Monday, December 17, 2018

Not recommended: It’s Springtime, Mr. Squirrel

This is a post in Reading While White’s end-of-year retrospective series.

2018 has been a historic year for Native women in U.S. politics. Last month, Sharice Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, and Deb Haaland, an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna, became the first-ever Native women elected to U.S. Congress. At the same time, Peggy Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Nation of Ojibwe, was elected Lt. Governor of Minnesota.

In the #kidlit world, 2018 has been a stellar year for Native book releases, with several #OwnVoices books by Native creators being published and celebrated, including Traci Sorell winning the Orbis Pictus Honor Award last month for We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga. In January, another group of AILA Youth Literature Awards was announced and Dr. Debbie Reese was selected to give the 2019 May Hill Arbuthnot Lecture. In June, members of the ALSC Board of Directors addressed longstanding criticism and “inconsistency between Wilder’s legacy and [ALSC’s] core values” when voting to change the name of the Wilder Medal to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. Dr. Debbie Reese recently posted a Twitter thread highlighting some momentous events from the year.

Screenshot of Facebook conversation regarding
"Native American headdress" flannelboards.
Despite these successes and more, anti-Native bigotry and actions persisted in 2018. Ignorance of Native nations was reflected in Senator Elizabeth Warren’s refusal to apologize for claiming Native identity. (That she pointed to a DNA test as “proof” of her Cherokee identity shows her lack of knowledge. Read this post by Jacqueline Keeler and Kelly Hayes and this piece by Rebecca Nagle to learn more about how both Warren and Trump have exploited and erased Cherokee people and the Cherokee Nation in this fight.) While the professional baseball team of Cleveland, Ohio committed to removing racist imagery from team jerseys this year, there are no plans to change the team name and the team will continue to profit from the racist image, which suggests that the move is more about what looks best from a PR perspective than about doing what’s right. Some educators have shared efforts to teach inclusively in 2018 (learn about how teacher Jessica Lifshitz is confronting Native stereotypes with her students here), but many continue to teach false history rooted in White supremacist, colonialist culture (as seen in the screenshot of a recent Facebook group conversation about flannelboards, the inappropriate use of the words “tribe” and “spirit animal,” and this Twitter conversation about fake tipis being used as classroom decorations). Native survivors of targeted harassment courageously raised their voices  against their abusers in 2018, yet Native women continue to face violence and assault at staggering rates. Companies like Target and Crate and Barrel continue to profit off of appropriative Native merchandise that encourages children to “play Indian.” Native book creators continue to be represented minimally at conferences like #NCTE18. Native stories are mislabeled as “folk and fairy tales.” And racist children’s books are still getting published and promoted. One of these books, published this year in the U.S.A., is It’s Springtime, Mr. Squirrel!.

Cover of It's Springtime, Mr. Squirrel!
Image from
It’s Springtime, Mr Squirrel! is an international picture book (translated from German) by Sebastian Meschenmoser, author of the popular Mr. Squirrel and the Moon. This is one of those “where do you even begin” kind of books to review - there are A LOT of issues.

In the beginning of the book, spring has sprung and the setting is abuzz. Graceful gray pencil marks are lightened by splashes of color. Creatures scuttle about, and Mr. Squirrel’s friend Hedgehog shares that he’s not hungry because he has seen “...a lovely lady hedgehog.” At this point, pink and blue background fills are used for male and female characters, reinforcing a very stereoptypical gender binary. When “the lovely lady” Hedgehog is shown, it is from behind (this “lady” only exists as an object for the male character to gaze). Because Hedgehog is too shy to approach the lady character, Mr. Squirrel shares thoughts about how to win her heart: “The best way is to gain fame and glory by showing everyone how brave and strong you are.” The omniscient narrator then says, “In order to gain fame and glory, of course you had to win lots of dangerous fights.” Regardless of author intent, the not-so-subtle message is to get what I want out of this, I have to assert male dominance (toxic masculinity 101).

The text then reads: “...if you want to win lots of dangerous fights, you have to look dangerous yourself.” What exactly does it mean to “look dangerous” in this book? First Hedgehog is shown with a butterfly and flowers atop his head, and later with a mushroom-style skirt and a snail on his head (both sexist jabs against anything other than masculine, cisnormative gender presentations). It is only when Hedgehog wears leaves and carries a sharp stick in what appears to be a stereotypical, generic Native outfit that the characters feel ready to win “any dangerous fight.” (To learn about how “playing Indian” is connected to the colonialist history of the U.S.A. and the impacts of stereotypes on Native children’s self-esteem today, read this study, this post, and this book.)
Illustration of Hedgehog with grass skirt and spear. Imagine from

In the pages that follow, the characters (both dressed up now) attack unsuspecting mice, birds, and bunnies. When the bear character, who is named as the most dangerous creature in the forest, isn’t scared of them (he doesn’t see them), Mr. Squirrel and Hedgehog feel victorious. They take flowers to the “lady hedgehog,” only to discover that she isn’t a hedgehog at all, but a hairbrush. As they sit with their disappointment, a duck approaches and says, “That can happen to anybody.” To some readers, this ending and its be careful who you are attracted to messaging might also call to mind stories of people who are transgender being violently outed, which often results in trauma and assault.
Scanned illustration of characters chasing mice. 

No doubt there will be readers who want to defend this book by pointing out the creator’s impeccable draftsmanship or use of irony. Meschenmoser is a talented visual artist in some ways, but the thing about books for children is that they are about how every image and piece of text work together to create each page, and how every image and page fits together with the next to tell a story. Each book goes out into the world, the actual world where Native sovereignty is not understood by those with power (and many without), and where Native kids are facing compounding intersecting oppressions. These books are read by real kids, many whose very identities are under constant threat.

If you work with young people, I invite you sit and think with me about the messages this particular book sends to readers, and how it connects to this 2018. How will Native readers and others with minoritized group identities respond to this book? How might readers with privilege and power react? What might they internalize? If you still want to defend this book, I invite you to consider the purpose supporting an artist’s style above all else serves. Who does it protect? What legacies does it continue?

If you choose to read a different book, I’d suggest any of the Hall of Fame recommendations on Indigo’s Bookshelf, the new blog (also started this year) by the group of Florida Seminole and Miccosukee teens who Tweet collaboratively using @OfGlades. If you don’t already follow them, you should. These young people have things to sayand as reflecting on 2018 shows for those us who are not Native, we have much to learn.

-Elisa Gall

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

PART II: False Victimization and White Aggression: David Lubar’s Public Facebook Discussion Following Baskin’s 2018 TEDxTalk

The Reading While White team is pleased to welcome Guest Blogger Sarah Hamburg today.

In Monday’s post, Allie Jane Bruce gave a close reading of Nora Raleigh Baskin’s TEDx Talk, “Artists Mustn’t Fear the Social Media Call-Out Culture,” looking at how Baskin’s talk addresses “call-out culture,” and how that presentation relates to Whiteness and power in children’s literature. Today, I’d like to go back and examine how online discussions following Baskin’s talk reflect those same dynamics. The online conversations about Baskin’s talk are an illustrative example of how White people in children’s publishing define social media culture, and its norms, in ways that both uphold our own dominance, and enact active racist aggression against BIPOC people in the field.

I want to note, especially in the wake of the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, that this conversation is not meant to convey that White people can’t be marginalized along other identifies; White people, including White Jewish people, can still be subject to other oppressions. However, the focus of this post is Whiteness, and an examination of a specific incident of White aggression and dominance in order to identify larger patterns of racism in the field.

After the publication of Nora Raleigh Baskin’s TEDx talk on May 21, 2018, there were many conversations both online and off, but I’d like to focus on one Facebook thread in particular. The thread encapsulates dynamics that occur repeatedly within the social media spaces of children’s publishing. As Allie mentioned on Monday, it’s been several months since the TEDx talk and these specific discussions took place, but a close examination of their scope and impact remains (unfortunately) relevant.

On May 24th, David Lubar wrote a public Facebook post which began, “Once again, a writer has been the subject of an over-the-top assault by Debbie Reese.” That writer was Nora Raleigh Baskin, and the “assault” was Dr. Debbie Reese’s series of tweets critiquing the content of Baskin’s TEDx talk. On May 21st, Dr. Cristina James (who organized the TEDx event at which Baskin spoke) had tagged Dr. Reese on Twitter, with a link to Baskin’s talk and an invitation to, “discuss, contest, argue if you must…” Dr. Reese responded to that invitation on May 22nd with an initial series of tweets expressing her general thoughts on the content of the talk, followed by a longer thread in which she listened to the talk again and live-tweeted her close analysis. (Dr. Reese compiled those threads in a blog post; I highly recommend that readers spend time with her actual words and reactions to the talk, as well as her own response to David Lubar’s post.) At the beginning of the second thread Dr. Reese tagged Nora Raleigh Baskin, and Baskin was then automatically tagged in each of the threaded tweets. That tagging, and Dr. Reese’s presentation of her thoughts and critique more generally, became the primary focus of online discussions about Nora Raleigh Baskin’s TEDx talk. It’s here, in this shifting of focus from the substance of critiques to the manner of their delivery, and the characterizations of responses from BIPOC people as “call-out culture,” online “bullying,” and in this case “assault,” that I’d like to spend time via this post.

The full text of David Lubar’s May 24th Facebook post is as follows:

(Note, this was a public Facebook post, which could be viewed by anyone, and several participants recorded the post and comments as they progressed. Lubar later made the decision to delete the post and the thread in their entirety. In discussing the post, I’ll be relying on screenshots made while it was still active. While the post itself is recorded intact, unfortunately many of the later comments and additions to the thread are not available. My discussion will focus on the comments to the thread before people began intervening. Full disclosure: Allie Jane Bruce and I were both later participants in this Facebook discussion.)
“Once again, a writer has been the subject of an over-the-top assault by Debbie Reese. And, once again, anyone who calls her out is besieged by her defenders, who act as if she walks on water. If those of you leaping to Ms. Reese's defense haven't actually read some of her columns, I think that would be a good thing to do. Much of what she writes is quibbles, false attacks, and weak scholarship. Consider this, from her attack on Susan Cooper: 
Ghost Hawk opens with two epigraphs. The first is from Roger Williams and is dated 1643. Williams tells not to be proudful because ‘thy brother Indian was made by the same God that made the English. That Indian, the epigraph says, is just as wise, fair, and strong as the English man.’ 
The second epigraph is a verse from Woodie Guthrie's song, This Land is Your Land.
Why, I wonder, did Cooper choose those two? It was, by the way, rather patronizing of Williams to assume that his God made Indians. How does he know it didn't happen the other way around, with the Indians’ god making the Englishmen?! 
[end quote] 
Do you see the problem? Cooper's intent was obviously to show that Roger Williams saw all humans as equal. Making things worse is that the actual Roger Williams quote doesn't specify which god he means. Reese basically attacks Cooper for showing something positive about Roger Williams. 
You can find hundreds more examples of this, along with some PETA-like campaigns. She attacked Jon Scieszka twice for calling a Mayan "Kakapoopoohead" (I might have the spelling wrong), and posted links on YALSA book, with his name in the subject. She did this first by comparing this to Mel Gibson's Apocalypto (sp?), and then, seven years later by comparing this to the news hoax about the Chinese crew names on the plane that crashed. 
l have writer friends who have been attacked for absurd things. One had a Native American character cross his legs to play the guitar while seated on the floor. Ms. Reese slammed this sentence for being a stereotype. If you play guitar, you know this is the comfortable way to sit. Yes -- many minorities have been badly portrayed in books. but they deserve a better defender, and Ms. Reese deserves to be called out for her tactics.”

In the ensuing comments on Lubar’s post, a group of primarily White writers wrote to affirm Lubar’s characterizations, and to add further demeaning remarks about Dr. Reese’s work and about her as a person. These comments continued uninterrupted until May 30th, when several people began posting comments pushing back. In the comments from White people adding their support for Lubar’s post, several central themes emerged. Most prominent among them was participants’ stated belief that they agreed with Dr. Reese in general terms, but opposed her “tactics” and ways of expressing herself. I’d like to look at that idea, and its relationship to Baskin’s delivered remarks about “call-out culture,” more closely.

In the very first comment on the post, Jordan Sonnenblick responded to say, “As you know, David, I have tangled with DR in the past. It is frustrating, because invariably, she attacks people who would be _on her side_, but in such vicious and passive—aggressively unfair ways that she divides our little world into venomous little camps.” Others added their agreement to this idea.

David Lubar Well said, Jordan. Your point about attacking people who would he allies is an excellent observation.

Gae Polisner Every time we try to talk about this and what is wrong with it, I am reminded of trying to talk logic with Trump supporters, and it truly, truly terrifies me. Not to mention, the defense is that she's advocating for kids. Well kids are being bullied online in droves. At times this bullying is leading to suicide and outward violence. What kind of message does it send to the kids to watch adults engage in this nature of cruel communication over and over and over again online?

Stephanie Olivieri Gae Polisner Exactly.

Susan Fabricant Hess Gae Polisner l agree and have had it out with her on Twitter. Nothing ever positive comes out of her mouth or keyboard.

Annette Kesterson I hate the toxic atmosphere she creates and Jordan Sonnenblick is exactly right--even when i agree with her assertions, she is so poisonous that I would never support her in them.
Leslie Bermel says, “Alexandra Flinn I agree wholeheartedly. Her voice and expertise could have tremendous impact. It’s her tone and call out methods I take exception with.” And from Lisa Rondinelli Albert, “She does more harm than good with these rants and bullying tactics. What a wonderful antagonist she makes.”

Lubar's initial post does cite passages from Dr. Reese’s work in an effort to show specific instances where he disagrees with the substance of her critical reviews, yet his overall framing is one in which he repeatedly characterizes Reese’s scholarship as “attacks” and “assault.” (The word “attack” appears five times in Lubar’s post.) Lubar cites his disagreement with Reese’s criticisms—whether it’s in her critique of a White author parodying Indigenous naming practices, or in her reading of the implicit condescension in Roger Williams’ words from 1643—as evidence that Dr. Reese sharing her own perspective constitutes an attack. White commenters in the thread then continue this conflation between critique and “attack,” adding words like “vicious,” “venomous,” “bullying,” “cruel,” “nothing positive,” “nasty,” “toxic,” “poisonous.” And “wonderful antagonist.” Disagreement with the substance of Dr. Reese’s reviews and perspective is quickly lost, in favor of discussion of the idea that the White commenters would agree with Dr. Reese, were she not so “poisonous.” The implication in comments from Sonnenblick, Bermel, Kesterson, and other White people in the thread is that they are somehow allies, and would agree with Dr. Reese’s reviews, except that -- according to them -- the way Reese conducts herself unfortunately maintains racial divisions and alienates White people.

On Monday, Allie looked at the ways Nora Raleigh Baskin, in her TEDx talk on the subject, declines to define exactly what she means by “call-out culture.” The result is a conflation between very real online harassment and hate (disproportionately directed at Black and Indigenous people, and People of Color, particularly BIPOC women and nonbinary people) and anti-racist critique from BIPOC readers and scholars. Something similar is happening in this Facebook thread about online culture. In it, White participants’ stated belief that they would agree with Dr. Reese, if not for her “tactics”, fails to define exactly what “toxic,” “poisonous” behavior they mean. The one instance people reference is the fact that Dr. Reese tagged Nora Raleigh Baskin in each of her long series of live-tweets about the TEDx talk. Paul Hankins goes so far as to equate this Twitter tagging with torture, saying, “She uses social media like the walk home from school while being menaced by the bully that will not hit but taunts incessantly. When you go tweet after tweet after tweet, tagging the other person each time, the ‘what abouting’ becomes a form of 'water boarding'.” Hankins continues, “This is not conversation. This is not the way that I would bring a student to a sense of understanding or learning. Because THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD has been on my mind of late (reading with students), I go back to an idea of how Joe Starks rises to power over Eatonville. Zora Neale Hurston writes: ‘They bowed down to him because he was all of these things, but, perhaps he was all of these things because they bowed down… watch authors now take the safe road and write books with more animal characters or natural settings without characters out of fear of DR’s reach and influence.’"

Later in the Facebook discussion, and in her own blog post, Dr. Reese acknowledges that Twitter’s auto-tagging could have been overwhelming for Baskin, and offers an apology for the (inadvertent) multiple tags. But the hyperbolic allusions to violence, “menace,” and bullying do not match the act of tagging someone in a series of tweets. There is so much more to say here, too, about the comparison to Their Eyes Were Watching God, the idea that listening to Dr. Reese equates to “bowing down,” ideas about who exactly is having to take time away from their writing, and the mocking references to animal characters. (For just one crucial series on the subject of animal characters, see Edith Campbell’s posts on monkeys in children’s books.) It’s also worth noting that on other occasions, White book creators and bloggers have criticized Dr. Reese for not tagging them on Twitter, and cited this as an example of Reese talking behind their backs. (For another discussion of the focus on Twitter tagging as a derailing tactic, see this article from Bustle on reactions to Dr. Reese’s critique of The Love That Split the World.) Throughout the discussion on David Lubar’s post, it’s clear that the actual basis for White people calling Dr. Reese “toxic” is the very existence of her critiques as a Native woman, the fact that she expresses opinions that are “negative” (i.e. not praise), and the fact that White people feel discomfort when encountering her perspective. As in so many instances where we as White people point to “tone” or “delivery” as the problem, the argument becomes a circular one: “I would agree with you if not for your tone, and the problem with your tone is that you dare to be yourself and disagree with me.”

Ironically, in a discussion that’s ostensibly about the freedom to express opinions, and about writers’ work in the context of online culture and bullying, White participants in this Facebook thread come together to engage in the collective dehumanization of a Native scholar because of her writing. Dr. Debbie Reese becomes “a wonderful antagonist” and a “menacing bully.” These words disregard Debbie Reese’s humanity, and her right to express her opinions and knowledge through written scholarship (as much an artistic form as fiction writing.) White people join together here, in an online space, to describe Dr. Reese as someone lesser, who exists as a threat. Further, that collective dehumanization quickly moves from words to proposed action. Ed Sullivan says, “I am appalled that ALSC gave her the 2019 Arbuthnot Honor Lecture Award for ‘her strong modeling of inclusion, integrity and respect (ALSC Core Values) via the timely insights she shares on the influential blog.’ It disgusts me to sound like some kind of conservative reactionary but Reese is an example of the worst about political correctness.”
Susan Fabricant Hess says, “If only we could do boycott the Arbuthnot Lecture,” and later, “Time to boycott.”
Finally, Mari Crispano Meli says, “I don't know who this person is or how she gained such power. But I am guessing that it's a good time to call her out on it, as you have done. Unite and conquer!”
That’s right, in a thread in which many White participants have gathered to disparage and demean a Native scholar for her invited response to the content of a public lecture, in which they have characterized a Native woman as a “wonderful antagonist” and a “menacing bully,” and in which some have called for a boycott of Dr. Reese’s Arbuthnot lecture, we arrive here at the words: “Unite and conquer!” The racist and colonial framing could not be any more clear. In this thread, a Native woman’s work and words are a threat against which White people must “unite and conquer.” And the White double standard also couldn’t be more stark. If the supposed problem White people are addressing here is online bullying and group behavior, then what exactly is the group behavior of this online thread? Somehow, White norms about social media and bullying, and kindness, don’t seem to apply to us White people.

David Lubar’s Facebook post and the ensuing discussion, where White people conflate critique of a TEDx talk with bullying and harassment, echoes the content of Baskin’s talk itself. The progression of the Lubar discussion, where White people unite online to disparage a Native scholar, dehumanize her and refer to her in ways that evoke racist ideas of menace and violence (racist ideas with a long, genocidal history), and propose a boycott of her Arbuthnot Lecture, reveals the stakes of Baskin’s talk. Online bullying and harassment are real, and they have real consequences. Again, though, those harsh realities and consequences are experienced most acutely by BIPOC women and nonbinary people, including those in the field of children’s literature. Online harassment, as with most harassment, is most often a means by which those with power—like White people in children’s publishing—enforce and maintain our dominance. As Allie discussed in her post, Baskin failed to address these power dynamics and disparities in her TEDx talk, and refused to own the power that we as White people have in this field. David Lubar’s Facebook post, and the subsequent thread, are both a reflection and a result of that omission. White people aren’t the victims here, and if we as White people can’t name, take responsibility for, and work to change our positions of power, then we are active participants in maintaining our White dominance. And those whose art and personhood are most deeply impacted by these violent inequities will continue to be BIPOC creators—whether fiction writers, or critical scholars.

-Sarah Hamburg

As is always the case, BIPOC writers have explored these issues for a long time, and in much more detail than I address here. I’m both indebted to them and their work in everything I’ve said here, and also recognize that it is their voices White people should be listening to, not mine.


Debbie Reese's Twitter Threads about Nora Raleigh Baskin's Ted Talk

#OwnVoices Controversy by Mia Wenjen (PragmaticMom)

Monday, December 10, 2018

PART I: A Response to “Artists Mustn’t Fear the Social Media Call-Out Culture”, a TEDx Talk by Nora Raleigh Baskin

This is the first post in Reading While White’s End-of-Year Retrospective series, in which we take a look back at some of the events of 2018 and identify recurring patterns.

Nora Raleigh Baskin’s TEDx Talk, “Artists Mustn’t Fear the Social Media Call-Out Culture” was published May 21, 2018. In it, Baskin contends that “loud” and “vitriolic” voices on the internet are threatening artistic and creative expression and therefore constitute a societal danger. You can see the full video here.

In this post, I focus primarily on Baskin’s TEDx Talk itself. Wednesday, we’ll welcome guest blogger Sarah Hamburg, who will unpack some of the subsequent events that occurred in online spaces. [Ed. 12/12/18: Sarah Hamburg's post is now available here.]

Back in May, when Nora Raleigh Baskin’s TEDx Talk was published, I didn’t want to talk about it. The end of the school year (and my time at my job) was nigh, and I was completely drained. Listening to Baskin’s talk drained me even more, even though it was nothing I hadn’t heard many, many times before.

I was, and still am, grateful to the people who raised their voices to challenge Baskin’s narrative at the time (see Dr. Debbie Reese’s post here and Mia Wenjen’s response here).  I understand that I’m offering my perspective late, especially in our frantically-paced media culture; to some, because it comes late, this post will undoubtedly land as resentful and dilatory.

And yet, the dynamics, mindsets, and structures that informed Baskin’s talk, and the rigamarole that followed, repeat themselves; talking about them is, unfortunately, always timely. After the announcement of the Wilder Award name change (to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award), I observed the very real danger that my colleagues found themselves in, including some BIPOC colleagues who’d had nothing to do with the name change. I worked on this blog post in fits and starts over the past few months, and offer it now as I reflect that the fear White people so often express at the possibility that they or their work will be criticized falls miles short of the actual hate and harassment faced by those people, especially BIPOC people, who do social justice work.

I’ve boiled down my problems with Baskin’s talk to three fundamental points: She never defines the titular “Social Media Call-Out Culture”; she fails to acknowledge that art has the power to hurt people; and, in its aftermath, she did not welcome debate.

I’ll begin with what I think is the central problem: Baskin’s failure to define “Social Media Call-Out Culture.

I wonder, as I listen to Baskin describe “voices on the internet” as “so loud, and so angry, and so vitriolic,” is she talking about those who tag people with racist, sexist, heterosexist, anti-trans, and ableist slurs, or who openly advocate for violence, such as those who continue to attack Ellen Oh with death and rape threats? Or is she talking about those of us who criticize and call out problematic content? Or, is she talking about everyone—conflating critics with those who practice hate and violent speech? Or is she talking about a category of online voices I haven’t named? Baskin never clarifies.

The only example of online interaction Baskin cites is the one with which she opens her talk: Baskin stumbled onto a Twitter thread in which an author describes having arrived at the decision not to try to publish a book because she does not belong to the marginalized group she was writing about. Baskin continues, “numerous tweets chimed in with praise for her bravery. One using the phrase: It’s time to cede the floor.” (0:47) The fact and manner in which Baskin quotes “bravery” and “cede the floor” lead me to believe that she has concerns about these tweets, and disagrees with their sentiment (concerns and disagreement I do not share). But regardless of how Baskin feels about these tweets, the language they use is hardly “angry” or “vitriolic.” I’m still pondering, therefore, what exactly Baskin means when she refers to the “heated, angry, bifurcated social media call-out culture” (8:23).

Why does this matter--why is it important to spell out what precisely Baskin means when she describes a “social media callout culture”? I identify three primary reasons.

Reason 1 - In the absence of a clear definition, I believe that Baskin is, intentionally or not, referring to anyone who she perceives as surpassing what she deems to be an appropriate level of anger—she alludes to a nebulous lump of internet voices, terming them “loud,” “angry,” “vitriolic,” and “heated.”

I thought over and over of what Robin DiAngelo terms White Fragility’s Rules of Engagement. Now, Baskin does indeed clarify that “bad writing, lazy writing, should always be called out. Stories that propagate stereotypes that have flat, one-dimensional characters, stories that depict an inaccurate historical record, should be critiqued and reviewed as such” (8:55). As a listener, I conclude at this point that Baskin supports critique and criticism of bad writing, so long as said criticism does not cross the border into the realm of “angry,” “loud,” “heated” or “vitriolic.” In doing so, she demarcates a border between “acceptable discourse” and “unacceptable discourse” without specifying the criteria for either category.

She also fails to unpack what it means to be a White person assuming and perpetuating rules for “acceptable discourse”; there’s a long history, in the United States, of White people dismissing voices of people we deem “uppity” or “uncivilized”—and using such terms to justify violence against, and oppression of, BIPOC people. When we White people cite tone or manner of delivery as grounds for dismissing the concerns of BIPOC people, we leverage the pain of those we oppress against them in the service of perpetuating racism.

Reason 2 - The second reason I ask “what specific call out culture?” is this: We need to be clear about who are oppressors and who are oppressed here. There is oppression online; there is honest-to-god hate speech and violent speech that puts people’s physical well being and lives at risk. I’ve been on the receiving end of swastikas, Pepe the Frogs (a racist and anti-Semitic symbol of hate), and conjectures about my physical appearance and religion (unapologetically Jewish, for the record), which is nothing compared to what my BIPOC friends have been through (I know people who’ve had to leave their homes). But I don’t hear Baskin referencing that kind of hateful rhetoric in this speech; I hear her citing a fear that she’ll be harshly criticized if she writes something that’s not OwnVoices (Baskin also fails to cite that Corinne Duyvis coined the term “OwnVoices,” thereby contributing to the continued erasure of disabled voices in literature). Here, Baskin misidentifies those who fight against oppression, as if by crossing from “acceptable” to “unacceptable discourse” they’ve become equivalent to those who perpetuate oppression. I doubt she’s doing this consciously, but she is doing it nonetheless, and she isn’t the first; morally equating racism with resistance to racism is a tried-and-true, highly effective method of weakening that resistance and perpetuating racism.

Reason 3 - Much of Baskin’s talk presupposes that the “social media callout culture” exists in opposition to the work that artists do in making art. This is, I think, a faulty analysis.

Baskin opens with the aforementioned story of an author describing how she decided not to try to publish a certain story. Above, I deduced that Baskin assumes that the author’s decision stems from a fear of being called out on social media, but I think it’s possible that it wasn’t fear of a loud, vitriolic, angry social media culture, but rather, education, reflection, self-awareness, and a growing sense of self that doesn’t depend on praise or a need to take up space. Such a solid foundation allows one to step back at times—allowing other artists, perhaps OwnVoices artists, to step in.

I’m sure that Baskin feels genuinely concerned that art is threatened by forceful criticism. I wonder why she didn’t consider reacting to the Twitter thread thusly: “Concerned as I am about any limitations even being suggested upon one’s art, I also recognize that someone from that marginalized group now has that much of a better shot at getting published, which will be a good thing for art. How exciting! More and better art is on the way!” The nature of her framing—that she jumped to “art is being limited”—reveals that she is operating from a White default.

My second point of contention with Baskin’s talk is this: Art has the power to hurt people, and artists need to reckon with that, and take responsibility for it.

Within the first minute of her talk, Baskin describes, upon discovering the other author’s Twitter thread, “a cycle of emotions: First angry, then sad, then worried, and finally, afraid—for myself, yes; but for art, and for artists, and for the power and freedom of creative expression.”

Baskin sets up art as a lofty thing that has the power to transcend our mundane lives. I agree that the best art can do this. But, I am troubled that Baskin expresses fear on behalf of art, but not on behalf of people. I am troubled that she doesn’t recognize that the fact that powerful art can transcend one’s mundane life means that art can also damage, hurt, and cause real harm to people’s very real lives. And that so often, and for so long, we White people have prioritized the lifting up, transcendent “boosts” we get from powerful art over the very real harm that (often the same) art can do to very real people.

Lest anyone accuse me of being anti-art, I should specify that art isn’t, by its nature, harmful; but it’s also not, by its nature, harmless. It depends on the messages packed into, and sent by, the art.

At 10:20, Baskin argues: “The decision of what gets published and what does not, what is bought and what sells, never belonged to the writer; that power belongs to the industry—to the publishers, to the editors, to the agents, to the sales and marketing departments, to the big chain booksellers, to the gatekeepers. Money and economic factors dictate that market.” This is, quite simply, a responsibility dodge. Of course artists have power in this realm, because there’s a difference between writing in one’s diary and pitching an agent or a publisher on one’s writing. And it is, indeed, the responsibility of writers and illustrators (as well as publishers, editors, agents, booksellers, etc) to understand their power and use it responsibly.

(For the record: Baskin is far from alone in dodging this responsibility; I’ve observed many creators and critics maintain that art can’t hurt people, a breath away from “people hurt people”.)

My final point of dispute with Baskin is simple: I cannot understand why she did not welcome or engage with the critique of her talk (which was offered by many people, including, but not limited to, Dr. Debbie Reese).

This TEDx conference organizer, Dr. Cristina James, tweeted extensively to promote Baskin’s talk. Most of James’ tweets tagged other Twitter users who’d included “#OwnVoices” in a tweet at some point within the past few months. James tagged more than 80 Twitter accounts (including Dr. Debbie Reese’s) in tweets promoting Baskin’s talk, usually inviting people to “consider [Baskin’s] view on #ownvoices too in her just released @TEDx talk. Please watch discuss contest, agree amplify & keep the conversation going!” Given this context, it’s doubly difficult to determine who Baskin means when she refers to “angry,” “loud,” “vitriolic,” and “heated” voices on the internet; although I recognize that Dr. Cristina James and Nora Raleigh Baskin are two different people, this juxtaposition would suggest that both Baskin and James seek and welcome robust debate and criticism, especially from prominent voices on the internet (or else why would they be tagged and asked to “discuss, contest, argue…”)

And call me naive, but for the life of me, I do not understand why someone would do a TEDx talk if she’s not open to debate or criticism on the subject. Check back Wednesday for guest blogger Sarah Hamburg’s post, which delves deeper into the online events that followed Baskin’s talk. [Ed. 12/12/18: Sarah Hamburg's post is now available here.]

For all her fear of artists being silenced, Baskin never reckons with the possibility that she might be silencing people herself, in this very talk. She refuses to acknowledge her own power as a White person in the industry, and how that power (wielded now to conflate oppression with anti-oppression, to excuse creators from any harm their work might visit upon children, to dictate what constitutes “acceptable” and “unacceptable” discourse in the world of criticism, and to paint a White-centric narrative that asserts that art is in danger because of “call out culture”) contributes to a world in which the increase in diverse books has been, almost entirely, a boon for White creators.

She also fails to recognize that her words might have a stifling effect on another group of people: Critics. Despite her passionate concern about silencing artists, Baskin doesn’t recognize that there’s also a very real danger in silencing critics. Happily, we are not a silent bunch.

-Allie Jane Bruce

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Introducing our End-of-Year Retrospective series

So. Let’s face it. We kinda missed a lot this year. Life happens. And these days, the children’s literature news cycle has the shelf life of egg salad (which is still better than the latke shelf life of national political news).

But a lot happened this year, and it’s worth re-visiting some of it. Both because it’s worth it to analyze things, even late, and also, because it’s worth it to identify patterns that repeat themselves over and over.

Over the next two months, we’ll be exploring, analyzing, and discussing various 2018 headlines (and non-headlines). From TEDx Talks to CCBC stats, from reviews we missed to discussions about shame, we’ll cover a wide range of topics. We can’t and won’t hit every single thing we missed; rather, we’ll try to combat the frenetic pace of the news by recognizing patterns of thought and behavior, which sometimes get lost in moment-to-moment conversations.

Stay tuned; our first post will be this upcoming Monday (December 10). This post will be edited to compile links to the series as we post. We look forward to engaging--and re-engaging--with you on some of the happenings of 2018.

-Allie Jane Bruce and the Reading While White team


PART I: A Response to “Artists Mustn’t Fear the Social Media Call-Out Culture”, a TEDx Talk by Nora Raleigh Baskin by Allie Jane Bruce

PART II: False Victimization and White Aggression: David Lubar’s Public Facebook Discussion Following Baskin’s 2018 TEDxTalk by Guest Blogger Sarah Hamburg

Not recommended: It's Springtime, Mr. Squirrel! by Elisa Gall

The Benefits & Limits of Diversity Audits by Jenna Friebel

What To Look For In Data About Diversity In Publishing? by Guest Blogger Amy Koester

What About Shame? by Nina Lindsay

Monday, December 3, 2018

New banner!

Check out our shiny new banner, with a giant THANK YOU to artist Lisa Nowlain.

And watch this space... more is on the way!