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.


Unknown said...

Hi, I love this blog! I've learned a lot as a parent from Raising Race Conscious Children ( which models naming race with babies and small children. Built on that foundation, I've learned to also say out loud the racism I see in children's books so that I'm not letting it go unchallenged, and I'm teaching my kids to understand that too. Sometimes we talk together about what we want to do as a result so that my children see their agency and ability to act. But this is all with my own kids. If I were a librarian, I'm sure there'd be some families who were thrilled, and others who were scandalized if this happened at a story time. I've started bringing these strategies into my school communities, and noticed that.

I tried talking with our library about naming race during story time, and got a little traction and a little dismissiveness. (we just want kids to have a positive experience with early literacy, and if we talk about race they might feel bad - white librarian).

I'm wondering what you think about this - how could librarians and parents work together to create space and eventually make it the norm to name race and challenge racism in our storytimes and our programing? I'd love your ideas and your readers.

Nina Lindsay said...

Wow, Unknown, I hadn't even quite taken my thinking there yet. I'd love to hear from others on this. Truthfully, I'm now "management" and don't do storytime anymore. However, one approach I think is appropriate is to examine every book that you introduce into storytime, and ask, "Can I do a storytime with no White characters in it?" (I know, there's not enough books, unless you count animals as non White). This is same approach I try to use in selecting photos for publicity, in selecting speakers for a panel, etc. To question Whiteness first.

Anonymous said...

"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."
Exactly this. I know what I believe. And, since I am increasingly aware of my white privilege and how POC and First Nations are consistently degraded or dismissed in literature, I find myself trying to express what I dislike. Instead, I often find myself angry or wordless. How do I express myself in a meaningful way? How do I add to the conversation? How do I challenge myself and my privilege? Unfortunately, I feel under-prepared and overwhelmed. So I wonder, is it better to try and flounder, accepting that we (you and I) will sometimes be wrong, woefully wrong, and we need to learn from that experience?

Debbie Reese said...

I have such hope for this blog...

Last night a dear friend--who is Native and a father of boys in elementary school--started texting me. A local teacher wanted to meet with him to talk about books. My friend asked me for a list and went to the meeting. After, he texted me again to say how hard it had been. The white teacher cared but didn't have the words to begin the conversation. The white teacher had been teaching for 20+years in a community where an Indian mascot (Chief Illiniwek) has been a site of heated debate for decades. Gradually (prior to the meeting), the teacher had gained an understanding that something was not right about the mascot, but he didn't have the words he needed to voice his understanding. My friend, who reads many of the same books and research studies in American Indian Studies that I do, helped the teacher by sharing some of that.

In his debrief he talked about how hard it was to have the conversation.

From past experience, I know these conversations are hard, but they are so important. Without them, the kids in that teachers classroom grow up to be kids who are likely to carry on the status quo--which in this case, is love of a stereotypical mascot and a mindset to dismiss those who object.

Without them, kids in those classrooms grow up to be teachers who assign books like LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE to kids. My friend's son talked with me about that a few weeks ago. It makes me livid as I revisit the emotion he shared.

I guess I'm responding to both Nina and Scott. I'm so grateful that you choose to engage. That you'll flounder and feel overwhelmed, because you care. I hate to get all mushy, but this really matters! For Native kids. For children of color, and for all the children who will grow up and work together.

And I'm hopeful that Reading While White will help parents, teachers, and librarians find the words for those thoughts that simmer inside them.

K T Horning said...

Unknown, Scott, and Debbie (and Nina!), I appreciate your thoughtful comments and questions. it is very hard for white people to talk to children about race. There is a chapter in Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman's book NURTURE SHOCK: NEW THINKING ABOUT CHILDREN called "Why White Parents Don't Talk about Race." The studies they cite show that these well-meaning, liberal, progressive parents believe that by not talking about race, they are raising their children to be color blind. Instead, it has the opposite effect and the majority of the White children they interviewed took their parents' silence to mean that their parents don't like Black people.

I haven't tried naming race in story hours -- I think mainly because there is a public library value to honor different family beliefs and values, to let the parents be the ones to decide when to introduce what might be a sensitive topic -- but I have used books that talk directly about race. SHADES OF BLACK by Sandra and Myles Pinkney is an excellent conversation starter. Children of all races, I find, are eager to talk about their observed differences, and every child can find their skin color, hair texture or eye color in this book, even though all the children in the book's photographs are African-American. I have found younger children are most interested in the skin colors, often coming up to hold their own arms up to the child in the photos, and older kids are more interested in hair. (And, of course, we adults love the children's beautiful eyes.)

I also think in story hours one thing a librarian can do is not to shut down conversations when children start talking about race. How often have any of you heard a White adult shush their child who says something like "He's dark-skinned." or "Lindsay had brown skin." With preschoolers, the echoing technique works in these situations, repeating the child's words back ("Yes, he is dark-skinned.")

Sorry to have been so long-winded. But I'd like to throw a question out to the group -- why is it, do you think, that White adults are so often uncomfortable talking about race -- with children or with other adults? I am curious as to what people think and would love to hear from people brave enough to share their own reasons for discomfort. For myself, I think my fear would be that someone I don't know well might think I ONLY see their race.Anyone else?

Aisha said...

Thanks for the recommendation SHADES OF BLACK, KT, I'm looking it up at my library tonight for my son. While we are South Asian skin tone is a huge issue and point of conversation and judgment in my community and somehow my 5 yo has picked up on it. He has observed his dark skin since he was 3 years old and it's funny because I do get so uncomfortable when he wants to have the conversation about skin and judgment. I realize that many parents [myself included once upon a time] think that by not talking about it, we make it not exist for children-- but it's there, either unspoken assumptions or explicitly stated. I think all children need to be aware it exists because this is the world we live in and we have to recognize it at an early age.

Thanks again for this great blog.

Melissa said...

KT- Yes, I often feel uncomfortable talking about race, especially with young children, because I don't want them to feel that I make value judgments based on a person's race. But of course I do- even though I don't want to, even though it's nearly always subconscious unless I really paying attention. And yes, I also worry that they think I'll only see them for their race rather than for their talents, their personality, their thoughts, etc. My parents- who are very liberal, upper-middle-class whites- never talked with me about race. I know from their actions that they are not racist, but as a result of not talking about race as a child, I don't have a good idea of how to do it as an adult. The bottom line is that I don't want to offend anyone, but I know that I need to practice as this is such an important issue.

Wendy said...

@Melissa and @KT

I personally think it's important to think of race as part of a person's experience, rather than solely in terms of their identity. Yes, ultimately differences in skin and hair colour are superficial, and you're completely right that personality, skills, thoughts etc. are way more important. Race doesn't inherently define a person in any way, and for most people (White or PoC), it'd be one of the later things they'd name when describing themselves.

But because of the way society is built, systemic differences shape a person's experience of being [insert race], especially marginalised ones, whether that's in terms of education and achievement, or not being able to see themselves in what they read.

Maybe think of it like this - when you meet a French person, you don't necessary think of them as "French" first and foremost, do you? You think of them as another person, who happens to have differences from you in terms of how they've grown up, their traditions, and their experiences. That's the same with race.

^^ Obviously I know you're all aware of this, but maybe reworking the conversation in that way would make it easier to talk to kids about this topic?

K T Horning said...

Aisha, I hope you and your son enjoy SHADES OF BLACK, Kudos to you for allowing him to have the conversation.

Melissa, I think your experience is quite common among white people who grew up in liberal homes. My mom talked about race quite a bit but she taught in a school with a large Black and Latino population and she was always confronting racist attitudes from administration and sometimes fellow teachers. And she talked about such things ALL THE TIME.

K T Horning said...

@Wendy, race may not define a person but I do think it defines a lot of life experiences for people in America. My whiteness has always afforded me such privileges that it was easy for me to take them for granted -- and one of those privileges is that I don't have to think about race on a daily basis.

Unknown said...

Nina, I'm a regional resource person with SURJ working with families. I'd love to talk with you more about this. If you're up for it (or anyone else here, for that matter) could you email me at I'm so excited about the role librarians can play in changing our culture! Also, I just noticed that the dates are up for the next Raising Race Conscious Children webinar. SURJ did a wraparound agenda for people who want to get a group together and use it as a way to organize our communities. That's here: Thanks for your blog & your work! It's so exciting to see all the comments popping up like lovely, radical wildflowers. ;)

Reading While White said...

Posted on behalf of Jonathan Hunt:

Another book recommendation--and a question.

One of my favorite books last year was ALL DIFFERENT NOW by Angela Johnson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis, but it wasn't necessarily love at first sight. I loved the stunning watercolor illustrations from the beginning, while the lyrical text needed time to grow on me, and I struggled with the audience for the book. It struck me initially as the kind of book that would need adult intervention--although I was wrong on that count as I had an 8 year-old boy and a 13 year-old girl that I worked with closely who told me it was their favorite.

The book lacks any context for slavery, never even mention words like "slave" or "slavery" or "enslaved" in the main text--it's not a good introduction to slavery--yet it seemed to be for an audience who needed one (i.e. a primary grade audience).

What I came to realize is that there is an audience who has that background, but it's passed down through oral family history as Johnson notes in her text. Indeed, Jacqueline Woodson won numerous awards this past year for BROWN GIRL DREAMING, a book that referenced her family history from the slavery era, and other writers--Mildred Taylor, for example, have mined their oral family history for stories. And these children had just as much right to be the ideal reader for the book as any children--not to mention middle-aged white males who were trying to wrap their head around sharing the book in a classroom or library setting. It took me awhile, but I got there. But what if I hadn't had the opportunity to read, reread, reflect, and discuss obsessively over the course of a year?

I'm still not sure that I would use it in a storytime situation, however, for the reason that KT stated, that I feel comfortable allowing the parents to determine when these difficult subjects are covered. I'm still not sure how I would approach this book in a public setting. Would I read it and just let the children enjoy the words and pictures? Should I try to unpack the book? I wonder if anyone braver than I has used the book in storytime, and if so, with what results.

Nina Lindsay said...

Jonathan, this brings to mind for me "Story Number 2" from Beverly Slapin's comment at Debbie's Reese's post September 5th:

I encourage you all to go read it; it's about bringing in context for Jacqueline Woodson's picture book THIS IS THE ROPE.

I don't know the answer to your question, except to say that I don't think everything has to be unpacked all at once for kids. Can we commit to presenting a more diverse set of experiences and perspectives on history to them, trusting the excellent work of authors like Jacqueline Woodson and Angela Johnson?

Moyrid said...

KT, you comment above should maybe be a post. My husband is Bengali and I am confronted with my whiteness more often than I'd like. I am ashamed to say I struggled to talk to my kids about color. It is hard to explain why. I think in part I wanted the world to be better than it is. I didn't want to talk to my kids about race because I don't want it to matter. I want everyone to be treated equally. It was my own denial.

Christine said...

I want to posit a different question. If I were a white child (or a white adult reader of children's literature) I am exposed to a rich and diverse offering of literature in which white children are the default for stories about life, stories about growing into adulthood, teen angst, fantasies involving the supernatural, the fantastical, and escapist dystopian.

If I am a Black reader (with a capital B) the list of literature is more narrow - almost always migrating to slavery, former slaves, civil rights, and other angst based topics.

So I asked the question on my own blog - would race be easier to talk about if we weren't always focused on the more negative aspects of the history, rather than a richer climate in which all children had a seat at a table where race has nothing to do with the plot?

Is the problem, that adults are still grappling with a period of time and gravitate towards acquiring, publishing and reading those types of books - under the guise of children's lit, when I suspect children's interests are somewhere else. In today's world is is less the children who have issues with race than the adults who surround them.

I would like to see a broader color palette in terms of picture books, and a broader environment for literature in which kids are just that - kids.

We don't flood the industry with books that talk about overcoming the holocaust and deconstructing that experience? We don't flood the market with books that explore slavery from the mindset of the slave owner?

So the problem is still adults, choosing what is appropriate literature and working out their issues in that forum. Publishing is the only professional industry I've worked in where the end user - the children we profess to do this for, are the least in our minds when literature is produced. And hence - when I interview for college I find an alarming number of students don't read for pleasure any more.

Sam Bloom said...

To answer your question, KT, I think the reason I have avoided talking about race personally is because I have a hard time with confrontation, and conflict, and I'm afraid I will say something "wrong" which will (a) lead to confrontation and conflict, and/or (b) lead me to be perceived as a racist. I'm working on it but I think these are things that still stop me from having needed conversations (or working on posts that are due in less than a week).

K T Horning said...

Christine, what a thought-provoking comment! It reminds me of an anecdote I heard recently about an African-American mother who was reading a book to her seven-year-old son, and he asked her, "Mommy, do you hate Black people?" She was astonished and responded, "No! What made you think that?" He answered, "Because all the books you read me about Black people are so sad."

In looking at the books published in the past few years about African-Americans, most, indeed, are set in the past. Those few that are contemporary stories often deal with sports (mostly basketball). It's really quite striking. Books like MY PEN by Christopher Myers about an artistic Black boy who loves to draw are really rare.

Nina Lindsay said...

Christine, thanks for pointing this out. I'm with you. I worry that sometimes White people think we're building diverse collections just by including all the Coretta Scott King Award winners, for instance.

K T Horning said...

But including all CSK, Belpre, AILA and APALA award winners is a start for many libraries, especially smaller ones with limited budgets. The next step is for the librarian to actually read those books -- and other books by the winning authors and illustrators -- so that he or she knows the literature well enough to be able to use them in story hours, bibliographies, displays, and reader's advisory.

Debbie Reese said...

Yes! We need books that show us in the fullness of our existence.

Zetta Elliott's picture books are terrific and ought to be in every library. I love her A WAVE CAME THROUGH OUR WINDOW ( and I LOVE SNOW (

To avoid the discomfort of talking about race (see Jonathan's comment above), people will reach for books that fit the "culturally neutral" category. We don't want the predominant theme to be sadness (see K.T.'s comment) but we don't want to foster a "color blind" point of view, either.

Striking a balance, then, is key. The way to go--I think--is to have the "issues" books, and when choosing books that aren't "issues" books, choose ones by writers and illustrators who aren't White. Choosing Zetta's books, for example, creates the opportunity to tell children about her, where she is from, where she lives, etc. Doing that gives Black children a "possible self" (phrase used in psychology) that is about imagining who you can be. I like that phrase better than "role model" because I think it brings those possible selves closer in reach than "role model" does.

Nina Lindsay said...

Of course. And the other next step is for small libraries to commit to buying books created by People of color outside of those awards, just as they do with the rest of their collection.

Carrie said...

Thank you so much for mentioning the Raising Race Conscious Children site. I wasn't familiar with it and I have been reading this morning. This is going to be super helpful to me as I continue talking to my 3 year old about race!

Kim Bradley said...

Nina, I love this blog and I'm glad you started it. Writing Jefferson's Sons taught me a lot about how being white informs my writing. I'm better at understanding race right now, but I still have a long way to go.

Nina Lindsay said...

Kimberly, I greatly appreciate you having the courage, and courtesy, to say that. Thank you for chiming in.