As Katrina and I start our next theme of posts, ‘Race in YA Literature’, I want to spend today discussing race and giving you some resources for how to pinpoint and discuss racial stereotyping in text. Without getting too dogmatic, I want to stress the importance of discussing race with our kids. Race is a socially constructed concept used to categorize and create hierarchy among people. There is nothing biological about it, that is just an argument used to make it seem grounded in science and therefore true. Speaking about race can make people very uncomfortable, defensive and could cause them to shut down, thinking not discussing it solves the problem. Yet, not discussing the construction of race, the ways in which it is used to justify practices that place some people on top and others below, is just as detrimental to ourselves, our societies and people of color as pretending race doesn’t exist (the practice of color blindness). Race is everywhere, even in places we do not realize, including books. Race is subtle, masking itself under covert words and actions. Race is a very real and tangible lived experience and is perpetuated through a lack of: open and honest discussion on the topic, self-realization of mindsets or practices that we undertake which continue the racist discourse, and thinking our children are too young or it too sensitive an issue to bring up. My point here is not get on a soapbox nor to alienate you wonderful blog readers, nor to make you feel attacked; rather, it is to get you/me/us to really open ourselves up to thinking about not just racism writ large, but the small, subtle and devastating ways race plays out every day. At Vamos a Leer, our job is to bring you resources, books and ideas that represent the diverse classroom in a sensitive and honest way so that children of color can see themselves not in the traditionally racist categories, but as the heroes, the main characters, their true mirror.
I’ve come across some resources that will help us analyze the representation of people of color in texts (books, magazines, movies and comics). If you have any other resources or stories of how you have addressed this topic in your classroom or library, we very much welcome them.
- The first suggestion comes from Linda Christensen in her article titled Unlearning the Myths That Bind Us: Critiquing Fairy Tales and Films. Christensen offers some great insight into the ways that fairy tales stereotype people of color (when they are present at all) as the evil character or the lower-class character (i.e. the maid, the butler, essentially the servants). Christensen offers two suggestions: 1) critique portrayals of hierarchy and inequality; 2) workshop with students to imagine relationships and characters who are established on the basis of respect and equality, rather than on race. You can do these activities by having your students use a journal when reading (or viewing a video) where they keep track of the depictions of people of color, the roles assigned to each character, and the relationship of the people of color to the white characters. By doing this, kids are actively engaging with their text, not just memorizing relationships to remember at test time. Furthermore, they are beginning to notice the frequency in which people are placed into traditional stereotypes and they are beginning to critically think about what these representations mean and how they work to reiterate racism.
- Joseph Bruchac in Thoughts on Teaching Native American Literature provides unique and useful insight into teaching literature of cultures other than your own. While he is speaking of Native American Literature, I think parts of his analysis can help us in our endeavor to understand, promote and teach multicultural YA literature: Remember the diversity encompassed in the term ‘multicultural.’ It includes hundreds of different histories, experiences, sensitivities and ideas. Then, teach the work in context: provide background information to situate the novel for your kids, remember as Bruchac put it, “you are teaching a culture.”
- 10 Quick Ways to Analyze Children’s Books for Racism and Sexism by the Council on Interracial Books for Children provides valuable how-to information. I’ve condensed their ideas into 7: 1) Check the illustrations: look for stereotypes, tokenism, activities done by each person; 2) Check the storyline: are the standards for success those of the dominant white society, how are problems resolved: are people of color always the problem?; 3) Look at the lifestyles: are people of color depicted as living in ways that go against the common ideal of middle class suburbia? Are they always depicted as living in poverty, or on the outskirts of town, etc.?; 4) Weigh the Relationships Between People: are white characters always in charge or in leadership roles? How are family relations depicted; 5) Note the Heroes: Are there any persons of color in heroic roles?; 6) Consider the effects on a child’s self image: would your kids of color see themselves in this book and if they did, would they see themselves in a positive or negatively stereotyped light?; 7) Watch Language: are loaded words being used (i.e. “savage”, “primitive,” “treacherous”, “crafty”, ‘lazy”)?
- Refer back to the invaluable information I pulled from an article on SLJ’s web site.
Argentine-Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman said that, “Children’s literature is perhaps the most influential genre read” (qtd. in Unlearning the Myths, p. 8). I believe he’s correct; children are in the most important stage of learning about the world around them, they learn it through media, social relations, advertisements, school and books. They have a desire, and are expected, to succeed and engage in school. Because of this, they are absorbing books and lessons and carrying them into their daily lives. The effects of continuing to only expose our children to texts that either A) leave any person of color out, or B) grossly misrepresent persons of color, work to solidify negative feelings about themselves (if they are a child of color) or about other children and people with whom they walk through life. We must start this discussion early and it must be an honest one. I don’t need to tell you that kids are incredibly smart, perceptive and inquisitive. I believe addressing classroom literature through the tools and lens provided will only help your classroom discussion, diversity and growth.
— “Multiculturalism is the ideal state in which people’s culture, language, heritage and humanity are fully valued [.]” –Enid Lee