Even for adults, the topic of race can be a difficult one. Fear of saying the wrong thing, asking the wrong question or feeling ignorant can stop the conversation before it starts. Add young adults to the mix and it can seem an insurmountable problem. That is not however, the case. Today’s WWW post is designed to give you some concrete ideas on how to use literature to discuss stereotypes and race in an intriguing, respectful and productive way.
In 2008, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) found that of 3,000 new books only 79 contained significant Latino content and 48 books were written/illustrated by a Latino/a…that’s only about two percent. Take a minute to digest that. Now, add the fact that in 2006 (the closest year to 2008 with available data) 20 percent of students are Hispanic and 43% of all students are minorities (Washington Post). Clearly, not only do we need to have more multicultural literature, we need to do a better job of recognizing that stereotypes and race are salient issues to our nation’s kids, ones that they may deal with every day and have a desire to discuss. By using literature, “an educator breaks the silence in the classroom about race. It can engage even reluctant readers, who are often thoroughly intrigued by issues of race and culture” (Mitali).
In Straight Talk on Race: Challenging the Stereotypes in Kids’ Books from the School Library Journal (SLJ) Author Mitali Perkins uses her personal experience as a Bengalese/American to illustrate how difficult, “[…] the gap between those two worlds” can be. I trudged back and forth between cultures, relying heavily on stories for insight into the secrets and nuances of North American life. But exactly what did those stories communicate about my place as a brown-skinned foreigner?” Mitali offers 5 questions to help teachers and readers discuss race in classroom literature and provides literary examples to illustrate her point:
- Are the nonwhite characters too good to be true?
- How and why does the author define race?
- Is the cover art true to the story?
- Who are the change agents?
- How is beauty defined?
In addition, Mitali introduces us to Jeanne Copenhaver who studies literature and race in the classroom among African Americans, but whose work is applicable to Hispanic children as well. Her essay can be found here and it is very much worth a read. She writes, “[…] the social stigma attached to candid discussions of racial themes creates a silence preventing explicit talk about race, and this silence leads to further, subtle segregation-even within multiethnic, otherwise harmonious classrooms.” Take a minute to think about your young adult readers: their background and how they get along. I’m betting that your classroom could benefit from a discussion about race as it’s used in literature, which can then lead to a broader discussion of race and stereotypes. This can help your classroom become a more cohesive unit and give students the tools they need to discuss a topic that may be bubbling up inside them already but is (potentially) seen as off limits. “The absence of talk created an atmosphere of silence. […] How will all children learn to value diversity if they do not know how to acknowledge its existence?” (Copenhaver; italics mine).
Author Hazel Rochman sums up (what I think ) we at Vamos a Leer believe and hope to pass on to our community of teachers who do such good work fostering discussion, true learning and experience. She says, “I believe that the best books can make a difference in building community. They can break down borders. […] Multiculturalism isn’t a special subject of an anthology or a separate area of a library, or a special month of the year, or a special view of history. It’s part of everything we do. It’s us.”
—Ayude a romper el silencio (helping to break the silence),