Tuesday, September 22, 2015
Lessons in Reading While White
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.