Friday, February 19, 2016

Reviewing While White: Braids & Buns, Ponies & Pigtails; 50 Hairstyles "Every Girl" Will Love

by Allie Jane Bruce

Don't be fooled by the smiling East Asian girl on the cover of Braids & Buns, Ponies & Pigtails by Jenny Strebe (Chronicle, 2016).  This guide to hairstyles for "every girl" firmly centers Whiteness.

By page 13, I found 9 tips to help "minimize frizz" and make hair more "smooth" and "silky".  Strangely, though, when I perused the "Tools" section (p. 8-10), I saw that Strebe recommends curling irons and silk pillowcases, but not the hot combs, straightening irons, and oil/grease that much of the population would need to pull off these styles (including me--I'd need a bathtub of keratin).

By this time, I'd committed, so I spent a good chunk of tonight doing tallies (it's OK, I was listening to Hamilton the whole time).  Here's what I found:

107 photos of girls who present White
14 photos of girls who present Black
22 photos of girls who present East Asian
4 photos of girls who present South Asian

I'm using "present" deliberately above, as I recognize that I cannot know how a person racially identifies merely by looking at them.

For each hairstyle, the book provides information on the "Difficulty Level", "Ideal Hair", and "Accessories".  "Ideal hair" indicates what texture hair works best for the style, and includes terms like "straight" and "wavy".  Here's how many times the book describes the following hair textures as "Ideal":

Straight - 3
Straight to Wavy - 24
Silky - 1
Wavy to Curly - 10
Wavy - 1
Curly - 2
Straight to Curly - 2
Afro texture to medium coarseness - 1
Thick and curly texture - 1
Wavy to frizzy - 1


This book promotes itself as a resource for "Every Girl" (in the subtitle).  This book features "Braids" as the very first word (of the title).  Yet, nowhere will you find braids or cornrows on Black girls (the closest is a Black girl wearing "ropebraid pigtails").

I guess they didn't mean "those kinds of braids."

What of the Black girl with tightly curly hair who happens upon this book, reads the title and the subtitle, then flips through it to find that nearly three-fourths of the pictures are of White girls, that more than half of the styles describe "Ideal Hair" as "straight" or "straight to wavy", and that not a single image of Black braids or cornrows is to be found?  What messages is this sending her?

I think the message "straight, smooth hair is ideal" is definitely there, but that's only half the problem.

The other half is a tougher nut to crack, and it goes like this: "Black girls, we're going to Other you, and we will never, ever acknowledge that we're Othering you.  You're just not Every Girl."

Sure makes me grateful for books like Hair Dance! (by Dinah Johnson, with photos by Kelly Johnson, Henry Holt & Co, 2007) and Puffy: For People Whose Hair Defies Gravity (by Aya de León, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013).  More like this, please (and feel free to leave more suggestions in the comments).


Miranda Paul said...

This reminds me of the time my daughter came home from the scholastic book fair with a hair book with "magic color wands" and when they didn't really work on her hair she felt like something was wrong with her (she was very young, like Kindergarten). The consequences are real. We had a great talk after, but still. thanks for all you do.

Allie Jane Bruce said...

I hear a lot of stories like that from the kids I teach. The consequences are so, so real. Thanks for sharing, Miranda.

Anonymous said...

Your identity comes from within and what's reflected by the people who love you. It's important to drive that message home with your kids. Not every book/ad/movie/etc is going to reflect equal diversity. When kids understand, though, that what they read/watch or hear from someone else has absolutely nothing to do with who they are, it doesn't matter.

Monica Edinger said...

A different sort of hair book is Andrea Pippins' coloring book I Love My Hair: A Coloring Book of Braids, Coils, Doodle Dos.

mclicious said...

Starts here, and goes to every major women's glossy in America (except InStyle. InStyle consistently has diverse, inclusive, and inobtrusive diverse representation of models, celebrities, colors, etc, all the time. I love InStyle). In maybe 15 years of reading various glossies from Seventeen/YM on up, I would say the times that I have found makeup or hair features *specifically* for my hair type (and I don't even have 4 curls - I'm a 3C) are fewer than 10. Like, I can still remember and see clearly the spread in YM and the feature in Vogue (I had a letter to the editor published about how much I liked it) because it was so rare. and otherwise, pretty much all magazines make sure to define "normal" hair and other hair, and there are 800 delineations of white skins and then "dark" is J.Lo or Alek Wek.

Me, me, me. I guess what I'm saying is this is the least shocking thing in the world, and I can see why my white mother struggled so much with trying to do my hair growing up. She had very few resources aside from asking people straight out, which is what she did. That, and her best. I do remember one book, probably from Klutz, that actually did have a diverse set of models and hairstyles, but they didn't really do any traditionally African or African American styles, just hairdos that would work for that type of hair.

Debbie Reese said...

That sounds like you think kids of color have to toughen up, but don't you think the industry that continues to marginalize them ought to change?

Allie Jane Bruce said...

I agree with Debbie. The fact that some people have super tough skin doesn't mean that this stuff isn't corrosive acid.

Allie Jane Bruce said...

For more on representations of hair, including thoughts and reflections from real live 6th-graders, check out this blog post I did last year:

Anonymous said...

Yes, I think they absolutely should change. That is and will always be a slow, never-ending process. I think the more important lesson we need to convey to young people is that their identity and sense of self worth doesn't come from objects or media. Those outlets will never fully reflect the diversity of all of us.

Sarah O said...

I Love My Hair by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley and E.B. Lewis was at Target as of a few years ago.

Jamalia Higgins said...

Speaking of Reviewing While White, what do you all make of writing like in the second sentence of the Kirkus Review of The Language of Stars in the link below? I'm happy to see as I read their reviews that Kirkus has been making a point to mention diversity in many of their kids/teen reviews.

However, I'm not sure that speculating without evidence presented is the best way to review while white or otherwise. It makes me wonder about what lens the reviewer is using. I appreciate your thoughts.

Vicky Smith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vicky Smith said...

As children's & teen editor at Kirkus, I can speak to that. We are increasingly aware of the fact that the audience for the books we review is now or will soon be no longer majority White. Combining this with an understanding that in many locales White children are an increasingly small minority, we think it's important that our readers know which books might be mirrors and which books might be windows for the children they are purchasing for, so we are naming race or skin color whenever possible or appropriate.

All too often race does not enter into a novel's plot or even specifically into characters' descriptions, so we must fall back on cues like "blond ponytail" or "green eyes." Keeping in mind that many PoC have blond ponytails and/or green eyes, we nevertheless infer that absence of racial signifiers springs from an assumption that Whiteness is the norm. I did recently read a description of a boy whose blue eyes stood out against his dark skin--but aside from him and a boy whose father is of Japanese, other characters' physical appearances are described solely by hair color/style and/or eye color. Relying on the convention that those characteristics that stand out in some way are those that are noticed, we infer that the other characters are White.

The conversation that arguably entered White critics' consciousnesses over 50 years ago with "The All-White World of Children's Books" has offered a lot to consider and digest. One thing I've heard loud and clear is that, to steal a phrase, race matters. It matters when your physical appearance causes people to make assumptions about you, it matters when you have statistical reason to fear that your son is more likely to finish an encounter with a police officer dead than my son would be (if I had one), it matters when, insanely, leading presidential candidates declare the country off-limits to millions of people on account of their heritage. It matters when you walk through life with the double consciousness DuBois wrote about. So when a character skates through a narrative free of those burdens and is not actively described as a PoC, it is hard not to reach the conclusion that that character enjoys White privilege.

This is a long preface to an answer to your question, Jamalia. Why don't we present evidence? We are constrained by our own conventions and limits, and the foremost of these is our word count: 225-30 words. In those 225-30 words we need to convey an accurate sense of what the book does or doesn't do, to tell you how well it succeeds at its apparent goal, and to make a recommendation: do you want to buy it? And we hope to do it as artfully as possible. Sometimes how we arrive at our understanding of race is part of the evaluation, but more often it's not germane to it. In those cases, we include, as best we can, our understanding of race and/or heritage as a general data point, much as we do age, gender, geography, and so forth.

You wonder what lens we're using when we make these decisions. A pointed question. Our roster of reviewers is mostly White, like me, like the industry, and unlike nearly half of America's children. Like many of Kirkus' media peers, I have made recruiting reviewers who help to rectify this imbalance one of my top priorities, and I am pleased that I've had good success. I have learned a TON. Schooling myself to notice race (or its nominal absence) has been hard, and I suspect it's even harder for those White reviewers who are not thinking about it all day long. It's interesting, as attuning myself to notice Whiteness has skewed my focus such that sometimes I see nothing but Whiteness, and I wonder if that might happen to others as well. We have screwed up. I hope we will never screw up again. When we screw up, we fix our mistakes as fast as possible and keep learning.

Jamalia Higgins said...

Hi Vicky,

THANK YOU so much for your very thoughtful response! I am so glad to read that Kirkus Reviews is making such strides to include the sort of information you mention. I have always enjoyed the reviews in your publication, even the (or especially!) the feisty ones. As I had said, I have appreciated and noticed the tendency to include more descriptors in the reviews. I guess I was just troubled by the phrase "presumably white" because I felt that was possibly opening a can of worms of potential stereotyping more than it was helpful for the reader. Which is why I was concerned about "the lens" and such. When reading and reviewing I'm sure it can be difficult to determine what cultural, and as you wrote, personal features are potential cues as to the race of the character and which ones we are inventing in our minds, of whom the author may have had a very different image. Again, I so appreciate your very thorough reply! I, too, am getting used to noticing "whiteness as the default" in kids and teen literature, and in reviews. And adjusting my adult brain slowly!

Allie Jane Bruce said...

Thanks to you both, Jamalia and Vicky, for continuing this conversation. It's a tough nut to crack--if reviews and descriptions only ever name the race of people of color, that reinforces the view that equates "White" with "default". There's no perfect solution, but I love and respect what Kirkus is doing. Mitali Perkins has also written on this subject, here:

and here:

Debbie Reese said...

There's so much to consider in terms of coming up with style guides that reviewers can use to do reviews that avoid centering whiteness.

Our example as Native people? We aren't a race, or an ethnicity, or POC. The most important attribute is that we're citizens/members of specific nations. That can be very messy, too, with some tribal nations disenrolling members for various reasons, some of them race-based.

The most important way to describe me as a tribal member at Nambe Pueblo, is as a tribal member at Nambe. I've got dark hair, but not everyone at Nambe has dark hair. I've got dark skin, but not everyone does. Hair/skin color doesn't matter.

Vicky Smith said...

Thank you, Debbie. Yours is one of the voices I've learned much from, including to be deeply suspicious of characters who are blandly described as "Native American" and nothing more. But even here there's a balancing act in how to communicate this information In a review. There's the word count to wrestle with, for one. Another is metadata. One of the ironies is that part of our aim in describing race and heritage is to make these books discoverable through keyword searches and the like, an enterprise that favors the general over the specific. How would we handle a book about a child who's a member of the Houlton Band of Maliseet, for instance? (I wish I knew of one!) Using that tribal identification would be culturally accurate and respectful, but it is unlikely the review would be returned in a general search for books with First/Native Nations content without the more general term "Native American" or "American Indian"--as, I suspect, those are the terms most in use in the world at large. While a book about a Houlton Band of Maliseet child may well be of interest to many other First/Native Nations kids and parents, I doubt readers outside of Maine and New Brunswick would find it unless we used the more general terminology.

Similarly, while a reader finding a character named Juan Ramirez in a book review would probably infer that Juan's Latino (as would a reviewer absent information to the contrary), search engines won't. We have to decide whether to use the most specific term possible--maybe Juan's Honduran-Guatemalan--or a generic to improve the book's chances of being found by as large an audience as possible. At this juncture we need to decide whether to use "Hispanic," "Latino," "Latin@," or "Latinx," all terms in use, though I suspect their adoption is variable and dependent on geography and generation.

Picture books are a whole 'nother conundrum, as much of the heavy lifting is done by pictorial rather than textual cues. Sometimes the best we can do is "brown-skinned" or "pale," which probably isn't going to be picked up in many keyword searches but is the most accurate we can responsibly be. The White lens is a particularly hard one to consciously avoid looking through here.

I have found a couple of podcasts to be invaluable in this part of my education: Another Round, from Buzzfeed, and Latino USA, from NPR. Latino USA did a great show a few months ago on Latinos on the Yakima reservation (it's episode 1547, "Reservations") that gives a great sense of the complexity of these two identities. I'd love to hear about other podcasts that would help me find other lenses for understanding identity--I love to feel that I can get smarter while I clean my house or walk my dog.

Debbie Reese said...

Vicky--it is definitely a challenge, but I think most people welcome this new period that the country/world is moving into.

For your listening, look over the vast archive at Native America Calling. Yesterday's episode featured Lee Francis (Laguna) of Wordcraft Circle and Tate Walker of Native Peoples Magazine, talking about Rowling's Magic in North America, and, a graphic novel by a non-Native writer that is being turned into a TV show (ppl are very wary, given problems in the novels).

Here's the page for Native America Calling:

Louise Hawes said...

Although it's not strictly relevant to the larger issue of "culturally assumed whiteness," I want to point out that, as the author of the book Jamalia mentioned, I DID include descriptions that pointed to the race of the narrator. Because one the major characters in THE LANGUAGE OF STARS is Hispanic, and because most of the people I know in real life are neither color nor race-blind, I took the time to provide cues to the race of all my central characters, including my narrator. (Whose hair is light and straight and whose eyes are gray-blue.) Both cues were, apparently, missed by the Kirkus reviewer. Which is unfortunate because there's a double assumption behind that "presumably white" phrase: first that the narrator is white, and second, that the author didn't think her race was worth conveying. The first is true, the second is not.

Allie Jane Bruce said...

Hi Louise, thanks for commenting. I’ve been mulling over your comment for the past few days, and reckoning with the fact that I can’t seem to articulate my thoughts satisfactorily. I’ll do my best. As a secondary disclaimer, I have not read THE LANGUAGE OF STARS, so engaging in conversation about it is at my own risk. Any mistakes are 100% mine.

The tricky thing about “white=default” is that we need to (1) acknowledge that this is, for far too many people, the case, and simultaneously (2) not perpetuate that mindset. I don’t think one can accomplish (2) without first doing (1).

We’ve gotten into this a little bit in Megan’s review of A TYRANNY OF PETTICOATS--there’s a fine line between acknowledging and perpetuating the mindset that says “white=default.”

Reading your cues about light and straight hair and gray and blue eyes, I can see how you give cues about how this person looks--their complexion. But that is different from naming race. The character may be Latinx, or Native. Perhaps multiracial. Physical appearance is different from race.

That said, I don’t want to deny or minimize the importance of “presenting white”. Skin privilege is real, and naming character traits such as straight light hair, light eyes, and light skin, cues us to know that this character probably has access to skin privilege. It does not, however, indicate that the character is necessarily White. That, we must presume, using whatever clues are available--and in this case the clues seem to be the absence of indicators that this character is NOT White, rather than statements that overtly name that the character IS white.

You can see that I wrangled with this exact problem in this very review, as my language and disclaimer on my first set of tallies reflects:

“107 photos of girls who present White
14 photos of girls who present Black
22 photos of girls who present East Asian
4 photos of girls who present South Asian

I'm using ‘present’ deliberately above, as I recognize that I cannot know how a person racially identifies merely by looking at them.”

Like I said, there’s no perfect solution. Let’s keep working on it.

Jamalia Higgins said...

Now I'm really getting confused. Not only is the review of THE LANGUAGE OF STARS inaccurate in its racial profiling, according to the author Louise Hawes (as she commented above) but another review, this one from the April 15, 2016 Kirkus Reviews states "These contemporary, apparently white teenagers" in a review of THE MUSEUM OF HEARTBREAK by Meg Leder. Based on the rest of the review I doubt I would spend my library's funds on this title, but I am still very concerned about the terminology being used in these Kirkus Reviews!! What exactly does "apparently white" mean in this context?! If the race or ethnicity is unknown, wouldn't the reviewer be more accurate by saying that? I applaud the attempt to be more forthright in the Kirkus Reviews but sometimes the 'cure' seems to be worsening the illness.

Nina Lindsay said...

Jamalia, I'm not sure this is a "cure," I think it is "diagnosing the illness" if anything, to try to expand on your metaphor. To me the point is that many authors avoid naming whiteness while going out of their way to name other races. It seems almost habitual, ingrained, self-conscious at this point...only by calling out the oddity can we get people to be more conscious of it. Ideally readers will not have to "presume" that the author is giving them cues to Whiteness without naming it, as is now the norm.

Vicky Smith said...

(Posting in two parts because blogger thinks I go on too long)

Hi Jamalia--

Thanks for keeping us on our toes! With THE MUSEUM OF HEARTBREAK, as with THE LANGUAGE OF STARS, we relied on conventions common to literature written in English--that skin color is rarely mentioned unless it's not white, allowing hair and eye color to do the heavy descriptive lifting--in combination with the absence of markers that tell us otherwise. We use "presumably"s, "apparently"s, and "seems to be"s when we feel there's some ambiguity, because we know that race and identity are hugely complex. Speaking hypothetically, a fuchsia-haired character named, say, Maria may have an unmentioned abuela living at home--but that abuela could also be a nonna, a mormor, an oma, a gung-gung, or a grandma. But within the story, that character named Maria says or does nothing to settle her identity for the reader for reasons known only to the author. An author needs to decide how much information to provide to develop characters without impeding plot, after all. Perhaps we are overthinking it, but the real-world complexity of identity can give us pause. When I am reading and fact-checking, I have such blondes as Sofia Vergara and Beyoncé in the back of my head telling me I can't necessarily count on a mention of a blonde ponytail to guide identification.

This is, perhaps, an abundance of caution. In so very many books the unspoken, sometimes bland assumption is that a character is white unless specified otherwise, so maybe we should just stop it with the "evidently"s already. Sometimes we do, and then I get a communication from a publisher that such-and-such a blue-eyed character with long, reddish-brown curls is a person of color. But if that isn't specified in the book, will readers see that character as a person of color? If that "of color" never leaves the author's head to assert itself on the page, does it count? It's a knotty existential question.

In the real world, we see race and identity. We should in books, too. Some authors are getting better and better at it. Patrice Kindl's protagonist in DON'T YOU TRUST ME? describes herself as "white-bread-white" and notices--as we all would--that the student body at her new suburban school is much whiter than at her old school in a city in (I think) California. In TRUE LETTERS FROM A FICTIONAL LIFE, Kenneth Logan gives his white protagonist a black best friend (there's a trope worth exploring someday), but rather than just setting the relationship up, he puts both characters into an uncomfortable situation when the black character reacts to a shopkeeper's microaggression.

Vicky Smith said...

(Part two)

Book reviewing is a form of journalism, albeit an opinionated one, and we are bound by our own conventions and ethics. I get many messages from my reviewers (both those of color and white ones) to the effect that "I'm 99% sure that everybody in this book is white, but I don't know that I can PROVE it." So the journalist's need to establish fact as firmly as possible runs up against an art form that is based on the assumption that characters are white unless specified otherwise. Then we need to decide: are characters white or "probably white"? And since we believe that including this information is important for our readers to take into account in making their purchasing decisions, staying mum isn't an option. Should we opt for statements that race and identity aren't specified? That seems to me to be an abrogation of responsibility, since it effectively buys into the fiction that we inhabit a postracial world. Sometimes such an absence of markers is a conscious and artful choice, but most of the time, I feel, it's all too unconscious.

Everyone should read Toni Morrison's PLAYING IN THE DARK: WHITENESS AND THE LITERARY IMAGINATION for a very provocative exploration of the way American literature actively depends on the unmentioned presence of African-Americans, much in the same way that the White House depended on the largely unmentioned labor of African-Americans, most of them enslaved, in the book Allie discusses in her post on whiteness in nonfiction.

Again, thanks for the opportunity to think out loud.
Vicky Smith
Children's & teen editor, Kirkus Reviews