Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Excuse me, Black like what? Of racist anti-racism

Very often, white people wanting to engage in anti-racism (including myself) unawarely end up perpetuating and reinforcing racism. White supremacist assumptions are so engrained in our world view that we are sometimes completely blind to a Black Consciousness perspective. However, we must recognise that, no matter how good our intentions, exercising anti-racism will necessarily bring to counterproductive results as long as we do not make the effort to actively engage in Critical Whiteness. We cannot possibly be allies in the anti-racist struggle without trying to see things from the perspective of People of Colour.

Once again, I draw my evidence from the very racist world of children’s literature. Don’t take it as a provocation. As a matter of fact, the world of children’s literature is VERY racist.

Pili Mandelbaum’s “Noire comme le café, blanc comme la lune” (published in English with the title “You be me, I’ll be you”) is a highly praised book which is widely recommended to address the topic of difference with young children. Of course, the fact that the book was published by the prestigious École des Loisirs and that it continues to receive enormous praise is very telling of the supremacist whiteness of the book market at all levels.

Let us start from the title: Black like coffee, white like the moon. One should not even need to look further than that to know this book goes in the wrong direction. The book cover, portraying a white man and a little Black girl makes clear who is what. Without wanting to go deep into the implicit hierarchy juxtaposing the ground versus the sky and the physical versus the metaphysical, the association of dark skin with coffee is alarming enough. Along the history of racism, Black skin has been associated with items of consumption and, by extension, Black people themselves and Black women and children in particular. Therefore, no, it is no longer acceptable from white people to refer to chocolate, coffee, cappuccino or alike denominations when describing different shades of Black. Black bodies deserve better than that. Adding to the injury, there is no parallel consumptive comparison for the white man, who is associated with the moon, with all its poetical and metaphysical meanings. Something of the kind “Black like coffee, white like mozzarella cheese” might be more acceptable, as irony would highlight the denigrating character of such comparisons. Nevertheless, such alternative title would not be palatable for a white readership.

While the book is most probably cherished by many progressive whites for its focus on acceptance and self-esteem, its approach cannot genuinely bring forward a notion of racial equity. The main obstacle to equity in this story is that racism is presented as a subjective issue rather than a structural system of oppression. In fact, racism itself is not presented at all. On the contrary, it is completely neglected and obliterated in the name of a most vexingly naive colour-blindness.
This is the story of a little girl who does not find herself pretty. She does not find herself pretty because of the colour of her skin. There is nothing in the story to suggest that the problem comes from outside rather than from herself, that her lack of self-appreciation is a result of structural racism. On the contrary, the issue is trivialised and reduced to skin shade and personal taste rather than racism. Foregrounding the idea that everybody wishes to be different at some point, the comparison with the white woman getting a good tan in the sun is stupid and denigrating. In the assumption of a white reader, the little girl has a race, not her father. Her skin is the problem, rather than the meanings society charges it with. In such a way, the real issue of racism disappears from the picture. However, not addressing racism when it is actually the central issue is a huge hypocrisy that cannot be excused.

Most problematic of all is the strategy the father comes up with in order to convince the little girl that she is indeed pretty. He covers her face with white flour, paints his own in brown, arranges his hair in a parody of locks and has the two of them go out in public to finally meet the Black mother (not surprisingly, she, who is the Black character who should have a say on the matter, is not offered an active voice). Grotesque and frankly offensive pictures accompany this pathetic masquerade which evokes the racist practice of Blackface (if you do not know it, get informed or else drop your anti-racist endeavour). The English title (You be me, I’ll be you), only apparently softer than the original in French, actually focuses on the worst aspect of this book and brings forward the deceptive idea that Black and white identities can be interchangeable and on the same level. Now, this is a no-go.

Dear white people, this is a racist book. If you still don’t see it, please consider interrogating your white fragile self. (Check out Robin DiAngelo’s “white fragility”concept).

Monday, 1 October 2018

Why is it so difficult to say ‘sorry’ when it comes to racism?

One of the main obstacles in combating every-day racism, the routine of incidents and micro-aggressions that People of Colour experience on a daily basis, is the resistance of white people to acknowledge it.
It would be so much easier if whites admitted that, since we’ve been racially socialized in white supremacy, nobody is immune to racism and, therefore, even with best intentions, we mess it up sometimes and we’d better make amends when it happens.
A white friend of mine has her daughter (a Black seven-year old) enrolled in a ballet school. She receives an e-mail directed to the parents with the list of things required for a recital. Among them are ballet shoes in “skin-colour”. When my friend writes back to ask what is meant by skin-colour, the lady running the school explains that these are the classical “nude” shoes, and she attaches a picture of a pair of shoes in pale pink. My friend makes a point of noticing that “nude” is not necessarily pink and begs the lady to be more careful in her choice of words. Now, as it happens far too often in such cases, the request is met by defensiveness and denial. The lady is quick in blaming my friend for feeling offended and arrogantly states that the expression “nude/skin-colour” is fully appropriate and in current use.
What makes me really angry in this kind of incident is stubbornness of people in refusing to acknowledge their faults. How about trying to be reasonable and recognizing that the other has a point? Something like “I’m sorry. I had not looked at it that way. I’ll try to do better in the future.” Is that so difficult? Come on.
In fact, refusing to apologise equals taking racism for granted. It is like saying that we want things to stay that way because we see no wrong. That stubbornness is the language of structural racism that perpetuates itself by the sheer refusal of getting into a conversation.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

The bluest supremacy (once again on racism in children’s books)

I had announced I was done with posting on this topic (see previous post), but the books I come across are sometimes so outrageous that I can’t keep still.
This is a comic, with nothing comical really. I look at it and want to scream. It is disgraceful to still find this kind of books in a library for primary school children.
The Smurfs comic strips, created by a Belgian towards the end of the fifties, are widely known and loved by many, and maybe – just maybe, since I haven’t read them all – not all episodes are so disturbing as this very first one. The Black Smurfs is unapologetically racist, no matter how you look at it (the English title is actually The Purple Smurfs, but changing the colour does not change the narrative). When these little blue creatures get stung by a black fly, their skin becomes pitch black and they get wild and crazy and deprived of language. Jumping around like uncontrolled and aggressive beasts, they not only reproduce the old and all too familiar denigrating image of the savage but, read within the current white supremacist and anti-immigration framework across the West, also evoke absurd obsessions with racial purity and fears of overwhelming invasions from wherever. In a nutshell: Blackness is an illness, it is contagious and a threat to the social order. All forms of brutality seem to be legitimate in order to eliminate the problem. The violence in this book is far too explicit, and it is far too explicitly violence against black bodies (however grotesque the Smurfs might look, they are still like humans to a child’s eyes), because with the mob and all those white hoods and the nets and the rope and the sticks, how not to think of the KKK and the lynchings? How not to want to scream that, damn, BLACK LIVES MATTER and no child deserves to be exposed to such a book?
I’m thinking of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which I read many years ago. The denigrating brainwashing that the young protagonist was subjected to by the images and narrative in her school book skilfully conveys the powerful impact of books on children’s lives. Now, as a mother of two passionate young readers, I can see this power in place, and I’m fed up, honestly fed up, with all the rubbish that kids get to read.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Nobody knows my name (not much more on racism in children’s books)

All right, this is an old one. Still offered to children though. A French classic, ha ha. So sick of it.
My daughter likes white-of-course-princesses so much that she finds it really hard to accept that I do not want her to bring home this book from her class library for the second time.
You have this bunch of kids around Martine (this pearl of French kiddie lit). They’re friends. They’re white. They have names. They decide to set up a play. Martine-centre-of-the-universe plays the white-of-course-princess. Her fair prince is as fair as possibly imaginable and obviously dressed in blue. All the other friends play secondary roles. And, surprise surprise, out of the blue there is one more. Whoever that is? The page of course. The Black-of-course-page attending to the needs of the white-of-course-prince. The page who appears on a single page (but who is significantly placed on the cover). The page who does not have a name. Does not need one. And if he had one, one can guess it would be Jim.
I don’t have much more to say on racism in children’s books. I would just like to place a blurb next to the Black kid on this book cover. A blurb saying: Nobody knows my name.
It is a title from Baldwin. I often have titles from Baldwin floating in my mind when encountering racism. The most recurrent one is not this one, however. The most recurrent one is a mantra I use to calm myself down and gain confidence in the future.
Enough for now. The fire next time.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Enough with monkeys! (more on racism in children’s books)

I am reading this picture book with my children. It looks funny in the beginning, and they seem to be enjoying it greatly. There is this cute little orangutan with his violin and this is one of his many adventures. He encounters other animals, who are all from a circus. There is a dog and there is a kakadu. Like him, they can speak, but they are still portrayed in a very realistic way, like what these animals really look like. Except. Except the chimps. Two little girl chimps.
I don’t get it immediately. I’m even finding them cute, and so do my children. But I feel this unease in my stomach and I have to take a deep breath. Wait a second, what the hell is that? Just what the hell is that? The story has suddenly become racialized. And very, very disturbing. Because the little chimps do not look like chimps. They look like little girls, little black girls. With all the colonialist paraphernalia associated to African children. It downs on me (with all the due distress) that I was finding one of them particularly cute because she is wearing the same hairstyle and beads than my daughter. How sick is that! I have to resist the impulse to scream and tear the pages. My children need a mother in control. And they need an explanation, a semiotic one, if we are to throw away yet another book. First thing I say: I don’t like this. They protest. Wait, what do you see? Girls. What kind of girls? Black. My daughter speaks up: That one looks like me. Yep, do you find that fair? Silence. Puzzlement. Head shaking.
We take a break, a sip, and go a few pages back. I wonder if I had missed anything. The weird thing is that the little light orange orangutan, who had not appeared racialized in the beginning of the story, becomes, as soon as the chimps come in, white. Not literally white, not chromatically white, but white nonetheless. With all the paraphernalia that go with whiteness. Civilized, male, saviour. It is damn racist and it is damn sexist. What shocks me is that I might not even have noticed this some time ago. What shocks me is how blind one can be to racialized narratives and how we might all (whites, at least) take this in without questioning and have our vision of the world be shaped by such crap.
It happens all too often. I am so sick of it. How many such books will my children still have to endure? 

Monday, 28 May 2018

Racism in Children’s Books 4: What schools can do to implement social justice and make diversity really work

Having identified the problem, it is now time to think of pragmatic steps schools can take to counter the biased images that children encounter in books.
The following three points are merely proposals for the very first steps, the default requirements for a school to commit itself to implement social justice in the area of reading materials for the pupils.

1.   Organize anti-bias training for teachers and other staff on a regular basis. The anti-bias approach distinguishes itself from the multicultural approach and other diversity trainings in that it places the emphasis on structural prejudice (it shies away from colour-blindness and other neoliberal illusions). While recognising that the elimination of biases is unrealistic (as human brain uses simplified categories in order to understand the world), it is based on the importance of awareness and critical thinking in order to avoid that biases translate into actual discrimination (racism is prejudice with power). Since we are discussing books, teachers and librarians can especially benefit from anti-bias trainings centred on semiotics. However, such trainings would have immediate effects on other areas of school life, such as the choice of toys and other educational materials, activities, charity actions, etc.

2.   Empower children by providing them with tools to question received images and to become sceptical readers. Do not let children (especially young ones) alone with books that can be harmful. Provide spaces for critical readings and encourage honest (albeit uncomfortable) conversations about privilege and oppression (this concerns white supremacy as well as male privilege, heteronormativity and other forms of power that are dominant in children’s books). While schools should definitely opt for quality in the choice of recent books, there is a strong case for keeping racist “classics” (e.g. Tintin, Huckleberry Finn, Robinson Crusoe, etc.) in order for children to become aware of the history on which their current place in society is based. However, if children encounter such books without a guide or the necessary critical tools, they are left only with the injuries. The role of teachers is therefore crucial in ensuring that books perform their educational role rather than perpetuating an unjust system of thought. Since children are much more open than adults to question received images (they do not have a whole system of values to defend), one should take the opportunity to turn racist books into tools to dismantle prejudice (see the example of a critical reading of Pippi Longstocking in my previous post). Allow children to be angry and guide them in properly articulating and directing their anger for effective change.

3.   Diversify the offer of books. Provide a plurality of books offering multifarious perspectives, granting enough space for perspectives challenging the mainstream. When all the books tell a single story (for example, by conveying whiteness as the default identity for explorers, astronauts, fairies, etc.), children are brought to see whites, who in fact make up a tiny bit of the world population, as the legitimate holders of power in a hegemonic system. Therefore, if we do not diversify books, we are passing on to children a profoundly distorted and undemocratic vision of the world. Make an effort to privilege books that actively encourage critical readings, especially when addressing historical issues. Even before being introduced to the subject of history, young pupils can approach topics such as cultural encounters, colonialism or land exploitation in a critical way through sagacious picture books such as Thomas King’s A Coyote Columbus Storyor Shaun Tan’s The Rabbits.

Some names of trainers from Germany who can offer high-quality anti-bias training in English (with a special focus on Critical Whiteness):
Tupoka Ogette (https://tupokaogette.de)
Tsepo Bollwinkel (tsepo-bollwinkel-empowerment.de)
ManuEla Ritz (manuela-ritz.blogspot.de)

Even if based in the US, the grassroots organization We Need Diverse Books offers the most valuable resources currently available, especially the book lists under the heading “Where to find diverse books”.

My suggestions are in line with the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance’s policy recommendation 10, adopted in 2006: https://www.coe.int/t/dghl/monitoring/ecri/activities/GPR/EN/Recommendation_N10/eng-recommendation%20nr%2010.pdf

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Racism in Children’s Books 3: On the need for more diverse books in school libraries and classrooms

(Based on an open letter to teachers and other educators)

This further reflection adds to my previous two posts on racist representations in children’s books and is meant as an explanatory note on the urgent need to reflect upon the quality of the educational tools offered to children as well as the need to promote active critical readings whereby unfair representations are called into question.

At the core of my reflection are two main postulations:
1.   Representation is about power (groups that are overrepresented and represented, mostly positively, in all the complex facets of identity perceive themselves as “the norm”, to the detriment of other groups). It is important for all children to meet a plurality of experiences, in order to learn that nobody is the centre of the universe (as it happens, for example, when all the heroes are white straight boys).
2.   Racism (as well as other –isms) is structural, often subtle and casual, and so embedded in our culture that it can easily go unseen (it inhabits our minds in ways we are unaware of). Stories can appear beautiful and yet be racist and harmful. While censorship is only viable in cases of overt racism, critical engagement and a host of diverse books offering alternative, thoughtful and historically oriented accounts of plural experiences can lead the way towards an unbiased vision of the world, where all children can be fully empowered. 

As much as they need a fantasy world nourishing their imagination, children also need to see themselves and their reality reflected in the books they read. They need identification figures they can relate to, heroes who look like them and stories that can help them come to terms with their own experience. As a matter of fact, the plurality of identities and experiences of our global societies has not yet found its way in the world of children’s books. What is offered to our children is still strongly ethnocentric, with most characters being white or reflecting stereotypical ideas of nationality and cultural identity. The preposterous value placed on whiteness in our society finds reflection in a fantasy world where all the charming characters (fairies, elves, angels, mermaids, Peter Pan, the Little Prince and Pippi Longstocking) are white.

The shortcomings of dominant (hegemonic) representations translate in the ways stories can empower some people and disempower others. Disempowerment goes through ABSENCE (you don’t find yourself in the stories you read), through MARGINALISATION (you are a secondary character, a side-effect, serving the purpose of making the hero shine), and through STEREOTYPING (your image is distorted, does not reflect your reality but a projection of someone else). When this pattern (absence, marginalisation or stereotyping of certain groups) is repeated over and over again in all the stories a child reads, then reading does not do any good to this child’s personal development and sense of identity (and this is detrimental for all children, even the ones who are taught through stories to see themselves as “the norm”).

An example of how a story can empower some groups and disempower others is Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking. While strongly empowering with regard to gender and age (by featuring a strong unconventional girl and opposing adultism), the trilogy is replete with racial stereotypes. A critical reading should call into question not only the way indigenous people from the Pacific are depicted (for example, images of cannibalism), but also the abusive terminology (the N-word has been maintained in many a version of the books and films) and, most importantly, the whole colonial ideology underlying the story (Pippi happily lives on gold which her father has illegitimately removed from a tropical island where he has proclaimed himself King). 
Since racism and colonial ideology inform not only the majority of Western classics but also much of the most recent literature, children should be taught to uncover the “hidden biases” and encouraged to imagine alternative (empowering) versions of those stories (for example, in the case of Pippi Longstocking, by reinventing a happy ending in which the natives can become active characters and find some sort of retribution). However, there are books with which this kind of anti-bias exercise is not possible. With its apology of colonialism, its worshipping of whiteness and its denigrating portrayal of Africans, Tintin in the Congo is deplorable, whichever way you look at it. Books of this kind are highly problematic and schools should seriously consider the implications of making them available to young pupils for individual reading.

In order to fight the biases and prejudices that are embedded in children’s literature, we first have to learn to recognise them. Only then we can engage critically and start a conversation about representation and empowerment by raising questions about both “classics” and modern literature, while avoiding nostalgia (for example, for narratives highly informed by colonialism, white supremacy or hegemonic masculinity) as well as the illusion of colour-blindness (tricking ourselves into believing that we inhabit a post-ethnic world). 
What books our children read and how they read them matters a great deal because they are in the process of forging their identity, and what they read shapes their vision of the world and their place in it; it tells them who they are and whose stories are important. Literature is one of the most important vehicles for social change. If we want to teach our children that all lives matter, we urgently need diverse books.

For more insight into the topic, please check out Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ted talk “The danger of a single story” or Philip Nel’s book Was the Cat in the Hat Black? The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books.