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:

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