Thursday, July 20, 2017

Reviewing While White: Medical Mayhem by Stephanie Bearce & Eliza Bolli

By Elisa Gall
Cover image of Medical Mayhem from:

In Twisted True Tales from Science: Medical Mayhem, Bearce’s casual writing style describes facts about medicine and medicinal history for a middle grade audience. Bolli’s black and white sketches mix with photographs and colorful cartoon-like art to give the pages a humorous, accessible feel. But that comical tone will end for many readers (as it did for me) when they come upon back-to-back sections introduced with two large images.
Image 1 - from "Try Tobacco"
The first image is part of a section called “Try Tobacco,” which details how First/Native Nations peoples in the 15th century used tobacco as a toothpaste and also to relieve earaches, toothaches, and itches or sores from snake and bug bites. The author mentions how figures like Columbus and his crew “certainly weren’t the first” on North and South American land and that the continents had “thriving populations who had established trade routes, governments, and medicines.” The Spanish’s believed superiority over the First/Native Nations people is referenced, but rather than explain how those beliefs resulted in harmful actions and genocide, the author writes that the “Spanish missed out on the opportunity to learn...about healing plants and medicines from the Native Americans.” No specific tribes are named nor are there any references to modern-day (or present tense) First/Native Nations peoples. The image of a smiling, cigar-smoking man with braided hair, a nose and face striped with blue paint, and three feathers above his head overpowers the section; it is a recognizable stereotype of a First/Native Nations person. Dr. Stephanie Fryberg, a member of the Tulalip Tribes and an Associate Professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington, found in a study the negative effects that stereotypes like this can have on First/Native Nations children and their self-esteem.

Image 2 - from "On Pins and Needles"

The next section, titled “On Pins and Needles,” focuses on traditional Chinese medicine, specifically acupuncture. The author explains how many people still use the practice today, and writes, “It seems that the ancient Chinese physicians may have had the right cure after all.” The illustration accompanying this section features another stereotype; it is a character with big teeth and slanted eyes that is reminiscent of Cousin Chin-kee (an amalgam of notorious Asian stereotypes) in Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese. In an interview about American Born Chinese, Yang speaks about that character and the emotional impact that visual stereotypes can have on readers. With Yang’s book, the stereotypes are confronted and interrogated. In Medical Mayhem, both images sit unchallenged underneath their respective chapter headings. Regardless of the artist’s intent, these pictures communicate messages to readers about First/Native Nations and Asian people; they dehumanize them and mark them as “other,” reinforcing White superiority. While some readers might claim that the book contains several caricatures of different types of people and identities represented, White people have the luxury of seeing caricatures of them as comical and benign. It can't be ignored that caricatures and other grotesque distortions have been used historically (and still function today) to perpetuate stereotypes; these stereotypes influence actions and behaviors which can harm members of minoritized groups in very real ways.

This book and some of the conversations I’ve had around it remind me of this image Dr. Grace Yia-Hei Kao recently linked to on the blog affiliated with the Women’s Studies and Religion program at Claremont Graduate University:

A triangle-shaped visual representing examples of overt and covert white supremacy

There are some elements of racism and the White supremacy embedded into our culture that seem “obvious.” Then there are those that are more subtle, that are hidden or masqueraded as socially acceptable. While discussing this book with colleagues and friends, the issues with this book’s images seem more out in the open, above the line. I can’t assume that every reader will look at these images and see “obvious” stereotypes, but many readers I’ve spoken with are also troubled by the illustrations. This leads me to remember that some creators and editors didn’t see it. It wasn’t obvious to them (either that or they chose to ignore it).

In Is Everyone Really Equal?, Özlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo explain the dynamics of White racial superiority and the indirect messages White people receive about superiority.  They write, “...[the messages] come at us collectively and so relentlessly that resistance is virtually impossible. While we may explicitly reject the notion that we are inherently better than people of Color, we cannot avoid internalizing the message of White superiority below the surface of our consciousness because it is ubiquitous in mainstream culture.”

To me, that’s important to remember too, because even as I am aware of problematic books and work to review these texts critically, they are affecting me and the readers with whom I share and discuss them. They are reflecting and perpetuating cycles of oppression and dominance, as symptoms of current injustices but also as media influencing how the next generation is socialized. That pushes me to question what I don’t yet know or see, and to keep working to move that line down, lower and lower, until no norms of White supremacy (whether overt or covert...explicit or that triangle graphic or books, within myself, or elsewhere) are ever deemed acceptable or excusable.

Update 7/23/17: The publisher of the book, Prufrock Press, responded and announced that they would be making changes to the book after Dr. Debbie Reese contacted them on Twitter. Dr. Reese is sharing that exchange and more information on the American Indians in Children's Literature blog.



Debbie Reese said...

Thanks, Elisa, for this review. It is unnerving, of course, but especially when I went to their website and saw how much they do, with respect to resources for teachers. And I wonder what is lurking in their "Wild West" book.... or the Civil War one?

K T Horning said...

This is a great critical review, Elisa. It's hard to believe that images like this exist in a children's book published in the 21st century. Where are people's heads?

Debbie Reese said...

Publisher responded and offered to send me a copy of the book, with corrections. The corrections, they said, are already in the e-book. Wonder if they just deleted the images? Interesting.