I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news. But if there is a child of color in your life and if you ever read to them – then they have already experienced racism.
(image [by artist Tina Kugler)
First let’s clear one thing up. When many people think racism, they think extreme. Overtly aggressive, easily-identifiable. Slavery, KKK, Jim Crow, Japanese internment, etc. To be sure, very racist. But these overt forms of racism are now widely condemned and far less common. They still happen no doubt, but nowhere near the level they used to. No. These days racism has gone stealth; often taking less obvious, insidious forms. Harder to find. Harder to fight? Nowadays we understand racism as a system of oppression that unfairly advantages some (whites) over others on the basis of phenotype (skin color). Take a look around you and it’s easy to see this system of privilege in place. Who lives in the poorest neighborhoods? Who lives in the richest? Whose children go to the lowest funded, most scantily equipped schools? Whose children go to the most expensive, richly resourced private schools?
When my son was born I enthusiastically set out to find children’s books that celebrated and reflected our family’s unique multiracial Asian heritage. I figured there were so many mixed kids now I’d find tons of stuff. If not about mixed Asian (which admittedly is very specific) at least about Asian, multiracial or multicultural. I found a handful of books and then? Myself beating my head against a brick wall. I was mystified, frustrated and then infuriated. What was going on? I suddenly got that sinking-yucky-PoC feeling, “Uh oh there’s something racial happening here.” Not sure what else to do I began blogging, researching and collecting resources on my own.
Then early this summer my fears were confirmed. About the same time data revealed that, for the first time, whites had fallen to a minority in America’s under-5 age group a 2012 report from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison garnered quick internet and media attention.
The CCBC report found that despite our increasing diversity, the number of children’s books written by or about people of color is very low and has not changed in 18 years. Of the 3,600 books the CCBC received last year, only 3% were about African Americans, 2% were about Asian Pacific Americans, 1.5% were about Latinos, and less than 1% were about Native Americans and these numbers have stayed fairly consistent since the CCBC started keeping statistics in 1994.
(Image credit: Flickr/Global Partnership for Education)
Some argue there isn’t large enough demand for main characters of color while others argue there can’t be a demand for something that’s not on the market.
But boil it down and it very simply looks like this. There are still few minority owned publishing companies in the U.S. Publishing is disproportionately controlled by whites who continue to favor producing products by, for, and about their own race despite very real evidence that the market demands something more diverse. This then has the trickle down effect of impacting what’s available to you and your family at bookstores, libraries, schools, etc. Yes people. It’s systemic. It’s institutional. It’s covert. It’s about power and race. That’s racism. And your children of color are at a disadvantage because of it.
In one of the most influential works on anti-bias early education, Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves, Louise Derman-Sparks & Julie Olsen Edwards address the omission of diversity as a major dynamic of advantage and disadvantage in early learning materials. They reframe under- and over-representation as a form of societal (in)visibility that works to undermine some children’s sense of self at the same time it teaches other children that they are more deserving than others. They write:
“Young children are learning about who is and isn’t important. Invisibility erases identity and experience; visibility affirms reality. When children see themselves and their families reflected in their early childhood setting, they feel affirmed and that they belong. When children’s identities and families are invisible, the opposite happens. Children feel that they are unimportant and do not belong. These lessons from societal visibility or invisibility are among the most powerful messages children receive…Children absorb these messages every day, often without the adults in their lives even knowing what the children are learning” (pp.13-4).
And at the end of the day, as these authors point out, this is something that impacts everyone regardless of race. According to FirstBook, a nonprofit dedicated to overcoming illiteracy, literacy is one of the best predictors of a child’s future success but when children see characters and hear stories that aren’t relevant to their lives, it makes it harder to engage and interest them.
Low levels of literacy are associated with lower educational, employment and health outcomes, and that will ultimately cost the United States more than a quarter of a million dollars each.
Children’s books are also one of the most important launching pads for discussions about tough things (e.g. trying new foods, being scared of the dark, bullying, etc). If there aren’t many diverse children’s books then we can guess adults aren’t starting meaningful conversations on the subject at home, in school, etc.
Indeed in the popular 2011 Nurtureshock, authors Pro Bronson and Ashley Merryman verify 75% of white parents almost never talk to their kids about race Let’s follow this through to its obvious conclusion. We’ve got silence from the critical adults in children’s lives. We’ve got covert societal messages about who is and is not important via (in)visibility. We’ve got our children, left to themselves, easily making misinformed generalizations about groups of people (and not telling us about it). And then we’ve got their fairly innocent pre-prejudices, left mostly unattended, growing with them into…bias. And voila! Racism is reborn.
The early years are critical in setting the stage for who we become and the things we learn as children are the hardest to unlearn. So this is also a critical point of intervention for addressing racial inequities in this country. How can we ever undo racism if its foundation continues to be solidly, firmly poured in place? It isn’t only about naïve children and cute children’s books. It’s about the fact that we still aren’t having the conversations and we aren’t having them early enough. If we truly want to make a difference, let’s head it off at the gate.
Find out who’s trying to make a change and how you can help. Here’s are a couple of places to start: FirstBook’s solution and Lee&Low Books and Cinco Puntos discussion of multilcultural publishing.
~ Guest blogger Sharon Chang maintains the blog MultiAsian Families.