character

Today I went to a workshop about race (and yes, I was proud of myself for signing up, okay? #ThisSmugLiberal loves to get credit for taking chances and for being the only white person in the restaurant.)

I will be thinking and writing a lot about this workshop over the next few days, but one of the things that really landed on me was the fact that our country has a narrative that most of us have all agreed to support, whether consciously or unconsciously.

The narrative goes like this:

"People" are white... unless they're different.

"Different" can mean anything from Asian to extra-terrestrial, and in the case of children's literature, tends to skew more Martian than Malaysian.

As we talked about the impact of this mainstream narrative that favors white stories, I began to wonder about my own children's library, and what kind of narrative I was supplying for my kiddos.

___


So I came home and sorted every children's book in the house.




1. Stories of Color - A person of color is the main character, although there may be people of other races in the story as well.

2. Stories about Mixed Groups - Stories that picture lots of different races/ethnicities, including stories where the main character is white, but there are characters of other races pictured.

3. White Stories - Stories that only have white people in them. Zero faces of color.

4. No People Stories - Trucks, animals, counting books, etc. No people in the book.


And here's where #ThisSmugLiberal's library ended up:





1. Stories of Color: 

Yep, out of 434 books, a whopping 21 were stories about people of color. 



UGH.

And of those 21, 8 were stories about civil rights leaders and slavery narratives, and one was a Just-This-Side-Of-Bullshit retelling of the first Thanksgiving. 

UUUUUGHHHHHHH.

We have more books about PETE THE CAT than we do about Black people, Asian people, Indian people, Native American people, Latino/Hispanic people, and Middle Eastern people COMBINED.


2. OK But There's Always Mixed Group Stories:

53 of our 434 books depicted mixed groups of varying races and colors, so that's pretty good, right?

Eeeeeeeeh... not so fast. 

Of our 53 books with mixed groups, only 18 of them had a person of color on either the front or back cover, and NONE of them had a person of color ALONE on the cover. 

But 33 of the mixed-group books had a white person on the cover, and 15 of those books had a white person ALONE on the cover. 

well
but she gets a black friend so

no
she does too
you just have to...
yeah...
keep flipping...
she's definitely in there
wait go back

i mean


WAIT THERE'S ONE!
LOOK!
IN THE BACK OF THE

bus

(sigh)




3. So That Takes Us Right To Where We Always Knew We Were Going. White Stories:




I knew that whiteness was prevalent in children's literature, but I was blissfully unaware of the way we default to whiteness SO HARD.

Like, there's no reason this guy has to be white:

because
"you"
look like this
obviously
all people do

Pretty sure mermaids can be literally any color since they are imaginary creatures. Go wild, pick a color, any color, any color in the rainbow or beyond, she could be any color you could imagi--

oh
you went with
white
no i mean
it's a classic


But Mowgli is a character who is known to be an Indian boy, like INDIAN, from INDIA, grew up in the jungle, he'll definitely be--

are you
FUCKING
kidding me


But there's no historical data insinuating that this congress of agitated cavemen would have been white:

chad:
wait,
what do you mean
they want the vote

philip:
they're saying they want to vote

derek:
like a full vote?
because
didn't we already give them
like
3/5 of a vote?
that's most of a vote

brock:
yeah i'm not really sure
what they're complaining about.


One of these kids? Coulda been brown! Or a girl! OR... A BROWN GIRL! Wait, no, that's crazy talk. First, there's already a girl in this picture and she's the Statue of Liberty and nobody wants to see a page with all girls on it blech. Second, people would think it was a book about Rosa Parks and get confused about why there's a French sculptor on page 3.

the text says
"people can climb up to the crown."
and then it shows
exactly what
people
look like

But no, of course none of THOSE people would be non-white, because none of those books is about RACE. 

Being non-white in a children's book is a strong choice. Books about people of color can be about slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, immigration to white America, how they do Christmas in another country, the importance of diversity, and teaching white people about your weirdo customs. 

Books about white people can be about all that stuff, PLUS cookies, sand castles, trips to the zoo, and wizardry.

With a non-white hero, the book has an agenda. It can't just be fun. It can't just be an adventure. If this book has a black kid on the cover, his blackness is a factor

He can't just be a person who happens to black and also found a puppy. 

He has to be a person who is black and found a puppy and brought it to his grandma who marched with Dr. King and she takes him on a lyrical retelling of the bus boycott, and then the little boy names the puppy Montgomery and his grandma is like "You've gotta fight for what you believe, Edwin," and suddenly, the book isn't about puppies anymore. It's about EQUALITY. And kids LOVE stories with NO puppies and LOTS of equality.

___

Sometimes it feels like this conversation happened everywhere:

Publisher: (lights a cigarette) UGH people are asking for more black person books.

Writer: Ew why.

Publisher: I honestly don't know, Todd.

Writer: What the hell am I supposed to do, Randy? I've got a book about a little girl who feeds ducks at the park almost locked, and I've already named her Susan and I don't need to tell you...

Illustrator: I could just color her brown if you want--

Publisher: God damn it Preston you can't color Susan brown! Her name's SUSAN.

Writer: SUSAN.

Illustrator: Sorry. Sorry. I was just thinking that people of any color could be named any name but obviously that was--

Writer: Goddamned Bolshevik is what it was, Preston.

Illustrator: OK, yeah, no, that's not--

Publisher: Preston's an asshole but that doesn't change our problem, Todd. We're getting a lot of pressure. We need to put out a black person book.

Writer: Randy. Come on. Look at me. I don't know how to write books about black people. What do they DO all day long? I mean... (shakes head, scoffs, shrugs)... Preston? You seem to know a lot about... them...

Illustrator: (mumbles) I'm pretty sure they do the same things we--

Publisher: SHUT THE FUCK UP PRESTON.

Writer: Randy. Randy! No, I've got it. I'm a goddamned pink-cheeked Irish genius.

Publisher: What?

Writer: What are black people. 

Publisher: Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh... black?

Illustrator: People. They're people. Black people are peop--

Writer: SLAVES. Black people were slaves, right? SLAVE BOOKS. For KIDS. KID SLAVE BOOKS.

Publisher: HOLY BALLS.

Illustrator: Do you think... that children will find those books... enjoyable?

Publisher: Fuck no, Preston! It'll be like taking their medicine! But we'll do a shitload of bummer slave books and after that we can do some concept-heavy books about laws and walking. 

Illustrator: Listen, not to stick my head in the lion's mouth here, but don't you think that giving children images of black kids ONLY as slaves and second-class citizens might reinforce the idea that black people only exist in a struggle against white people, who are the owners of all the power and sometimes literally of the black people themselves? And maybe reinforcing the idea of the black person as less-than, or only occupying the worlds of pain and oppression, that we might, through our work as children's book creators, instill a self-fulfilling prophecy, a sense of inferiority, and excruciating self-loathing in young, innocent black children who have never done anything to deserve this kind of cruel neglect?

Publisher: Wow Preston. 

Writer: Yeah. Wow. Is Aunt Flo in town? AGAIN?

Publisher: HAHAHAHAHAHAHA GOOD ONE TODD. OK, green light on the kid slave books. PRESTON, don't draw any FACES on the black people, okay? Silhouettes only. Make it look arty though.

Illustrator: This is super fucked-up you guys.

Writer: (high-fives Randy) They can make me write 'em, but they can't make me write 'em FUN. Ha, they'll wish they'd never asked for any black person books.

___


167 out of our 434 books had white people and ONLY white people. 

Yep. 38.4% of our children's books are ones that David Duke would happily read to his grandson.

The worst part is, they are some of our favorite books - Brave Irene, The Tiger Who Came to Tea, The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man.

No wonder, as I stacked the books, Chicken surveyed the "white" stack and said, "Which ones are these?"

"The white people only ones," I said.

Chicken nodded. "I like books with only white people then."

___

Here's the thing that gets me right in the gut. 

My kids are white and they look at our books and they read the books and look at the pictures and they understand where they exist in the landscape of our society. 

They are the firefighters, the doctors, the baseball players, the scientists, the loving daddies, the boys who built the fort, the ones who befriended a robot or threw a pizza party for a raccoon. 

They live in houses like our house. They go to school in a school like ours. 

They have impish wit, good hearts, great ideas. They are nourished by the world in which they can see figures who look like them, doing great things, fun things, silly things, literally anything. 

I have no problem with these books.

But then, I imagine that all of our books about white kids were actually about fish. And all my kids ever read about every day was fish - firefighting fish, doctor fish, athlete fish. These fish live in a reef, not a house like ours. Their school? Not the same one we go to. 

The fish are brave and curious and kind. They are silly and funny and sometimes they mess up but it's always okay. They have eyes and mouths like us, but... they're different. Or... we're different.

Oh, I mean, obviously the fish books wouldn't have a PROBLEM with white kids. And I think that would be clear in the way they peppered in a couple of white kids, in traditional white kid haircuts and clothes. You know, like in a fish crowd scene? Like, fish, fish, fish, white boy in Tevas with a faux-hawk, fish, fish, fish... just for balance. Just to make sure they're represented.

What would my children come to understand about their place in the world from seeing their own sketchy faces peering out of the murky water at the tremendous heroism and rich character of these fish who are NOTHING like them?

Sure, I could explain to my kids, "I know you don't LOOK like the fish, and your life looks completely different from the fish's life, but you know what, kiddo? Those fish aren't better than you. You can do anything that those fish do." Of course, I could say that, and I would if I had to. A lot of parents do.

But I don't have to, because the world met us at our door and delivered a thousand books that smile up at my children and say, "You are capable. You are interesting. You belong." I love that my children get that validation from our books.

But beautiful, kind, strong, smart children look at those same books every day and think, "It's like I don't exist. Nobody is like me. Where am I? Where do I belong? This is a good story but I'm not in it. I'm not anywhere." 

___


People are white... unless they're different

Our cultural narrative says so. Our children's books say so. So if "they" are not white, then are "they" still people? I'm really asking - do you think the books on your shelf teach your child that people of color are real, full, complex people?

Because if people of color are not "people," to our children, it will be harder for them to learn to apply their humanity to them, to feel necessary outrage when they are abused, to feel true joy when they succeed.

If we grow our white kids' self-worth without nurturing the fullness of their empathy and humility, then we've failed to give them the gift of humanity.

Because when white people grow up to feel anxious and uncomfortable about the strangeness of other races, that's when black men get suffocated to death on the street for selling cigarettes.

Because when white people grow up to feel that their own lives are interesting and valuable, and the lives of the "characters" of color they meet are merely sketched-out placeholders, that's when boys think it might be interesting to find out what it's like to sodomize a black child with a coat hanger.

___


Parents buy books for their kids to teach them about the world, right? 

We buy books to give our kids a menu of role models to choose from, and a moral center rooted in the mistakes they didn't, themselves, have to make. 

We buy books to teach our kids how to read, count, say please, use the potty, avoid pedophiles, accept death, stop biting... we buy books to use as tools to soften their humanity when it's still as jagged as those first baby teeth.

So why do my kids know more about Pete the Cat than they do about human beings of other races?

Because we're white, and I was very comfortably seated within a narrative that applauds me for being born, believing that the affirmation we got from these books was because my children are good, and not because they are white.

We have to expand what character looks like for our kids. The characters have to have every color.

This isn't going to happen accidentally. Excellent children's books starring diverse characters will not simply find their way onto your shelves. You have to go out and find them. You have to buy them on purpose.

___

Here's the challenge - look at the books on your shelves and count how many of them center stories of color. Look at the books on your shelves and count how many of them feature white people who didn't HAVE to be white. Recognize that you are part of the narrative. 

People are white... unless they're different.

Look, there is no children's book about how to not be racist. 

But "The Snowy Day" gives us a moment inside the real, full heart and deep feelings and untethered ideas of a child of color. 

It lets us discover how we are ALL delighted by the smacking sound a stick makes against a tree.

It connects us ALL with the magic, the possibility of what may lie buried in the deep, deep snow.






Correction: This blog post originally identified the kickass children's book "The Snowy Day," as "A Snowy Day." My bad.

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