June 19, 2015
The devaluation of black lives doesn’t happen overnight nor is the process of dehumanizing those associated with blackness limited to a single ethnic group. All over the world, we find big black men standing outside bars, nightclubs, and department stores, while their lighter-skinned relatives exercise a different, and arguably, a more benign type of visibility in careers on television and in business. The stereotypical ways in which people of color are represented in modern-day children’s literature, or are altogether missing, bear some responsibility for the prominence of racism in American culture. Reflecting on the importance of who gets seen, when, where, and doing what has led me to conclude that children’s books represent one of the most valuable pieces of real-estate in the fight against racism.
In the 21st Century, residential segregation functions much like the “Separate Car Act” of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan in his lone dissenting opinion in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case argued, “The arbitrary separation of citizens, on the basis of race, while they are on a public highway, is a badge of servitude wholly inconsistent with the civil freedom and the equality before the law established by the Constitution.” White flight and school zoning policies that favor white communities operate essentially the same way, creating concentrated pockets of poverty, educational inequity, and racial segregation across the United States, which place a badge of inferiority upon blacks and other marginalized groups.
Paul Verhaeghen and other social psychologists have used a word analysis and pattern-recognition tool called BEAGLE (Bound Encoding of the Aggregate Language Environment) to show how culture in the form of written material influences the adoption of stereotypical and racist views. Researchers have found that stereotypical word pairings such as black-poor, black-violent, white-wealthy, white-progressive in standard American reading material for adults (i.e., books, newspapers, magazines, and articles) literally prime Americans to be racist. To my knowledge, similar analyses of stereotypical word and image pairings in children’s literature have not been conducted. However, a growing number of people recognize the need for diversity in children literature. A recent Indiegogo campaign, We Need Diverse Books, raised over $180,000. As publishers increase the number of children’s books that feature people of color, we must also be careful to include diverse representations of people of color otherwise we run the risk of reinforcing stereotypes and propagating racist ideology.
Award-winning children’s book author and illustrator Christopher Dean Meyers suggests in his 2014 New York Times article, “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature,” that in children’s literature “…characters of color are limited to the townships of occasional historical books that concern themselves with the legacies of civil rights and slavery but are never given a pass card to traverse the lands of adventure, curiosity, imagination or personal growth.” In response to recent efforts to draw attention to the issue of diversity in children’s books, far too many people share the majority opinion of the Justices in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which asserted that if segregation makes blacks feel inferior, it is not because of segregation, but rather because blacks place a badge of inferiority upon themselves. Are the more than 85% of black boys in the United States who do not read on grade level to blame for their plight?
The absence of people of color in children’s literature and the lack of diversity in the genres in which they are presented to young learners has far-reaching implications for how children see and understand themselves in relation to the world around them. Equally impactful, the ways in which educators use children’s books shape students’ self-perceptions and their perceptions of others. No child’s introduction to people of color in children’s books should be limited to slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, or the countless other oppression narratives that so often characterize books with non-white characters. Furthermore, relegating books with main characters of color to “special” and thus separate celebrations or teaching units (i.e., black history month, Civil Rights social studies unit, Hispanic Heritage month) creates an implicit and de facto segregation that denotes the inferiority about which Justice Harlan wrote in his famous dissenting opinion.
Children’s literature has and will continue to shape the minds of new generations of Americans. The extent to which all children, especially white children, are exposed to books with diverse characters in diverse settings involving diverse genres and themes will determine, in part, if the next generation of Americans gain a genuine understanding and appreciation of difference or languish in the racist ideology to which they are being primed to adhere. Publishing more diverse children’s books and providing educators and parents with guidance on how best to incorporate diverse titles into children’s educational experiences at school and at home is key to combating the race-fueled hatred displayed by the Charleston shooter who took the lives of 9 black Americans while attending a Wednesday Bible study.
As a former NYC kindergarten teacher and the creator of Barbershop Books, a community-based literacy program that puts child-friendly reading spaces in barbershops, I am working to help boys of color identify as readers. I am also advocating for a type of diversity in children’s literature that appreciates difference and humanizes people of color. We can all play a role in combating racism.