Friday, January 31, 2020

Links Roundup!

It’s been a while since we’ve done one of these roundups, but there’s been some big news lately, so here we go!

Lee and Low published their 2019 Diversity Baseline Survey.  This is an update to a study they did in 2015, and to sum up their results in one line, they've found that "There is no discernible change to any of the other racial categories. In other words, the field is just as White today as it was four years ago."  If you won’t have time to digest the whole survey until your next 3-day weekend, catch the highlights on Lee and Low’s Twitter thread about the survey. EDITOR'S NOTE (1/31, 9:45 AM EST): We'd like to acknowledge an oversight in our original post – Dr. Laura JimĂ©nez, PhD, led a team at Boston University with graduate student Betsy Beckert that analyzed and aggregated the data for the survey. This is especially galling considering how often BIPOC are uncredited for their work. We apologize for our mistake.

Aaaaaaaaand… there’s so much great news from the Youth Media Awards!! This was the first year that all Caldecott recognition went to BIPOC artists, that a Native author won the Sibert Medal, that the winners of the Coretta Scott King Author AND Illustrator Award also received Newbery and Caldecott recognition, that the American Indian Youth Literature Award winners (featuring a truly fabulous set of books) were revealed at the YMAs… the list goes on (add more fun facts in the comments, please!)  Read the complete press release here.  We at Reading While White were glad to see Dig, a novel that wrestles with Whiteness head-on, get Printz recognition, and we highly recommend this article from Public Books about Dig.

Amidst the celebrations, we’re trying to make space for criticism of the awards, and to honor the complexities therein.  We recognize that as a White blog with the mission to examine Whiteness in children’s literature, it is almost never appropriate for us to criticize BIPOC work, so we almost never do so.  A rare exception to that rule: We highly recommend this thread about White Bird from Ingrid Conley-Abrams, a school librarian in New York City.  We continue to wrestle with the systems that grant unearned advantage to White people at the expense of BIPOC people in the publishing and library worlds; and, we want to promote authentic Jewish representation in children’s literature.  We have a long way to go on both subjects.

What have we missed, here? What are you reading that’s caught your attention, of late?  Leave a comment!

Thursday, January 16, 2020

On Growth & Progress

2020 is here, and I’ve spent some time reflecting on the last decade: ups and downs, lessons learned, triumphs, and challenges. Looking back on my own growth since 2010, a lot of feelings bubble up. There’s joy, for relationships cultivated. There’s gratification, for some progress made and successful activism of which I’ve been a part. There’s also shame and anger at the world and at myself—because ten years ago there was so much I didn’t know I didn’t know. As a result of my ignorance (whether willful or unintentional) I hurt people. I’ve made mistakes for which I am 100% responsible; I’m aware of only some of them. As I exist in the world as a White person and try to engage in anti-racism and other anti-oppression work, this will surely continue. 

I like to think that I’ve embraced the kind of shame that Nina described on this blog as “instructive if the owner is open to it.”  I can’t deny those feelings, but what I do with them is up to me. As I reflect on all of this, a few throughlines emerge. In the spirit of learning and looking forward to the next ten years (and beyond), I’m sharing them below.

Changing Outcomes Over Minds

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi wrote in How To Be An Anti-Racist,  “An activist produces power and policy change, not mental change.” Dr. Kendi’s examination of history suggests that anti-racist policies can influence changes in perspectives held by people in oppressor groups—but changing someone’s mindset doesn’t often influence policy. 

It is easy for me to spend a lot of time thinking about changing hearts and minds. Changing minds and changing policies can go hand in hand, but if I am more focused on changing the thoughts of the privileged than I am concerned with anti-racist outcomes, I am centering those from oppressor groups and falling into what Paul Gorski has described as a “racial equity detour.”

I don’t think this means I should stop interrupting racism when I see it, or refuse to engage when opportunities for learning and growth arise for myself or others. This is not necessarily an either/or. (Let’s remember binary thinking is rooted in White supremacy culture.) What it does mean is that learning and thinking are not action alone, and it is naive to assume that changing people’s minds will end oppression. 

Change Requires Discomfort

Comfort is not a word I use to describe any big shifts, whether mental, behavioral, or political. As a result of my socialization, a degree of defensiveness and discomfort will always be present when the mirror is held up to me. Owning this is easier said than done, but when I think about how some of my biggest moments of growth have also been some of the most uncomfortable, I get a sense of clarity. 

Looking back, only through direct communication (and in some instances SERIOUS PRESSURE) from others did I “move” on an issue or change my behavior. It took courage and intentionality for people to tell me that I was wrong or that my thoughts or actions hurt them. Every time I reflect on an uncomfortable moment of progress for myself, I notice that someone cared enough to help me see the need for change. They could have just walked away (and if I had hurt them, they had every right to) but they didn’t, and that means something.

Feedback can come in many forms. (We White people need to check our tone policing, especially when it masquerades as White cries for “calling in.”) No matter how the criticism feels, it is a gift. My actions and my responses are my responsibility. It is probably still going to be hard, but that discomfort is where learning happens.

I Am Not Entitled to Forgiveness

In So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo shared this scenario:

Say you get drunk in a bar and punch a stranger in the face, spend the night in jail, realize that your life has taken a turn for the worse, get treatment, stop drinking, and dedicate your life to anti-violence work. To the person that you punched that night, you may forever be the person who assaulted them. The person who made them scared to go into bars for a while. The person who made them feel violated. To the people you have helped since, you may always be a hero. The person who made them feel safer in the world.

These are both who you are, they are both valid and do not cancel each other out. If you run into the person you punched years later, they may well still be afraid of you, they may react with anger. They will treat you like someone who punched them, because you are. And even if you respond to that anger and fear like someone who abhors violence, because that is also who you are, you have no right to demand that they see you differently.

It can be really difficult to know, that as Oluo writes, “to some people [I] will forever be the person who harmed them.” Working to do better and working to earn forgiveness might be connected endeavors, but they are not the same thing. While both are certainly context specific, I believe time spent on the former should be prioritized. It is, after all, that over which I have (and should have) control. Forgiveness may or may not come—but no one is entitled to it. 

(Privilege is also tied up with forgiveness and how White people have systematically been afforded more chances to “try again,” as Dr. Ruha Benjamin details here.)

Change is Constant

There’s one specific pattern of equity pushback that I’ve noticed in recent years when it comes to change. It looks like this:
Once upon a time, I supported X.
My mind/actions around X shifted (likely as a result of feedback).
I talk about my learning and work for change against X.
Person in support of X declares, “You used to support X. Here’s proof! Therefore, you are in no  place to push against it and you are the thing that is oppressive, not X!”

This type of pushback is a non-argument and a form of  whataboutism. It is a distraction that makes use of something true (past support of X) and throws in a nonsensical curveball. “You used to love X” does not mean that X is not racist, sexist, ableist, heterosexist, classist, or oppressive in myriad ways. Evidence of past support is just that: evidence of past support. 

Change alone is neither ethical nor unethical, but purity and perfectionism are ideals in White supremacy culture. Stagnation is never the only option, nor are any people or institutions doomed to be frozen in one place and time forever. History exists, and new histories are created every day. How we acknowledge the past and what we decide to do today are up to us. 

This last discussion is one I expect to see more of in the #kidlit world well into the 2020s. 

Change might look like me raving about a book and later retracting that recommendation after listening to critical perspectives from people with insights and identities different than my own. It wouldn’t be the first or last time I deemed a book “excellent” and had my mind changed. (If creators, publishers, or review journals make edits to their work as a result of feedback, this also wouldn’t be new.) It’s worth noting the importance of aiming for transparency in these experiences; if I try to brush a mistake under the rug, the learning stops with me and I am not taking full accountability.

Change might look like celebrating the evolution of a book award, even when I once uncritically supported that award as-is. 

It might look like increased interrogation of norms that have been embedded into my professional networks: conventions like organizations expecting free labor and financial sacrifices to be made by people in their membership without any questions asked; conventions like book criticism’s “Look at each book for what it is, rather than what it is not.” (Vicky Smith has already pointed out the limits of taking some of our field’s esteemed guidelines as a be-all and end-all.)

Change might mean embracing ambiguity and challenging interpretations of librarianship’s critical terminology, especially when those interpretations conflict with the profession’s core values. I believe “professionalism” and “intellectual freedom” are important for everyone and I believe it is necessary to question what it means that not everybody has equal power to define these values for the masses—and gatekeep what these values can look like in active, everyday practice. 

Change might mean a lot of things, only a few of which I’ve shared here. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that wondering what “2030 Elisa” will think of me right now kind of freaks me out. Still, worrying about that is energy better spent elsewhere, and doing nothing only supports the oppressive status-quo

As I look forward to the next decade, I’m left with hope and resolve, and also with these words recently shared by Edi Campbell: “There’s no ‘woke.’ Only ‘waking’.”

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Newbery, Caldecott and Perspectives on Excellence

Each year leading up to the announcement of the Newbery and Caldecott awards, there are discussions of eligible books and attempts to predict the outcomes, while those serving on the committees quietly go about their work. They are quiet by design: while the award criteria are public, the work itself takes place in confidentiality that, regardless of intent and purpose, is also exclusionary. 
I understand the desire for confidentiality during the process, although I don’t think that confidentiality needs to extend in perpetuity. I was a member of the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) board that voted to ease some of those rules, making suggestions, nominations and justification statements accompanying nominations for post-2016 committees available after 50 years. I’d love to see future boards go farther; for example, allowing the changes to apply to 2016 and earlier, and expanding the transparency to balloting results. 
My rationale is about more than desire for greater transparency. I’m concerned that the aura of secrecy around the Newbery and Caldecott has led to a cult of mystique surrounding the awards, one that promotes the idea that they are somehow bigger than the work we do in the field of children’s and young adult literature. In fact, they are, simply, part of the work we do, and require the same vigilance as other forms of critique and evaluation when it comes to awareness of how Whiteness impacts the work we do.
The fields of publishing and librarianship and criticism, and those of us in them, are struggling and striving when it comes to understanding this. We still fail more than we thrive at it. 
The Myth of Special Insight
For me, one example of our failure is the idea that only those who have served on one of these committees, who have “been there,” can understand the rigor of the award process. The “I have served” argument, intended or not, is an insidious way to silence those who have never served on the committees, whether in the context of sitting around a table conversing socially or weighing in on critical issues in our field. The “I have served” argument automatically puts some of us on the inside and some of us on the outside. It’s essential to consider the implications of that exclusionary stance not only in general, but specifically as it relates to White privilege, given that Newbery and Caldecott committee membership across the years has been largely inclusive of White people, while Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) are greatly underrepresented. 
BIPOC individuals have served on the Newbery and Caldecott across the years, bringing their own critical perspectives and experiences, but too often they have been solitary members of a committee--something slowly, happily, essentially changing. Yet even as ALSC works toward greater diversity on its award committees, there are barriers that may preclude some from serving. Some can impact both BIPOC and White people, including the cost of attending conferences, and employer support for the necessary time away. There are also barriers that can impact BIPOC disproportionately, including the critical work they may be doing in other contexts to push the publishing profession forward when it comes to authentic representation, and in promoting diverse voices and books. (Today, service on an ALSC award committee requires giving such work up, or doing it anonymously, when it comes to eligible books during one’s year of service. Those who serve agree to this, but it’s a requirement that may make some decline the opportunity.)
I also find the “I have served” (with its implied “and therefore understand while you don’t”) argument problematic because, quite simply, I think it’s untrue. Those who have been on the Newbery and Caldecott committees don’t have membership in a special club with a secret password. Nor have we participated in a sacred ritual that gives us shared insight. My experience on Newbery was deeply satisfying. But the only deeper insight it gave me was into the dynamic for the year I served, along with a deeper understanding of how the discussion and critique, as intense as it is, is also, inevitably, subjective, shaped by who is part of it. 
Subjectivity By Any Other Name...
The rules of confidentiality mean the details of how the Newbery and Caldecott committees arrive at their decision are considered irrelevant in the big picture. And yet, known or not, those details matter. The individual perspectives of each committee member matter. Everyone contributes to the discussion and the dynamic. Everyone contributes to what is—or isn’t—nominated. Everyone contributes to what is—and isn’t—considered when it comes to individual books as committee members read and suggest and reread and nominate and discuss the eligible books in light of the Newbery and Caldecott award criteria. 
Committee members’ work is informed by their individual identities and opinions and insights and experiences as they participate in a process that is far from empirical, although it sometimes seems as if we’re expected to believe that it is. The award criteria they consider to arrive at a decision doesn’t make the definition of “most distinguished” a fixed, objective target. Nor does the fact that it’s an effort shared among 15 people working toward numerical consensus. It is a process deeply informed and shaped by who is participating. And when award committees have been majority White, there is added danger in not acknowledging this subjectivity when it comes to thinking about how we do what we do.
I don’t think individual committees operate with an agenda regarding what kind of book will or won’t win. But the awards don’t occupy some rarified space in which they aren’t influenced by the individual identities and group dynamics of those involved in their choosing. They are influenced by both. 
The truth is that each and every year, a group of different individuals would most likely have chosen a different winner. In fact, that’s what I often say when talking about the awards to librarians and teachers. I also note that these awards are two of many “perspectives on excellence,” to quote a phrase I learned from Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) Director Emeritus Ginny Moore Kruse, because there are many children’s and young adult literature awards, and many wonderful books worthy of acknowledgment each year.
Representation Matters
This doesn’t mean each and every committee hasn’t worked incredibly hard to reach its decision. This doesn’t mean winners aren’t chosen with integrity. But it does mean that representation matters, in books, and on the committees, and even, perhaps, in what is—or isn’t—stated in the award criteria and definitions.
ALSC added a statement about “Diversity and ALSC Media Award Evaluation” to all its award and notable committee manuals in 2015. Among other things, it states,
As individuals serving on committees evaluate materials according to the criteria outlined for their specific charge, they should strive to be aware of how their own perspectives and experiences shape their responses to materials. Every committee member brings unique strengths to the table, but every committee member also brings gaps in knowledge and understanding, and biases.  Committee members are strongly encouraged to be open to listening and learning as well as sharing as they consider materials representing diverse experiences both familiar and unfamiliar to them.
This statement touches on the ideas of cultural competence and cultural humility without naming them, but I wonder what it would look like to have tenets of cultural competence and cultural humility built into the definitions and/or criteria for individual awards as committee members are asked to consider what it means for a book to be “distinguished.”  (Or, as Hal Schrieve asked, how can the award decenter Whiteness?)

How, for example, might the Newbery criteria stating “Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization” be further clarified, especially around that thorny concept of “accuracy”? What might be explicitly asked of both the books and of committee members evaluating a work when it comes to an author writing about—and committee members reading about—experiences beyond those they’ve lived or have close knowledge of? In what way might committee members not just be asked but required to consider their own cultural identities in relation to the works they are evaluating and the comments of one another? How might the definitions and criteria for these awards reflect White privilege in ways I don’t even see?  (I am aware that ALSC may be limited by legal agreements under which the awards were established when it comes to the “terms,” which is why I’m referring here only to “definitions” and “criteria.”)

I have been skirting around these ideas, and hesitating on this post, for awhile. I don’t want to silence or ignore the history or experiences of BIPOC who have served on award committees. I don’t want to ignore or diminish the contributions of anyone who has served on the committees, which are an incredible commitment of time and effort. Nor do I want to diminish the honor of being chosen a winner or honor recipient. 

But my biggest concern is that I don’t know all the questions to ask, let alone have the answers.  What I do know is that critical perspectives on how the Newbery and Caldecott are chosen are not the sole purview of those who have served on the committees.

Megan Schliesman