Tuesday, March 1, 2016

"The All-Too-Familiar Fog of White Authenticating"

Thank you to Lisa Nowlain for our new blogger portraits!

A couple weeks ago I presented online to a class at San Jose State University's SLIS program.  The class was Info 263, "Materials for Children," taught by Elizabeth Wrenn-Estes, who asked me to speak to our work on this blog, and my approaches to critical analysis of children's literature.

There were a few late questions that I didn't have time to answer, and rather than write an email back to the class, I thought I'd try to answer them here.  Some of you may be able to add other thoughts, and I'm hoping some of the class might continue the discussion.

Nina, since so many book reviewers are white, do you think that books written by non-whites will get the same chance at a good review as white authors?

Statistically, in reality? No. Because white people don't "get" everything in stories by people of color or First Nations/Native people.  I've learned so much from people taking the trouble to point out some very obvious things to me.  For instance, long ago I presented an oral review (thank goodness I hadn't published it) in which I complained the pacing was "off" in a picture book because the protagonist, on a journey, encountered four strangers, and it felt like one beat to many to me.  Someone graciously pointed out to me that in many cultures, things in stories happen in "fours" instead of the "threes" of most European traditions. 

Malinda Lo went into this from the writer's point of view last month on Twitter. She said "If you don't explain the context for non-Asian readers they won't get it. But if you over-explain you lose the storytelling tension." Numerous reactions prompted her to expand: 

Nina, how big of an impact do book reviewers have and do you think that a reviewer’s race has a large impact on what books get more publicity and recognition? Do you think that reviewers try to separate themselves from the race they identify with and look at the big picture when reviewing?

Getting any reviews at all definitely has an impact on selling book.  Even a negative review can help sell a book over no reviews at all, though of course it doesn't serve a book as well as a positive review. 

Given my thoughts about the first question above, I certainly think that the race and background of reviewers, as a whole, has a large impact on the recognition of books. On an individual case, theoretically, if we can each hold ourselves individually accountable to reading with an full understanding of our biases, it shouldn't.  But I think it has an exponential impact as you look at the entire publishing output.  If, collectively, we can gain momentum on our individual accountability, we should be able to shift that overall impact. Kirkus Reviews and School Library Journal are clearly making strides to hold themselves and reviewers accountable, especially since Lee & Low started collecting survey data for the Diversity Baseline Study

So how do you celebrate diversity without normalizing whiteness?

In the example I gave above about my cluelessness with a review, I was normalizing Whiteness; assuming that my knowledge as a White person was not based in any cultural or racial context, but was somehow "normal."  When you read for analysis, you should try to locate yourself...your own person with your own perspective...within your mind, and observe yourself reading and reacting to a text.  If you are White, you should examine that reaction and assume that not everyone experiences it that way.  "It's not all about you," is a mantra that works for me.  

I do think that normalizing Whiteness has gotten in the way of appreciations of many books by people of color.  It's hard to prove, but I feel like I've seen it enough, in Mock Newbery discussions, for instance, when a mostly White group starts comparing one excellent book with another.  Inevitably, some people "just feel" that Excellent Book A (by a White person) does "more" for them than Excellent Book B (by a person of color).  It probably does; and that's not the point. 

This has dangerous repercussions not just for the immediate reception to a book in its publishing year, but on what standards are set in the literature in general. Since my post on Jump Back Paul by Sally Derby, I've been reading more about Paul Laurence Dunbar.   Poet Kevin Young writes about him in his prize-winning collection of essays The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness (Graywolf Press, 2012).  He talks of the famous review by White "tastemaker" William Dean Howells, which secured Dunbar's success in the White literary establishment.  This review praised Dunbar's dialect poems in a very particular way remains today the most accessible interpretation, repercussions of which can still be seen in Sally Derby's book, for instance, despite the fact that Black writers, like Young, have been offering alternative interpretations for decades. Young says "Howells's simple if not simplistic review is still appended to most editions of Dunbar, making it impossible to get to Dunbar without the all-too-familiar fog of white authenticating." 

Or, as students in the Oakland schools African American Male Achievement classes explained to me, it's "Matrix thinking."  Clear the fog, see through the Matrix.  It's not all about you, White people. 


Helen Frost said...

Nina, I was interested in what you said about your (unpublished) review of a picture book: ".. in which I complained the pacing was "off" in a picture book because the protagonist, on a journey, encountered four strangers, and it felt like one beat to many to me. Someone graciously pointed out to me that in many cultures, things in stories happen in "fours" instead of the "threes" of most European traditions. "

It's taken me awhile to track this down, but I have found the book I recalled reading in the early 80's in a cross-cultural education class taught by Ron Scollon at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. The book title is: Narrative, Literacy and Face in Interethnic Communication, by Ron Scollon and Suzanne B.K. Scollon, Volume VII in the series "Advances in Discource Analysis," Roy O. Freedle, Series Editor. Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1981. I give all that information in case you or anyone wants to track this down--most likely in an academic library or inter-library loan.

So--long introduction to what I'll try to briefly summarize or excerpt, found on pages 33-35. "...European folktales are organized around themes of three parts...We have "Goldilocks and the Three Bears;"...if a character has to go through ordeals there are usually three of them; if a king has daughters he has three, and they marry three brothers; and so on...
...We found that when a storyteller told a story in Athabaskan it was organized around twos and fours...when the same person told the same story to us in English the story was organized in groups of threes. At first we thought that it was because he had conceptually reorganized the story for the second telling. We found out, however, that this reorganization was because of our responses. We had not been able to follow the Athabaskan version and so had not interfered with his telling. We did understand the English version and all the way through said "Uh huh" where we thought it was appropriate. His reorganization into different units reflects *our* responses more than his own reorganization. Or maybe it is better to say that in the English version, the storyteller and the listeners cooperated to create a situational reorganization of the story.
...Kintsch (1977, Kintsch & Green, 1978) has found that if you ask English-speaking college students to remember Athabaskan stories (in English) they only remember three of the four parts. Either one part is left out completely or two are combined to produce a total of three parts. The same students have no difficulty with European folktales organized around themes of threes."

I thought you'd find this interesting, and I think it relates to the conversation we've been having here and in other places.

Helen Frost

Helen Frost said...

I've left out quite a few details--ask for more information if this is confusing. As I understand it, the storyteller who "told a story in Athabaskan" is a bilingual Athabaskan man. The "our" refers to the Scollons, who are English speakers living at the time of their research in Fort Chipewyan, Canada.

Nina Lindsay said...

Helen, thank you for this!

Helen Frost said...

You're welcome. I haven't been able to track down the Kintsch article the Scollons reference, but I remember reading it, and as I recall, it worked the other way too--Athabascan college students remembering European folktales added a part in their re-telling.

I take all this to mean that gate-keepers of children's literature are giving an amplified "uh-huh" with each book acceptance, starred review, award, etc.--and that affects the entire body of literature, one story at a time.

It's difficult, if not impossible, to change our cultural perspective--these things go deep and are largely subconscious--but we can be aware that this happens, and acknowledge the need for people of many cultural backgrounds to participate in bringing stories to children.

I'm grateful for this conversation.

Unknown said...

A great writer and community that I have learned lots from on this particular subject is Mark Does Stuff (markreads.net and markwatches.net).