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.