Thursday, November 2, 2017

Reviewing While White: How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea by Kate Hosford, Ill. Gabi Swiatkowska

Reviewed by Allie Jane Bruce

The Queen and her servants
This well-intentioned foray into the diversity of international tea-making techniques hits several wrong notes. The Queen (she is never named), an entitled, irritable, uncomfortable mass of cloth and hair (reminiscent of Eloise), can no longer stand the sub-par tea her servants bring. Accompanied by James (whose precise role is never defined), the Queen embarks upon a colonialist tour of a few tea-making techniques of Japan, India, and Turkey (although those countries are not named until the Author’s Note). At the end, the now-happy and delightful Queen (who has, predictably, learned that the secret to a perfect cup of tea is that “you must share it with others”) invites three children (one from each culture) to enjoy the tea she has prepared for them.

Noriko and the Queen
The imperialist framework upon which the story rests is troubling, but I want to focus this review on the illustrations, since images and the messages they send are undeniably powerful.

At the book’s start, the Queen is almost colorless. Her skintone is that of the (white) paper background, and her gown is a pale orangey-red. The first bright colors come when they set off for distant lands. Soon after, the Queen meets Noriko, who has pink cheeks, red lips, and a bright blue dress. In several pictures, though not all, Swiatkowska portrays Noriko's eyes as narrow slits.

The Queen, whose cheeks and lips are distinctly rosier after her encounter with Noriko, next visits Sunil, who seems to spend his days “dribbling.” Sunil has brown skin, dark hair, red lips, a yellow shirt, and is missing a tooth, all of which the Queen can see up close as she peers at him through a magnifying glass. I wonder how this image lands with kids who look like Sunil.

The Queen studies Sunil through a magnifying glass
The Queen then visits Rana, after which she returns home and hosts the three children for tea, now in a bright red dress.

Let’s unpack. We’ve got a (literally) white Queen who’s the same shade as paper--i.e., the color of default. As Her Imperial Majesty visits faraway lands, she soaks up (literal) color from the local children of color, who are stereotypically rendered smiling and cheerful, quite happy to be the subjects of cultural appropriation and magnifying glasses.

Rana, Noriko, the Queen, and Sunil have tea together
This is a case study in good intentions gone wrong. Did the creators, editors, or publishers ever envision a multi-racial classroom read-aloud scenario? Despite its feel-good ending (the Queen makes tea for the children), the bulk of the book features her studying them as if they are a rare variety of tea-making blue leopards. The message to White children: “You are default; study other people and cultures when you feel something in your life is lacking; people of color are there to cheerfully accommodate you.” The message to children of color: “You are different and therefore to be studied; you must cheerfully accommodate those who study you.”

Troubling as these messages are, they speak to a larger truth about cultural appropriation. Historically, when different cultural groups (e.g., Irish, Polish, Italian, Ashkenazi Jews) became White in the United States, they sacrificed fundamental elements of their cultures of origin. This pattern has been well-documented in books like How the Irish Became White and How Jews Became White Folks.  The ancestral language is usually the first thing to go; next are religious rituals, or religion itself. Recipes are often the last remnants of culture successfully passed down from generation to generation. What remains, at the end of this process, is a whole lot of White people in search of anything “cultural” we can get our hands on, regardless of what culture that is, regardless of how we impact the people who actually hail from the cultures we appropriate.

I find How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea interesting because it’s an example of Whiteness in search of culture. The book would suggest that the Queen is truly lacking companionship and self-sufficiency, but I think the longing for culture goes deeper.  And, I think that White people need to explore these things in all-White settings and groups so as to avoid further burdening people of color and First/Native Nations with our issues. Many good options for such groups are listed in our FAQs and Resources pages. In the meantime, skip How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea. This well-intentioned Imperialist romp perpetuates racism.

1 comment:

mclicious said...

Who even draws like this anymore? This book looks like it was illustrated in 1930, and also all the things you outlined.