School Library Journal (SLJ)’s online news service recently offered a curious round-up of the There is a Tribe of Kids discussion. The article depicts an un-nuanced controversy with two sides, perpetuated by “Some” and “Others.” “Some” purchase the book, and are represented in the article by a librarian who decided not to renew her ALA membership after witnessing attacks, some directed at her, on the ALSC listserv. “Others” are represented first and foremost by Debbie Reese, voicing objections to the book.
When I read these listserv comments, I do not see the voicing of objections as the “personal attacks” that others have perceived. It concerns me to hear of fear of speaking out because of a perception of aggressiveness of “one-side” or “a few,” phrases I find frequently used to marginalize a variety of dissenting views. Those expressing fear of attack or shaming have called on everyone to be “respectful” and “kind,” as if these concerns are somehow less valid because they aren’t being expressed in a way that makes everyone feel nice. They have also expressed frustration that public libraries “no longer represent neutrality.”
The problem is that the “neutrality” of libraries does not exist. Storytime Underground has recently demonstrated this, and #Libraries4BlackLives further explodes the neutrality myth. What does exist is a status quo which, to protect its existence, parades as neutrality. For libraries to fulfill their role as a place for free exploration of ideas and diversity of thought, to actually “provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues” we must have those materials. But we don’t have those materials because publishing is a market-driven industry. If we don’t make the industry listen to and respond to all voices, not just the status quo, we will never have libraries that serve all in the community. It is clear, for instance by listening to these teenagers of the Unitah and Oorah Nation, that the saturation of stereotypes about people of color and First Nations/Native people in our media today still promulgate racism, in this case, by the sheer preponderance of images or literary examples of non-Native people dressing like Indians. In this video Lavin says: “When you search up “Native Culture”, you’ll see people...you’ll see Whites….I’m not trying to offend anyone here...you’ll see Whites...well, it is kind of offensive to us...you’ll see Whites dressed up as Natives, you’ll see them in headdresses, when headdresses are like the holiest thing, to represent us as higher people. … It makes me so mad.”
What I have seen in the discussion of THERE IS A TRIBE OF KIDS is an invitation to think deeply and explore different points of view, a place where professionals can seek to make informed decisions about how and where and whether to use this one particular book, among many, and also send a message to book creators and publishers about what gaps and pitfalls in children’s literature this book exposes, so that they can better create books that will help us do our jobs. Yet, comments on the SLJ Facebook post for their article included responses along these lines:
“I think people need to relax a bit”
“This PC nonsense has gone too far”
“No matter what we write or say, people in the other end will find objection. Silly!!!!”
These are common defensive reactions to critical exposure of the status quo, typifying criticism as one side crossing a line (an attack), or just baseless (silly nonsense).
If a person chooses to believe that what they know is the only truth, then a challenge to that knowledge will feel like an attack, because this person has nothing else to stand on. This person feels they are confronted with a battlefield to defend their truth, and will do what they can to dismantle the argument: cut it at its knees, call in the troops, or refuse to engage.
If one can see one’s own knowledge as a piece of the truth, then one can enter a field of discussion without fear, trusting that there is more to know. Venturing into that field, seeing more, and then looking back at my own truth, I’ve seen it behave in a myriad of ways. Sometimes, it fades or flutters away: still itself but less significant, in the scheme of things. Sometimes, I see it still there, solid, unchanged, but a piece of something bigger….the tooth that thought it was the whole jaw. Sometimes, it stands obstinately, but I see it standing on top of an enormous lie, and I choose to turn my back on it. And sometimes...I decide I’m just still right. But where my Whiteness is at play, that has not generally been the result.
I expect that some colleagues will continue to stop engaging, feeling that what was a “nice” safe space for them is changing. But it was never nice, and it was never safe, except for those whose interests are served by the status quo. Our colleagues from marginalized communities have so much more at stake in these discussions than does someone like me, and the only attacks that I’ve witnessed have been the tone-policing of these voices. Like Lavin, people from marginalized communities have the right to be angry. Expressing that anger when speaking one’s truth, so that others can learn, does not constitute an attack. As Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas says, “Our critiques being mischaracterized as more harmful and unethical than the books themselves signals a total lack of willingness to listen.” These critiques are an invitation, and a challenge, to listen and participate in change that will further equity in our communities, through books for children, through education, through libraries. Come onto the field: the library is open.