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? 

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