IBARW: Questioning the default settings

It is International Blog Against Racism Week. There have been some amazing discussion and insightful commentary and many interesting things going on.

I thought about posting. And I thought about what I had to say as a middle-class white girl that isn’t just something glib or paying lipservice or just repeating what’s already been said. Then, I remembered a recent blog postwhere the blogger was arguing with herself over whether or not to mention the (non-white) character’s skin colour in a book review.

Well, said I, this is where I talk a lot about kids’ books.

Before I took my current public library position, I spent a few years working in school libraries. Two years ago, I took a job with one of the charter systems, in a brand-new elementary school. My goal: start the library. In August, I quite literally had a large, empty space. They’d ordered me some tables and chairs, I had a desk, and a start-up budget to buy books. We opened the library for the kids in October. At that point, I was still waiting for three-quarters of the books to show up.

About a third of the kids were white, a third were Chinese, and most of the remaining third were Indian and Pakistani, and a few Korean, Japanese, Brazilian, South African, and Iranian kids. There was one Black family. This is a fairly accurate representation of the Black population of the city. (And I realize that equating skin colour with nationality of origin is problematic.)

There were no Native kids. This is not at all representative of the population. Our students were Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witnesses, various other Christian denominations, no denomination in particular, and doubtlessly assorted other faiths or non-faiths. (The students were also overwhelmingly middle-class and able-bodied, with parents who were highly involved and invested in their kids’ education. I remain convinced that this self-selected population is the reason that the school better than the average in provincial test scores, but that’s another discussion.)

There are some defining moments that stand out for me, like trying to find enough holiday books to support the class demand, especially when a parent was coming in to give a talk about Ramadan. (Likewise, walking past one of the grade one classes marching down the hallway, and all the girls including the blue-eyed, blonde-haired Scandanvian teacher were wearing bindis, courtesy of another parent who came in to talk about Diwali.) More specifically, trying to find books about Diwali and Ramadan and holidays from various other cultures and traditions that weren’t all about explaining it to the white kids. (Look! This is what children in India do!)

There was the day when I read Red is a Dragon by Rosemary Thuong to kindergarten during story time, and the one little guy was HUGELY EXCITED because it was a CHINESE DRAGON! (He was also thrilled when a few months before, we had read Dim Sum for Everyone because his family went out for dim sum!)

Kindergarten kids are all about making that connection to their own lives. If you read a book about a pet dog, half of them will want to tell you about their own dog, and the other half want to tell you that they have a cat instead or that their babysitter has a dog or that their little brother is allergic and their mom said they couldn’t get a dog or even a hamster but their dad wants a dog and then one time when they went to their grandma’s….

But I thought about how excited wee Christopher had been over a book with a Chinese dragon. Here’s a kid who is thrilled because of something in a book that looks like his life. This is not to say that you can’t relate to a story if you are a different ethnicity-race-gender-orientation-religion than the characters, but I think it’s really important that there be stories out there for kids in which they can see their own lives. It’s incredibly alienating to never see anyone like you in a book or on TV or in the movies.

I had this confirmed for me when I went to pull the books on India for the grade three teachers’ social studies unit, and realized that half of them were signed out by the kids. A week before, one little girl had signed out the Eyewitness India book, and pointed to Ganesh on the cover. “That’s my family’s god,” she said proudly.

But the moment that stuck with me the most was at the beginning of the year, before most of the books had arrived. One of the grade three teachers was HUGE into having her class read “classics.” (She also did not appear to have a working definition, it was just something that everybody KNEW was a classic. Also, grade THREE. Gaaaargh.) The end result is that I was booktalking The Secret Garden to her class, and explaining the difference between an abridged and unabridged book, and how Mrs. L said it was okay to read the abridged book for your list. (Oh yes, they had to read X number of classics for the year.)

As we finished storytime and the kids all scattered to pick out books, one of the students asked me if the abridged book had the bits in it that took place in India. I said yes, it did, and that we would have more books with bits about India when the rest of our library books came in. And I looked at the small girl of Indian heritage in front of me, and wished very hard that her teacher’s hallowed classics list had some stories on it where all the Indian characters weren’t servants.

Then I thought about the books on order I was waiting for. Off the top of my head, I knew I’d ordered Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan, and Blue Jasmine by Kashmira Seth. Both of those books are a bit advanced for your average grade three kid. I started to poke around and look at lists and reviews, and realized that an awful lot of the books I could find and the books I’d ordered with non-white protagonists were serious books, for the upper grades. They were books about being an immigrant and an outsider, about prejudice and racism, about the underground railroad and the Chinese head tax and residential school and Japanese internment camps.

These are important books to have. But surely, it’s not just the white kids who have everyday things happen to them, who are in books for beginning readers and shorter chapter books and stories about families and sibling rivalry and pets and loose teeth? And fantasy and science fiction was even whiter. I had the most luck finding everyday books with Black kids, which is definitely a positive thing, but I refer you back to the ethnic makeup of my school. (I had the least luck finding everyday books about Indian and Chinese boys. Laurence Yep, you rock my socks off!)

However, I have to remind myself to stop and think about what I’m assuming. Just because a kid is Chinese and likes fantasy, should I suggest The Tiger’s Apprentice by Laurence Yep? Is it enough to just blithely include Millicent Min, Girl Genius and Bollywood Babes on the display table beside the other good-books-for-pre-teen-girls, and The Conch Bearer on my kids fantasy booklists? And when I’m selecting books, I have to rely on reviews and sometimes, assumptions about authenticity and the author’s last name. And can I justify not ordering as many books about black inner-city kids for the YA collection in the same way I justify ordering SOME Hannukah books but not LOTS because the Jewish community here is very small?

A couple months ago, I had a coworker gently remind me that just because a book is has a Native protagonist doesn’t mean that it’s going to appeal to the kids in the area. “Yes, but what tribe is he from?” she asked me, about a book I’d mentioned. The book in question (and I wish I could remember the title at this particular moment) was about a Dogrib teenager, a Dene nation from northern Alberta and the NWT. Suggesting it to one of the Blackfoot kids in the area just because they’re Native is kind of like saying, oh hey, you’re Korean! You must want to read this Japanese book!

I’m coming at this from the perspective of a privileged middle-class white girl. I’m trying not to be colour-blind, but also, to not just be self-congratulatory just because I’m consciously looking for books with non-white protagonists. And I’m looking at my post now and thinking about race, and how I’m having a hard time separating it from ethnicity and nationality. And does talking about ethnicity and visibility count as blogging against racism, or am I just getting off-topic as I so often do?

Maybe, the best I can do is try to be self-aware and keep questioning my own prejudices and assumptions. Maybe that’s the best start any of us can make.

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2 responses to “IBARW: Questioning the default settings

  1. This is a great, thought-provoking post. Thank you!

  2. Pingback: On race and representation in kidslit… « what Elisabeth is reading

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