always seems to be changing.  Other times I've noticed that White people will latch onto a discussion of terminology to divert the real discussion. I can't tell you how many university meetings I've had to sit through where we've spent an hour trying to define diversity so that we don't actually have to talk about it.

The writers on this blog talked a lot about word choice before we launched so that we'd all be on the same page. Do we capitalize the B in black and the W in white?   Latino/a or Latin@? What term do we use for American Indians or Native Americans? (Our friends and fellow bloggers Debbie Reese and Cynthia Leitich Smith advised us to use First/Native Nations.) We all agree that it's important to let people self-identify and name themselves. Words are important.

There's one term that always trips me up: non-white. I know, I know, it's a quick and easy term that designates everyone who's not white, who doesn't benefit from White privilege. etc. But I feel uncomfortable calling anyone a "non," defining people by what they are not.

I've been called a non only once that I know of. Back in 1989-90, I served on the Coretta Scott King Award Committee in one of two slots designated for a non-Black member. So for two years I was a non-Black on the committee. I can't say it bothered me. In fact, it was really more of a novelty for me to be a non. But it did make me have to stop and think about my own race, something I don't usually have to do on a daily basis. It placed me in an "other" category where I am not used to being. I'm not sure how I'd feel if I'd had a lifetime of being other, or of being a non, of being defined in contrast to something I'm not. I reckon it might wear on me.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Making Space for Speaking Out

I’ve been a librarian for nearly twenty years. From the start, I’ve felt most invested in supporting diversity and quality in, and access to, books for children.  In my years discussing books--on award committees, in book groups, on the blog I co-author, Heavy Medal--I’ve been frustrated at how difficult it is to discuss race and privilege in children’s books. When the conversation starts to go somewhere uncomfortable, a backlash seems to seek to separate the “political” issues from the “literary” ones, as if they were different.

I’ve sensed this since the 90s, when I was first studying children’s lit, and “political correctness” successfully quieted discussions of cultural authenticity in children’s lit, by aligning this questioning with censorship.  I don’t know that I fully understand what happened then, but I know I didn’t understand how to push back. I knew only that I felt cornered, and that something was not right.  

When I went with friends to see James Cameron’s Avatar in 2009, I went for pure entertainment, getting myself in the mood for cheap thrills and expensive effects.  But instead I was floored by the racism and colonialism that the entire storyline depended on, and asked viewers to buy into from the very start.  I writhed through the whole movie.  Perhaps I should have walked out.  But I stayed with my friends and hoped they wouldn’t notice when I didn’t share in the conversation following the film.  I didn’t want to ruin the high we’d each paid eleven dollars for.  However, I was drawn out, expressly for my silence, and as I started to detail why I was offended by the film, I could feel the mood spoil.  It was not fun, and I’m not sure anyone really wanted to head there with me.  But I was among friends, and as painful as it was, and whether or not they agreed with me, everyone made a place for it.  

That was the first of several transformative experiences for me as I've started to understand better why these discussions can get shut down. It's particularly difficult online. Time and again, in reading for Heavy Medal, I've self-censored when I see racist perspectives in children's literature because I feel like I just can't deal with introducing it into the discussion. Sometimes I try, and flounder. Often, I don't yet understand what I'm reading, only that it is off, and I need a community of colleagues to help figure it out.

Dana, in a comment to Allie's post, says: "I hope this will be a safe place for me to ask white questions with the full intent of educating myself." That is my hope for this blog too. I expect to be challenged, and I expect to be wrong sometimes, but I'm tired of not speaking out, especially now that I recognize the privilege and White fragility that has counseled me to check myself in the past. I hope this blog is a place to hold up diverse voices in the field, but I also hope it is a place to start dismantling the very entrenched Whiteness in how we evaluate children's books, and some people will find that dangerous.

We risk skirting vital work if we’re not willing to challenge each other; we risk deluding ourselves, and undermining our service to readers.  Even if we are not among our own personal friends, as I was while watching Avatar, surely we can cultivate a space of mutual respect and understanding for the necessarily difficult discussions of children’s literature. I think there's a strong tradition of this already in our field.

I've found it helpful to be "mindful" in these discussions, to focus on noticing and to expect discovery, knowing that whether or not that discovery is pleasant, it has value. Last November, I was reading the New York Times Op-Ed over coffee, and came across Lori Tharp’s piece The Case for Black with a Capital B.  How could the NYTimes, I thought, in all conscience, hide behind style guides to justify what is ultimately a racist act, refusing to capitalize “Black” by argument that it is not a race?  Then the more personally devastating thought arrived: In all my years reading this paper, how could I never have noticed?   It took me a very, very long time to feel adequately prepared for work that morning.  I was finally able to walk out into the world by telling myself: Well, Nina, now you know.  And clearly, there’s more you’ve missed, so get out of your corner and let’s go.

This won’t be easy, but why did we ever suppose it should be? Let’s talk about children’s books.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Why a White Blog?

Five years ago, I took a subway trip I'll never forget.  I'd finished my book and still had a good twenty minutes left to go on the train.  Bored, I started reading the subway car's ads.  One contained a sexist statement.  It was small and not the “point” of the ad; nevertheless, I read it three times, feeling my temperature rise.

I realized something as I sat there fuming: At that moment, I fit the bill for the "Angry Feminist" stereotype.  If I had been presented with the ad's creators, I could have screamed at them from Brooklyn to the Bronx, or I could have tried to explain my thoughts calmly; either way, I suspect they would have thought, "what's wrong with this crazy lady, that something so tiny can set her off?"  I suspect they would have snuck glances at each other, dismissing me as an “hysterical woman”.

I'd encountered this catch-22 before, when someone would say, for example, "Feminists can't take a joke," or similar.  By objecting to something so small, I opened the door to accusations of my being petty, hypersensitive, or looking for a fight.  If I elected to swallow my rage, I would internalize yet another tiny act of sexism (I did not yet know the term "microaggression"), and who knew how long my blood pressure could take it?  In that moment, I saw very clearly not only how the ad was sexist, but also how the stereotype of the Angry Feminist disempowered me from effecting change. It was a profoundly painful realization.

I found myself thinking: This shouldn't be my burden to bear. I shouldn't be the one agonizing over sexism, or the best strategy to educate people in power about disempowering stereotypes.  Men should do this work, because it would be so much easier for them!   A man who brought up issues of sexism would likely not be laughed at or dismissed as I would (there is no stereotype of the Angry Feminist Man).  What if a man in the advertising department had said, "Hey, let's take that one out, it's sexist and that's not cool"?

In that moment, I desperately wished some man, somewhere, would start a "men for Feminism" or "men against sexism" group.  I realized the names sounded oxymoronic, but--what amazing work such a group could do!  Where women's groups have to strategize and campaign for decades just to be taken seriously before they can start to advocate for things like equal pay or access to health care, men could skip that "take me seriously" step.  They could sit in a circle and say to each other, "What things do we do that are sexist? Let's stop doing those things." How fast would change come if all-men Feminist groups started organizing and advocating for change?

I hung on to these thoughts, convinced that because I was oppressed in this situation, I understood all oppression; and that because I am a woman and therefore oppressed, I could do nothing about it.

What a rude awakening it was when, two years later, I discovered that I am White.

I had begun to do some work around racism (primarily as it related to a curriculum I was co-teaching), but in my discussions of race I focused on the experiences of people of color.  I still thought of myself primarily as a woman, a target of sexism, and therefore oppressed.  In my very limited race-related self-reflections, I tended to think of myself as race-less rather than White.

Then one day, I had lunch with a colleague who told me about a racial microaggression she’d experienced earlier that week.  I nodded sympathetically, and then replied, “I get you.  I know what that’s like.”

“You do?” she said.

“Sure,” I said.  “I’m a Feminist.  I experience sexism all the time.  I totally know what you’re going through.”

She looked at me hard, then said “No, you don’t, and what you just said was a microaggression.”  And she stalked away.

I was numb, then upset, then angry, for about an hour.  Didn’t she know that I was a “good” White person?  And anyways, I thought, sexism is just as bad as racism!  I knew too much about being on the receiving end of microaggressions--I could never be the aggressor!  How could she be so callous to my experiences?  Didn’t she want to hear about the microaggressions that I’d experienced too?

That was the moment something in my brain finally clicked:  She is a woman too.  She already understands sexism.  She is dealing with racism on top of that.  And I am exempt from that.

Over the next few weeks--months--years, I gradually became aware of a world of exemptions, of -isms I’ve never had to deal with.  I am a woman, yes.  I am also White, heterosexual, cisgender, and not disabled.  I am a documented citizen, I am housed, I am educated.  None of these things change the fact that as a woman, I experience sexism (as it manifests against white women).  But similarly, my woman-ness doesn’t alter the truth that I belong to the dominant group along these and many other identifiers.

I dove whole-heartedly into a self-education that focused on the ways in which I dominate others, rather than the ways in which I'm dominated.  I attended professional trainings.  I read.  I followed more and more anti-racist people on social media.  I learned of the existence of all-White anti-racist groups.  

Wait, all-White anti-racist groups?

First thought: This sounds like an oxymoron.

Second thought:  Actually, so did the “men against sexism” groups I’d dreamed of, years ago, on the subway.

Third thought: I have to check this out.

There’s more to this story (see Nina, Megan, and KT's upcoming posts), but it leads to a phone call between me and Nina Lindsay in which we hatched the idea for this blog.

The field of children’s literature has a long and fascinating history of anti-racist advocates and allies, and a thriving anti-racist community today.  If you browse through our blogroll, you’ll see the excellent, Herculean, work of marginalized people in the children's literature community, primarily people of color.  These people understand racism and its effects much, much better than I, as a White person, ever will.

But if we White people talk about racism as if we are not part of the equation, we are the problem.  We have a responsibility not just to boost marginalized voices as much as we can, but also to examine ourselves and our Whiteness.  And we must create all-White spaces in which we can do this work without burdening non-White communities.  People of color and First/Native Nations have enough work to do in analyzing how racism has impacted their lives.  To ask them to also educate us on our Whiteness is White privilege in the extreme.

What advantages do White adults in the field of children’s literature experience?  From what are we exempt?

What is White culture and how does it perpetuate the status quo?

By what mechanisms does Whiteness dominate in children’s literature, and why are these mechanisms so often invisible to us White people?

How does all this affect children--White and non-White?

Reading While White is intentionally by, about, and for White people who are interested in anti-racist work in the field of children’s literature.  There is no quick fix to racism, which exists on personal, institutional, and societal levels; but by organizing ourselves and working together, I hope that we can start to answer some of these questions.

In Sam Bloom, KT Horning, Nina Lindsay, Angie Manfredi, and Megan Schliesman, I have a dream team of thoughtful, smart, questioning, self-examining librarians.  It’s an honor to list my name alongside theirs.

Years ago, I daydreamed on the subway about an empowered group that would devote itself to examining, and changing the balance of, its power.

Let’s get to work.