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.


Debbie Reese said...

Thank you, KT. What you shared here means a great deal to me.

I remember that day, too. Here's the context for my remarks: I met a lot of people at Midwinter, people who read my blog and professional writings on depictions of Native peoples. I heard a lot of thank you's, which I appreciate, of course, but I also had a sense that people felt that me doing it is sufficient. It isn't. Hence, my request that others do it, too.

What I want to see is more people pointing out errors. Not just about misrepresentations of Native people, but others, too. It is why I've been praising the Disability in Kidlit blog. I think we have to show what is wrong (and why it is wrong) in depictions of people in marginalized demographics so that others don't make the same mistakes. Good teachers do not look away when a kid hands in a paper on which the child has answered that 2+2=5. The good teacher sits with the child and walks him through the problem. Looking away is a disservice to that child.

Looking away from problematic depictions in children's or young adult books (and hoping someone else will point out the problem) is a disservice to children who may not have the prior knowledge needed to SEE the problematic depiction as wrong.

As for the woman who jumped the line... If the moderator (or me) had stopped her and said to get in line, the moderator (or me) would have been seen as rude. If the woman teared up, the moderator (or me) would have been seen as a bully. A few days ago, a terrific essay circulated on social media. Titled "White Women's Tears and the Men Who Love Them," I nodded over and over again as I read it. There are many excellent points in it.

Here's the link:

Thank you for launching your blog.

And--by the way--I count you, KT, and Ginny Moore Kruse as people from whom I've learned a great deal about how to look critically at children's books.


Anonymous said...

I completely agree! Debbie is amazing! I love her blog. I learn about great books I wouldn't have otherwise known about and learn about problems in books I wouldn't have otherwise recognized. Sometimes I don't agree with her at first blush; when that happens, I go away for a couple days and think about it on and off (another thing white people need to learn: the world does not necessarily need our opinion), and think about how I would feel if the passage she cites were something analogous about Jews (I'm Jewish) instead of American Indians. If the passage she is citing were something about Jews written by a German gentile. Would I still disagree with her? When I do that, I find I always agree with her assessment...and that's how I know I was at first being fooled by white/settler privilege.


K T Horning said...

Thanks for the added context, Debbie, as well as the link to the White Women's Tears article. We will definitely be looking at some problematic depictions on this blog.

K T Horning said...

Veronica, what you describe is close to what I sometimes go through when reading Debbie's blog. The going away to think about it part is really important. And I also discuss it a lot with other people face-to-face.

Thanks, too, for what you said about the world not always needing to hear our opinions. The truth is, the world is already filled with the opinions of White people. I value a chance to hear those of people of color and First/Native Nations.

Anne Sibley O'Brien said...

On the topic of thicker skin, I highly recommend the work of Robin Diangelo on White Fragility - the best analysis of whiteness I've seen in ages.

Unknown said...

I am loving this blog. Remembering my early fragile-white-person cognitive dissonance moments and what a jerk I was the first few times I got called out. Grateful to those who have spoken angry, frustrated words to my face, looking me in the eye, hearing my "but I didn't mean..." rationalizations and holding forth with their truth, despite the discomfort of conflict and the risk of speaking out.

And continuing to notice the gaps in my awareness - like when I read in Debbie's blog about Little House in the Prairie's depiction of Native people, and thought "OH, I never thought of THAT" - and then thought "Right. I never HAD to think of that. Hello again, white privilege." And shaking my head. And appreciating this blog so much.

K T Horning said...

Thanks, Anne, for pointing to the Robin DiAngelo article about White fragility. I have only just become aware of this excellent piece myself. White fragility is very real, and it helps to have it identified. We Whites can get so incredibly defensive in discussions of race that little progress can be made in our understanding. We will be exploring White fragility as it relates to children's books and diversity in future posts.

I liked DiAngelo's suggestions on how to move beyond white fragility:

"The antidote to white fragility is on-going and life-long, and includes sustained engagement, humility, and education. We can begin by:

Being willing to tolerate the discomfort associated with an honest appraisal and discussion of our internalized superiority and racial privilege.

Challenging our own racial reality by acknowledging ourselves as racial beings with a particular and limited perspective on race.

Attempting to understand the racial realities of people of color through authentic interaction rather than through the media or unequal relationships.

Taking action to address our own racism, the racism of other whites, and the racism embedded in our institutions -- e.g., get educated and act."

K T Horning said...

Pat, so glad you've joined the discussion!

I often read aloud the first page of LITTLE HOUSE IN THE BIG WOODS to undergrads in the School of Education, and ask them if they noticed anything odd in Wilder's statement that there were "no people" in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. I've never yet had a class where no one got it right away. Many of them grew up reading Little House and they are always stunned that that line is in there.

Little House is one of those series that many White people hold near and dear, feeling quite nostalgic about it from their own childhoods. I was in a class many years ago being taught by a Mohican elder, Dorothy Davids about stereotypes of Native peoples in children's books, and after she had critiqued Little House, one White librarian said, "I feel like you have just popped my balloon!" and Dorothy replied, "Good. Now I am going to tug on the rug under your feet." And she proceeded to talk about the THE INDIAN IN THE CUPBOARD. I always think of Dorothy and her rug tugging when White people express discomfort at finding out a favorite book has flaws. We need more tugging and fewer tears.

Allie Jane Bruce said...

Thank you all so much for your comments. I identify with every single one. I have found that I need to build my tolerance of racial discomfort, yes, and I've also found that I need to curb my need to "fix it" when I screw up with a person of color or First/Native Nations person, unless that person is truly asking me to fix it. Otherwise, I run a very real risk of demanding that the other person take care of me and make my conscience clean so that I can stop thinking about what I said/did and the hurt it caused. I shift the burden off me, to them, in demanding that we have a conversation so that I can apologize. That's White dominance.