Thursday, May 31, 2018

Contemporary Colorblind Racism & White Aggression

There are many resources available that discuss the consequences of an ideology of racial colorblindness. Many White people in our industry, understanding that colorblindness is a damaging form of racism, have moved beyond “I don’t see color.” But we White people haven’t moved as far as we’d probably like to think. So how does colorblind racism in kidlit function today? 

To me, it looks like White people seeing and naming race, but refusing to acknowledge that race has meaning. For example, we White people have a vested interest in continuing to call for and champion books in which characters’ racial identities mean little or nothing (to us). Conversations and criticisms about what some refer to as “casual diversity” aren’t new, but I’ve seen them showing up more and more in conference sessions, book clubs, and other spaces in recent months. We need to ask ourselves: What is it about the idea of “casual diversity” that makes it so appealing to us White people? 

One look at the CCBC statistics shows the imbalance of power in kidlit, and the need for more stories expressing a range of genres, experiences, emotions, and characterizations. I am NOT saying that there is not a need for increasing books by and about POC and Native people about all sorts of experiences, including books about contemporary, “normal” kids. I am not saying that we shouldn’t listen to people speaking about their own marginalized racial identities and what types of books they would like to see or write more of and why (please let’s do that!). I am asking us White people to recognize that when we have a laser focus on “casual” racial diversity over other issues in kidlit, it takes on a layer of meaning given the overwhelming Whiteness of the industry. I am asking us to recognize that we have limits to our understanding of others' racial experiences and we also have the unearned privilege to define and regulate what is seen and perceived as “normal” or “casual” in the first place. And as fellow RWW contributor Megan Schliesman pointed out to me in a recent email about this post, when we White people categorize #OwnVoices books as “casual diversity,” we are erasing their cultural context whether we understand and see it or not. 

As Laura Jiménez recently wrote in this thoughtful post, kidlit has seen calls for more diverse representation answered with more White people publishing “random non-White, non-straight, disabled, non-neurotypical characters, as long as those characters are just like them. You know, ‘normal’, which is White code for ‘White, like me.’” In our White-dominated industry, racial diversity is sometimes reduced to picking a paint color or a character’s name. This is shallow, and it ignores the realities that people and characters with those marginalized identities live, see, experience, and endure. This way of thinking, publishing, and promoting literature devalues the concept of #OwnVoices and maintains White supremacy culture, spreading a flawed message that the world is experienced universally. Can writers from a dominant culture create characters from minoritized groups that “just happen to have” any oppressed identity? Nobody “just happens to be” a member of a racial group. Race has meaning in our world. Whiteness has meaning. Kidlit doesn’t just happen to be a “white space.” The Whiteness of the industry, just like White-controlled neighborhoods, schools, and institutions, is not an accident. (Note that even our assessments and norms for what “good art” is are rooted in centuries of White dominance that has largely gone unchallenged by other White people.)

Contemporary colorblind racism also shows up when White people support the myth of meritocracy, the idea that White creators today have success because they have earned it as individuals with no added racial privilege, and that criticismespecially criticism from POC and Native womenis just sour grapes, oversensitivity, attention-seeking, or toxic bullying. The belief that calls for equity involve Native people and POC getting opportunities over "better qualified" White people is rooted in literal White supremacy; it assumes that White writers are superior or writing from an objective stance and that critiques against them aren’t the “right” way of thinking or acting. When we White people are afraid of the “D-Word” or attack, discredit, and mischaracterize the work and lived experiences of leader-scholars from marginalized groups, we are refusing to acknowledge the concrete forms of discrimination that have created the way our industry looks like and continues to function today. When White people say we want diversity but then complain about one’s right to publish books about characters outside of our experiences without criticism, often what we are saying is “I want diversity, but I don’t want equity. I still want the power. I am entitled to control.” When we White people complain about how hard it is to be White in today’s publishing landscape when only 7% of children’s books in that landscape are written by Black, Latinx, and Native creators...those feelings might be real, but they are not rooted in reality (and as the saying goes: “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression”).

Whether we White people are miscategorizing criticism against us or trying to control narratives for change, we are refusing to engage. We are refusing to believe. We are refusing to listen. We are refusing to learn. This is where our racial colorblindness and where all of our predictable behaviors of White fragility or White aggression show up. It is willful ignorance and it is incompetence. It is power hoarding and it is aggression. It is racism. Unless we are working on understanding that and working to build the stamina to own it and and try to push against it when we see it in others as well as in ourselves, we are supporting it.


Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Andrea Davis Pinkney’s Challenge: A Letter

This past March I attended the 2018 Butler Lecture given by Andrea Davis Pinkney at Dominican University. Titled “Behold the Road,” Pinkney’s immersive presentation was an acknowledgment and celebration of the past, present, and future leaders of the world of children’s literature (and the wider world too).  It was also a call to action for those involved in teaching, libraries, and #kidlit today.

Pinkney shared that “we are the ones” who build society through books, who can debunk myths, and “dream the impossible.” She spoke of the serious responsibility for those of us who work with young people, explaining how we also “shut doors on dreams without knowing it.” She challenged the audience to consider the year 2040: Who will the leaders be? What will they say? What will they remember? “The thought leaders of tomorrow are counting on us.”

Reminding the audience that “Children see what they see. They see what they don’t see,” Pinkney also reflected on past and present conversations around racial equity and inclusion, and challenged those in the audience to write a “Dear Diversity” letter. The idea is to write a letter to Diversity like you would write a journal entry, or speak with someone whom you really trust. After you’ve written it, read the letter. Then, because “it all comes down to the doing,” make a promise. Commit to three goals, and write these down too. Seal the letter, address it, stamp it, and mail it to yourself in a year. See if you fulfilled your promise. Ask yourself, “Am I walking the walk?"
The self-addressed stamp envelope currently in my home office.

It is easy for White people like me to deepen our understandings and gain knowledge about systemic oppression and keep it as an intellectual exercise. Learning is an important, necessary step, but it is not always action. Bridging this gap (between what I think/say/learn and what I do) is something I’ve been working on, so after I got home from the Butler Lecture, I followed Pinkney’s advice and wrote a letter. I read it and thought it over, and my goals became clear.

Having a self-addressed stamped envelope sitting in your home office so that you can send it to yourself in a year is an analog version of Facebook’s “On this day” memory function (but more intentional). This letter might not be high tech, but I know I learned a lot from the process of writing it, reflecting on it, and organizing my thoughts to form goals. I invite you all to take Andrea Davis Pinkney’s challenge and write your own letter. What ideas show up for you? What goals are standing out? What actions are you committed to taking? I’d love to learn more and connect with those of you who wish to share in the comments.

I’m going to follow Pinkney’s directions by not sharing the totality of my letter with anyone but me, but I would like to share my goals and some of the reminders to myself that my letter led me to have here:

Pay for it. Or, as my friend Jen says, “support what you want to see in the world.” I can easily not spend my own money on books and other materials due to my proximity to libraries. But I am committed to putting my personal money where my mouth is and financially backing people, books, and ideas that make change. DonorsChoose, Patreon, and fundraising are all part of this. (I’m going to keep a Google spreadsheet so that I can track this type of spending.) People of color and Native people are often not given fair funding compared to their White (especially White cis male) colleagues when guest speaking or submitting work for publication, even for the same events and organizations. If I am ever on the planning end of a workshop, article, or conference presentation, I will demand transparency and equity in the budgeting process. I can’t always afford to spend money, but where I am limited on funds I might be able to give something else, like time.

Ask more proactive questions. I am going to work on strengthening a habit of getting as much information as possible before I make decisions. This means doing more research before selecting a book. It also means not making assumptions about who is invited to speak or participate in conferences, workshops, or professional opportunities. If I don’t ask specific, intentional questions, I am likely participating in creating or supporting homogeneous committees, panel line-ups, or promoting books or ideas that don’t match my (and my profession’s) values. Part of this work also demands that I reflect on and check how much space I and my fellow White people are controlling or taking up, and working to put my energies into supporting and centering voices from people of color and Native people. If, for example, I’m gathering information before participating in professional development opportunities, the organizers’ responses to my questions will help me make better informed decisions--and I do not have to say “yes.” In some cases, passing on an opportunity and explaining why can interrupt unconscious behaviors and increase awareness and mindfulness in the future.

Don’t work alone. Justice work is community work, and there are unique tensions that come into play for me as a White person trying to understand and dismantle racism. I am reminded of Paul Gorski’s research that shows White racial justice activists as a major source of burnout for activists of color, and all of the different ways that well-meaning White people working against racism unconsciously support the racism they are trying to fight against (by taking credit for or undermining work from others in the community, softening honest messages from “justice” to “harmony,” hogging the mic, backbiting, shushing, centering themselves, etc.). Gorski’s research suggests that White people wanting to fight racism increase their awareness, but also learn to serve: to improve at following directions versus taking the lead. Even if doing seemingly solo work, like posting on social media or writing a blog post, I will look for and embrace the feedback that my community connections afford. That means working to recognize my limitations; to acknowledge the intersections of oppressions (h/t Kimberlé Crenshaw); and to let those with more expertise and experience truly lead, stepping in and stepping back as they deem necessary. This type of collaboration and communication means more conversations, and that does take more time. It is worth it.