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.

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