A full month after my kids’ school year ended, they are still excitedly filling out their summer reading logs from our local public library. Their devouring of books has made me think anew about the responsibility parenting adults and educators have to expose all children to diverse characters with a wide array of lived experiences, family structures, and identities.
However, for those of us who are white and have white children, we don’t have to look far to find books that have a variety of characters who look like us. In fact, we don’t really have to look at all. In contrast, children of color’s parents must spend extra time digging, researching, and sifting through bookshelves to find quality literature that has visual representations of their children. While I and many other white parents also spend this extra time, our children’s sense of belonging and self-worth are not at stake.
Exactly how hard is it to find this literature? According to a 2014 Washington Post article, “Characters in children’s books are almost always white, and it’s a big problem”: “In 2012, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center reviewed 3,600 children’s books. Only three percent were about African Americans. Asian and Pacific Americans were featured in two percent, followed by Latinos with less than two percent, and American Indians at less than one percent.” Additionally, a Mother Jones article published last October, “The Uncomfortable Truth About Children’s Books,” reported: “…industry data collected by publisher Lee & Low and others suggest that roughly 80 percent of the children’s book world—authors and illustrators, editors, execs, marketers, and reviewers—is white…” This racial disparity goes beyond parents’ home libraries or individual librarians who make purchasing decisions. It is a systems issue. It is the unearned power white people have to construct narratives that, collectively, equate “white” with “normal.” It is the industry-wide reinforcement of white superiority and the often unconscious and unintentional valuing of white lives over all others.
With this reality in mind, I actively work to teach my children critical literacy tools. Ever since they were 2.5 or 3 years-old, I have made ongoing comments, such as: “I like how the illustrator painted characters who have all different shades of skin so lots of people can feel included”; “I notice this author only writes about characters who have the same amount of melanin in their skin as we do, and I wonder how X (friends of color) would feel about there not being anyone who looks like them”; “I wonder why all the characters are white”; “I notice this character (of color) loves to draw rainbows, and you also love to draw rainbows…your skin is different and you love the same thing”; or “I think this character’s dark brown skin is so beautiful, just like your skin is so beautiful.” Now at ages 4 and 7, they increasingly make these kinds of comments on their own.
I share these simple but easily overlooked strategies when I lead workshops for white parents and educators. I encourage them to stock their home and classroom libraries with books with racially/ethnically diverse characters and books by authors of color that are not just about racism. I ask them, “If you have books with African American characters, are most or all of them about slavery or the Civil Rights Movement?”
But I was acting hypocritically. Perhaps a byproduct of working as a middle school humanities teacher for many years, I generally gravitate toward books that educate my children about historical racism in order to provide a context for present-day racism in the news and on the playground. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when, in kindergarten, my son commented, “Mommy, I’m glad I’m white because people are nicer to me.” While he was naming his own white privilege, there was also an undercurrent of it being tragic, unlucky, or terrible to be a person of color. Did he subconsciously pity our friends of color? This made me cringe. It also made me rethink how much I talk about people of color as targets of racism and white people’s unearned privileges versus how often I talk about all of the beautiful and positive things about people of color’s distinct cultures, achievements, and lives. After all, I had made a point of teaching my children about the positive aspects of Ashkenazi Jewish culture so that when they learned about anti-Semitism they didn’t resent their Jewish heritage. I was reminded that the messages of white superiority I internalized as a young child made it harder for me to automatically see people of color’s diverse identities and lives as beautiful, amazing, and desirable. And despite my good intentions, I realized I had reinforced this damaging message for my son.
As a result, I pay closer attention to the balance of comments I make and conversations I initiate. I also took stock of our home library. I have added even more books with characters of color that aren’t about racism but, rather, are just about being a kid. In the same way that I seek out books that have strong, brave, silly, creative, talented girl protagonists, I now make an increased effort to do the same with protagonists of color. These are just a few of the booklists I have found useful. Please share them with your friends, local libraries, and schools: