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 (
Tsepo Bollwinkel (
ManuEla Ritz (

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:

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.

Monday, 14 May 2018

Racism in children’s books 2: Counter-examples (for a diversity-oriented and inclusive agenda)

This builds up on my previous reflection, which provided examples of racist representations in children’s books.
Here, I want to provide some counter-examples, in order to show that it is indeed possible for a library such as the one I visited to renew its stock with an eye on diversity and empowerment. I believe it is important to raise awareness among teachers and parents and allow an open debate on what can and should be offered by a school library, given its educational purpose (in opposition, for example, to a private reading room). This is not a matter of political correctness but rather one of pedagogical ethics, which should also be based on considerations of age and critical development of the pupils.

It should be clear that racism (similarly to other -isms, such as sexism and ableism) is NOT a “personal” problem. It is wrong to dismiss it as a “subjective” issue. It is NOT subjective!It does not concern only the people who are negatively affected by it in their development and life choices. It concerns everybody, as it shapes our vision of the world and our understanding of power relationships within it. Therefore, prioritising diversity and empowerment is of paramount importance at all levels of school life.

What follows is not meant to be a list of specific suggestions but merely an exploration of books’ typologies, in order to show how books can be diversity oriented and inclusivewithout hints of “othering” or exoticisation. I have placed my focus mostly on Black characters and I have selected popular books (some of them available in many languages), but a selection of books to be purchased should consider diversity and inclusion in a much larger context.

Typology 1: Countering marginalisation

The most effective books promoting diversity and inclusion are the ones in which diversity is not thematised explicitly, but simply given for granted, by countering white (and male) normativity and depicting non-white characters in daily life and adventurous endeavours.

A lovely and funny book by a Japanese author, showing children how their body works in terms of sensorial experience.

Izzy Gizmo is an empowering book on determination. Izzy is a girl inventor who does not give up until she has achieved her purpose. Very empowering, not only for girls!

Princess Truly can solve all problems with her magical hair. Here, reversing usual tropes, a Black girl is the heroine protagonist, while the white girl is the secondary character in need of assistance.

Typology 2: Celebrating diversity

As well as making it ordinary, diversity needs to be explicitly “explained” and celebrated. Explaining diversity to children means placing it in context, both socially (what looks different in a context might be ordinary in another one) and historically (with honest accounts of what people make up our society and why).

A wonderful story to thematise difference and acceptance with young children. It is a bestseller, available in all major languages.
(For older children, the corresponding novel: Wonder)

An inspiring celebration of diversity through the contribution of people of different backgrounds in different fields to the making of the USA.

Poet laureate Benjamin Zephaniah gives a voice to the children of Britain, showing that, no matter the background, a child is a child.

Focussing on the youngest child in the family, this lovely picture book from Madagascar shows how diverse families can be.

Typology 3: Providing role models

Inclusion of groups that have been traditionally marginalised and victimised also means that we have to “rediscover” and celebrate their history of resistance and their contribution to global culture.

“Black” is here a genre rather than a marker of identity. By the inclusion of white artists and by providing some background to their development, this book highlights the strong influence of Black culture (not only in terms of music but also in terms of Political Consciousness).

The collection of biographies “Little people, big dreams” is a great tool for children not only to be introduced to relevant historical figures but also to feel for themselves as children a sense of empowerment. In fact, these biographies focus in the first place on the historical character as a child. Away from the “victim role” and right into resilience and self-determination!

Typology 4: Giving a twist to a common topic

Another way of promoting diversity and respect is by reversing a common trope, thus having people look at things in a different way. This strategy involves giving a twist to a common topic or image, so that the power relations that usually come with it are put into question. This can be applied to any topic. Here, I provide the example of adoption, which is usually understood in terms of “first world - developing countries”, “white adopters - adoptees of colour”.

A girl finds a light skin baby abandoned in the bush. She takes the baby home to her already numerous family and finally persuades her mother to adopt her.

A white grandfather explains adoption to his grandson. The book presents and celebrates adoption as a traditional practice in many cultures across the world.

Typology 5: Overcoming stereotypes by spreading knowledge

Knowledge is the best weapon against prejudice. Therefore, we need books offering reliable and detailed knowledge about topics which are usually heavily loaded with stereotypes. Here, I provide the example of the African continent, whose plurality and complexity are seldom acknowledged.

Several African countries are presented (not all of them, because Africa is very big!) with beautiful pictures illustrating daily life. This is not about giraffes and lions nor about straw skirts. It is about children in urban as well as non-urban settings, about their daily habits, family life, traditions and play.
Realistic and respectful depictions.

Fashion, art, music, nature, architecture and many other subjects are presented in this book which tries to convey the diversity and richness of the African continent.

This book centres on one of the central figures of the oral tradition in the region of the Sahel. The role and functions of the griot are illustrated and explained in detail, with fascinating accounts of the Mandinka traditions.

Typology 6: Learning about other places and cultures though powerful (but reliable) stories

It is a fact that, when telling stories from elsewhere, most Western authors tend to reproduce (sometimes unconsciously, or willingly catering to a Western taste) stereotyped images that do not significantly add to our knowledge of the world. In the case of stories with an African setting, we are used to see exotic images of wild animals and rural villages in unspecified places. The following examples are meant to show how it all looks very different when the story is set in a specific location and present a realistic and respectful portrayal of its inhabitants (notice, for example, how, differently to what we are used to see, African authors have their characters dressed up according to the local code).

Congolese author and illustrator Dominique Mwankumi has many books set in specific setting, often providing, at the end of the book, several pages with information and pictures of the place in question.

Cameroonian author and illustrator Christian Epanya tells fascinating stories illustrating the local customs with richness of details. This story tells of how a boy from a Bozo village in Mali became a well-known photographer. All his stories are brilliant and teach us a great deal about real places in West Africa.

In the collection “Le caméléon vert” we find a variety of stories from different African countries.

Ghanaian author Meshack Asare revisits the richness of the ancient Ashanti philosophy conveyed by Adinkra symbols.

There are a number of very good comics from Africa. This one, about a little girl from the Ivory Coast, is suited for young children. By the same author, for older children, the best-seller Aya de Yopougon.


Japanese author Satomi Ichikawa has many of her stories set in Africa, with respectful portrayals of both places and people (even if with some exoticism).

Finally, a story from the Caribbean. In his stories, author Dany Laferrière revisits his childhood in Haiti. This one is about the “day of the dad”. A bit scary, but what a wonderful alternative to Halloween!

Typology 7: Revisiting the classics

Here I’m bringing together two different typologies. In the first place the re-visitation of stories which are familiar to all in Europe, by way of re-writing or re-illustrating. This strategy has readers look at classical narratives from a different point of view (an example would be the post-colonial rewriting of classics such as Robinson Crusoe from the point of view of the colonial subject). In the second place, the re-visitation of classics from elsewhere, for example the diverse oral traditions from the African continent. These are best presented in written form by local authors with knowledge of the original language and of the sophisticated meanings of the cultural specificities in question.

Rachel Isadora has re-told numerous well-known stories placing them in an African setting.

Stories from the oral tradition of the Sahel region re-told by a major author from Mali. As mentioned in my previous document, this is a viable and more appealing alternative to Western versions reproducing the colonial imagery.

The publisher Dodo Vole from Madagascar offers lovely bilingual books about local mythologies, having them illustrated by local children. At the end of each book one can find a picture of the children who participated in the project.

Typology 8: Creating bonds
While acknowledging and respecting differences among people and cultures across the world, a humanistic approach helps us create bonds across those differences and in spite of the distance. Using a humanistic approach in picking up books for our children means choosing stories that have a universal value beyond the specific cultural context in which they are placed. Stories about basic feelings such as love, fear, frustration, joy, etc. create bonds in that they show children what all human beings have in common (even if emotions may have different expressions across cultures).

An empowering story about a bright little boy who can defy fear with the force of love.
Please note that in my previous document I had contested another book by the same author for the racist iconography of its illustrations.

A philosophical exploration of the fundamental question: Where was I before I was born? With a focus on love and family bonds.

A lovely story from South Africa, about a boy and his grandmother and about a new pair of red tackies. A love-fraught depiction of the different rhythms of ageing and growing up.

Strategy 9: Promoting empowerment by addressing privilege and discrimination openly

As long as racism and other -isms are reduced to subjective issues rather than seen as unjust power structures to be dismantled ASAP, it will not be possible to fully empower anybody. Away from the hypocrisies of political correctness and from the racism inherent in a colour-blind approach, we should appreciate books which can find the right language to openly address privilege and discrimination with young children and teach them to recognise injustice and stand up against it.

There are many stories with Grace as protagonist.
In this particular story, Grace would like to play the role of Peter Pan in a school play, but one classmate tells her she can’t because she is a girl and another tells her that she can’t because she is Black. The story further shows the central role of empowerment (provided here by a supportive family, by a role model in the person of a successful Black ballet dancer, and by a fair teacher). In spite of the somehow sanitised version of reality, this book is very valuable and inspiring.

I’ve placed my focus on Africa and Black Diasporas (and partly on gender), but the same book typologies can apply to any marginalised group (take Native Americans, for example, given the appeal that the colonial iconography of the “Indian” has for children, or Romani people, who are the most discriminated group in Europe and appear in children’s books only in the very negative or exoticised figure of the “Gypsy”). Many good books are available from all over the world, which challenge the homogeneous, stereotyped and assimilationist views of the Western mainstream.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Racism in Children's Books 1: A library tour

It might sound obvious, but we need to talk about this.
Books for children are traditionally replete with stereotypes and prescriptions of many kinds, especially regarding gender roles and sexual preferences, race and cultural identity, as well as physical and intellectual abilities. As a specialist in Postcolonial Studies, I am very conscious of the way white privilege and the construction of the Other are inscribed in the narratives. As a mother, I am especially concerned with white normativity and the lack of diversity in children’s books on the one hand, and, on the other, with the many racist representations to be found not only in old books but also in recent ones (things do not necessarily get better with time, unless we take action). 
In the following, I am listing some examples of books I’ve come across in the multilingual library of an international primary school. Some of them were withdrawn from the catalogue after action was taken. However, this should not be an isolated step. Raising awareness among people in the field of education (teachers, librarians, publishers) is crucial and urgent.


A German traditional song, whereby (white?) children learn to count backwards by the literal elimination of Black children. The book is currently on sale with a different title, Zehn Kleine Kinderlein, but images and content have not changed. This is so outrageously racist! I wonder: if the book featured Jewish children, would it sit so comfortably in a school library?


This is a French “classic”. It contains traditional African stories, but both the title and the images are unacceptable. How about libraries replace this kind of books with collections of traditional African stories compiled by mindful African authors such as Amadou Hampate Ba?

There are many books of this kind, representing the little “Other” in a tribal context. In my view, this is a colonial imagery children may well do without.

There are books addressing the issue of racial diversity with all best intentions, but which end up being counterproductive. This one, for example, about a Black young girl not liking her skin, obliterate the real issue of racism in our society by suggesting that the child herself has a problem with her appearance and by trivialising the topic. The title itself is problematic, as Blackness is associated with consumption while whiteness, while whiteness is something as noble as the moon. Moreover, evoking the racist traditional practice of Blackface, the images are very disturbing indeed.

Some books address the issue of diversity with a good purpose, but repeatedly use Black as a symbol of difference. Usually, this kind of stories are also problematic because they suggest that the “different” character has to offer something special and positive in order to be accepted by the community. What about the right to be imperfect, just like anyone else? This kind of ideology nastily reflects current discriminating policies against foreign nationals or holders of double nationality who do not comply to expectations about “good immigrants”.


Books promoted by charity organizations are often problematic because they present the white subject as agent while reducing non-whites to objects to be helped out. This Italian book, in particular, uses disturbing expressions, like “red skin” for Native Americans or “yellow” for Asians, and conveys a racial identification of nationality and skin colour, such as the notion that an Italian can only be white. Anything more racist than that?



What to do with the overtly racist images in this book? How can a book published in the twenty-first century deploy the old colonial iconography and depict Black people in such a highly denigrating way?


A classic of comics (“Tintin in America” is no better) many whites are reluctant to part with. No wonder. But is it fair to expose young children to such books before they even have a notion of the history of colonialism and the racism that goes with it? 


This is another book that requires some historical knowledge in order to be read critically. Prevert’s tale is inscribed in the history of colonialism. The narrator’s remarks about Black people can be interpreted as ironical. However, I’m afraid such irony would be lost on very young children. What remains, though, is a racist message.


A lot of books for children are centred on the figure of the Native American. Most of them convey stereotypical and denigrating images. Some of them, like this one, are absolutely outrageous. Stereotyping people who have suffered a genocide is bad enough, but presenting whites as their victims goes beyond imagination. Would it be too much to ask for respectful portrayals of Native Americans?

A final example:


The illustrated Larousse for young children, published in 1987, is a very nice book that my own children enjoyed a lot, except that when we got to the word “savage”, the image which goes with it felt like a punch in the stomach.

That said, racist images are to be found everywhere in children’s books. Ideally, adults can accompany children in the reading and guide them towards becoming active readers rather than passive receivers, in order to dismantle the stereotypes that denigrate some groups and restrict our vision of the world.

My wish is that all children can find, in their school library as well as elsewhere, a plurality of books where they can see themselves and other groups represented respectfully. 
Let us learn to recognise and fight racism.