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 Some of them were withdrawn from the catalogue after action was taken.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.

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