Posts Tagged ‘youth’

Hello, hello. Lots of stuff has been going on that I’ve obviously not been blogging about. Two things this week have gotten my dander up; one of them even led to a very interesting, genuinely productive, 52-comment long Facebook discussion. It’s this news release about a new study from Tufts University researchers about how racism is perceived by black and white study participants:

Whites believe that they have replaced blacks as the primary victims of racial discrimination in contemporary America, according to a new study from researchers at Tufts University’s School of Arts and Sciences and Harvard Business School. The findings, say the authors, show that America has not achieved the “post-racial” society that some predicted in the wake of Barack Obama’s election.

Both whites and blacks agree that anti-black racism has decreased over the last 60 years, according to the study. However, whites believe that anti-white racism has increased and is now a bigger problem than anti-black racism.

“It’s a pretty surprising finding when you think of the wide range of disparities that still exist in society, most of which show black Americans with worse outcomes than whites in areas such as income, home ownership, health and employment,” said Tufts Associate Professor of Psychology Samuel Sommers, Ph.D., co-author of “Whites See Racism as a Zero-sum Game that They Are Now Losing,” which appears in the May 2011 issue of the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.

Not shocking at all that the white people surveyed felt this way. Still very frustrating, of course. But I was glad that the ensuring discussion I had with friends ended up being about racism and white people’s lack of understanding about it, and not so-called “reverse racism.” As one of my (white) friends said, “I think ‘not understanding racism’ is definitely the culprit — not so much just because of privilege and how it exempts you from certain experiences, but because ‘limited access to certain experiences’ or anything to do with privilege is NOT the definition of racism that most (white) people have been taught. In school and media, racism is basically synonymous with prejudice or discrimination, and most of the kid-aimed stuff is on the level of ‘racist people think other people are not real human beings,’ or ‘racist people think looking different is bad,’ or ‘racist people think you can treat people differently for a given reason,’ and this kind of stuff, which truly most people of our time have been educated to (at least consciously) reject. And prejudice is obviously something that everyone experiences to one degree or another. Then this understanding can persist because most white people don’t discuss the experience of racism (!!! how MORtifying!) with POC. And it takes a while to learn to see.”

This led to many spin-off discussions, one of them related to how race is discussed (or NOT discussed) with children and youth in the classroom — and at home. I think for many parents, the assumption is that schools are “safe spaces” where racism and prejudice will not be an issue; or, if it is, will be perpetrated not by “good kids” but by kids who may already be seen as “lost causes” — just as those adults perceived as “genuine racists” are thought to be rare and irredeemable.

There is also the belief that if well-intentioned parents don’t “raise their child to be a racist” (who does that, anyway?), then their mostly unspoken good intentions will somehow outweigh all of the other negative and prejudiced influences young people are subject to. As if it’s about them and their family and what’s “in their hearts,” as opposed to reality and what is actually said and done.

We talk a good game about how evolved we are, but we still aren’t giving our kids the basic tools they need to be in a school (or any other) environment and deal with these issues. Schools aren’t “safe spaces” — not for a lot of kids — and they never have been. Schools are exactly the places where most people of color first experience racism and/or prejudice. As soon as we’re old enough to begin noticing, society conditions and teaches us to be hugely insensitive to and ignorant of the experiences of ANYONE not exactly like us — this is the default we’re all subject to.

Related to white privilege as default and how it reaches our children, today I came across this blog post by Linda Sue Park (Newbery Award-winning author of A Single Shard and other novels as well as children’s books; see our kids’ reading list!), bringing my attention to NPR’s “100 Best-Ever Young Adult Novels.” Linda wrote:

The initial nominations were made by NPR listeners/readers. 1200 titles were proffered. A panel of judges narrowed the list to 235, and it was once again listeners/readers who voted for that top 100.

Anybody see a potential problem here?

I listen to NPR. I love it. It’s on permalock on my car radio. And I would wager that its demographic is: educated, middle-class or wealthier…and *mostly white.*

I have tremendous respect for the panel that narrowed the list; I have worked with some of them personally. But if NPR had been serious about that ‘very best’ label — as opposed to ‘very best if you’re white, educated, and middle-class’ — it should have attempted a vital corrective by selecting a panel that included at least one person of color.

People get tetchy about this. Of course white gatekeepers are capable of recognizing quality work by people of color–it happens ‘all the time’.


When we reflect on this question, our focus as a culture is almost always on the ‘creators’–grants and awards and media coverage for authors and illustrators of color. These efforts are essential and laudable.

But to me, what gets almost completely ignored is the absolute necessity of people of color in the gatekeeping roles. The editors & publishers. Reviewers, critics, commentators. Academics. Booksellers. Librarians. Um, panelists. We will NEVER achieve the diversity we seek in books for teens and younger readers until the gatekeepers themselves reflect that diversity.

To have more people of color in these roles would result in a paradigm shift: Not simply more books by and about people of color, but better and more diverse books for everyone.

Park also linked to another blog post by Shaker Laurie, a teacher in Minnesota, who sums it up perfectly:

As a teacher of reading and English in schools with large populations of students of color, young adult fiction about characters of color is high on my radar. Many of my students don’t see themselves as readers when they walk into my classroom. Reader identity and engagement are a huge component of the work we do as we address student reading problems, and when students are handed books full of characters that are unlike them racially, culturally, and socio-economically, the chasm between their picture of themselves and their idea of books and who books are for only widens…

Such an exclusive list isn’t just problematic for teens of color; when white teens are told that the ‘good’ books are all about white people, it normalizes the white experience and bolsters white privilege. For me, growing up in a community that was 99% white, reading was one of the first ways I was able to interact with narratives of people of color. Books lay a foundation on which kids can reflect on social justice and understand that the lives, conflicts, and struggles of people of color are important—that people of color are equal actors in the world. Yes, kids want to read about themselves, and that is important, but it is also critical for kids living with privilege to read about people living without those privileges, not just for some requisite ‘exposure to diversity,’ but because, if we want them to be committed to changing the world, they have to understand it needs to change.

I realize I do go on about the lack diversity in literature, especially young adult fiction, and Linda’s point about “gatekeepers” is an important one. Of course, you might say — and you’d be right — there are bigger fish to fry when it comes to racist influences on our children and in our society. But it’s a maddening phenomenon because it is one more thing teaching and contributing to and normalizing a white-centric view of the world — even imaginary worlds. Kids and teens in the real world deserve something a whole lot better.

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This was first shared via our brand-new Facebook page, to which we all hope to contribute several times a week. “Like” it now and join the discussion!

This Hyphen article on Asians and the college admissions process is very good and well worth a read. I share it not because I’m so indignant about possible anti-Asian bias at certain schools, and not because I think Asians should be able to get into any selective school to which they apply (I mean, who can? Very few people, really, even highly qualified ones), but because it brings up two points that are too often overlooked when people talk about Asians as “overrepresented” in the college admissions process:

1. As a group, Asian Americans benefit far less than do white applicants when it comes to legacy/major donor admissions.
2. Asian Americans are not underrepresented on many college campuses, but they are often misrepresented and broadly stereotyped as applicants (viewed as hardworking but not strong leaders; intelligent but not creative; booksmart but shy and reserved and unable to “contribute” as much to class discussions or campus life; focused on science and math at the expense of other subjects; etc.).

These disadvantages carry over to the professional realm as well — Asian employees, whether male or female, can hardly be easily incorporated into “old boys’” networks that are by nature both racist and sexist. Asians may also find it harder to excel in the workplace if they aren’t viewed as creative, outgoing leaders. These issues of harmful stereotyping hold Asians back and, as an Asian American, concern me far more than the actual percentages of Asians on college campuses, “elite” or otherwise.

Related: Kate’s excellent “Model Minority” derailment post

(P.S. Sorry about my increeeedibly long break from posting, guys. I had my second kid in January. She doesn’t nap much. I work twice as many hours as I used to. And I’m getting ready to move in a couple of months. But I AM going to try and post here more often! I’ve missed this blog.)

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Via the NYT: “Senate blocks bill for illegal immigrant students”

The Senate on Saturday blocked a bill that would create a path to citizenship for certain illegal immigrant students who came to the United States as children, completed two years of college or military service and met other requirements including passing a criminal background check. The vote, 55-41 in favor of the bill, effectively kills the measure for this year, and its fate beyond that is uncertain.

Most immediately, the measure would have helped grant legal status to hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrant students and recent graduates whose lives are severely restricted because they are illegal residents, though many have lived in the United States for nearly their entire lives.

Young Hispanic men and women filled the spectator galleries of the Senate, many of them wore graduation caps and tassels in a symbol of their support for the bill. And they held hands in a prayerful gesture as the clerk called the roll .

The measure, known as the Dream Act, failed to get the support of 60 senators needed to cut off a filibuster and bring the bill to the floor.

President Obama had personally lobbied lawmakers in support the bill. But Democrats were not able to hold ranks. Among those voting no were the Democrats Max Baucus of Montana, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Jon Tester of Montana.

“I want to make it clear to my colleagues, you won’t get many chances in the United states Senate, in the course of your career, to face clear votes on the issue of justice,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, and a main champion of the immigration measure.

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A family member recently sent a package for my two-year-old daughter that included the book A Story About Ping. I had never read it before, but apparently it’s a well-known children’s “classic” about a duck who lives with his family in “the yellow waters of the Yangtze River.” (I am not exactly up on my Chinese geography, but I thought the Yellow River was, you know, yellow, not the Yangtze. Was I wrong?)

Apart from the fact that the story is not very compelling and Ping gets the smack of his owner’s rod just for the “crime” of exploring, the book happens to contain some pretty offensive, old-school illustrations of Chinese people (yellow skin, black slits for eyes, etc.). They aren’t World War II recruitment posters, but they’re not far removed from that tradition of depicting Asian people, and they are troubling to me. [ETA: A little Google searching has informed me that the book has been "recolored" since publication, so I don't know if more current versions depict the Chinese as having yellow skin, or if the coloring may be less offensive now. The copy we received definitely shows the people with yellowy skin, and dates to the 1960s.  The book itself -- cover and binding -- is also bright yellow. Just in case you forgot this is a story about the Asians!]

Totally ignorant of the story, I read it once aloud to my daughter, which was enough to ensure that I would soon be “losing” this book. I don’t like playing children’s book censor — it makes me feel guilty — but on the other hand, I am not down with my (Korean!) child absorbing false, stereotypical, or potentially dehumanizing depictions of Asian people, or any other sort of people for that matter.  There are already so many ways that we pass on prejudices to our children, sometimes through ritualistic things — such as songs and stories — that appear to be “harmless.” I think we can all agree that these things, these images, are powerful: that’s why those recruitment posters were made, after all.

I don’t think for a second that she sent it in order to offend, but it’s strange to me that the illustrations in Ping wouldn’t give this family member any pause. I get that the book was originally published in 1933.  However, the pictures are certainly jarring by today’s standards. Just because something used to fly in 1933, 1957, or 1966 doesn’t mean it should fly now with today’s kids — my kid especially.  And yet a peek at the Amazon.com reviews indicates that few people today are troubled by the dated illustrations.  The reader reviews are mostly glowing, just as they are for other children’s books with questionable depictions of Asians, including Tikki Tikki Tembo and The Five Chinese Brothers.

Call me oversensitive if you want, but I did not have a good reaction to Ping. At first I thought maybe I was being unreasonable, but when my husband came home, he took one look at the book and said, “Obviously we’re not going to read this to her,” so I feel somewhat vindicated. But it’s made me think about the standards we hold for children’s literature, and where I personally draw the line when it comes to giving “classics” a pass. As a kid, I loved Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, and I have two treasured copies of the book, each beautifully illustrated, that I’ve kept for my daughter. But one of the books includes a poem with the word “Chinee” (a term that, for me anyway, conjures up not-so-fond memories of the playground and school bus; it was the favorite Asian pejorative of one of the boys I went to school with, and always accompanied by the chink-eye). I still plan to read the poems with my daughter when she’s older, obviously while explaining that “Chinee” is not a term that should still be used, but what makes that one little word different from the yellow-tinted, slant-eyed, strangely grinning illustrations in Ping? Why do I keep one and plan to get rid of the other? If the only answer I’ve got is that I loved that collection of poetry as a child and I have no similar attachment to Ping or its offensively depicted Chinese characters, well, is that good enough, or does it make me a hypocrite?

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As mentioned in an update to our previous post on the Prescott Mural controversy, after local protests, the Prescott school district has withdrawn their request that the mural be lightened, and both the school’s principal and the Prescott district school superintendent have publicly apologized for asking that the faces of the children be lightened (video below).  I loved that their apologies were clear and to the point, and didn’t involve any excuses, blame-shifting, or minimizing – just simple statements of “We made a mistake” and “we’re sorry.”  How often do we hear apologies like that from public officials anymore, not least about racially charged issues?  Kudos to them for being to admit a mistake and taking steps to correct it.  And kudos to the residents of Prescott who stood up against racism in their city! (h/t Huffington Post)

Meanwhile, Steve Blair’s comments (transcript here) about the mural have led to significant public criticism, his ouster from his show on a local radio station, and calls for him to resign from his position as a city councilman.  Unfortunately, Councilman Blair has responded to the criticism of his comments not by taking some time to think about why they were offensive, but by repeating a number of his most problematic comments, taking the opportunity to make even more racist and privileged criticisms of the mural, and painting himself as a victim who was just trying to defend his city and “stand up for what’s right.”  Because, y’all, complaining about the prominent featuring of a child of color on a mural is a matter of moral integrity.  Take, for example, Blair’s defense of himself in an interview with the Prescott eNews (below, h/t Reappropriate), or his statement to the press on the controversy (video here).

Blair’s view is that he was fired simply for “asking a question.”  The closest he comes to making any apology for his comments is that “the question probably was poorly worded, and in retrospect, I also admit that it was probably offensive to some,” and that he “made assumptions and then . . . took an unfounded leap of logic” that the mural was supposed to be “factual, [functional, and] representative of the community here in Prescott, AZ.  And being a number cruncher in my business, I automatically assumed that the larger figure equated to the larger number of the demographics.”  Huh?  Not only is that a seriously weak sauce apology, it doesn’t even make sense.  Would Blair really have us believe that he thinks public art depicting people is necessarily some sort of statistical representation of a city’s population?

It gets stranger:

“The mural is a big change for a historic red brick building so many of enjoy [sic] over the years.  That, along with the scale of the boy central to the art, is startling at first blush.  That was my mistake.  Instead of jumping to conclusions, before I made the comments about the mural at all, I should have come down to speak with the artists, find out for myself what the mural meant, and what it was all about, because I still don’t believe the community knows what it was all about.  For the record, nobody has come to me once to say, “hey Steve, let us explain the mural to you, and what it means, what the designer and the artist intended.”  That might have helped educate me in what I obviously needed to know to help prevent such notoriety that we’ve had in this community.  Instead, others have made assumptions, and jumped to conclusions on their own.  They assume because they asked the question, that I was a racist and bigot.”

That right there is a mess of white privilege.  Blair assumes not only that his startled and confused reaction (to put it nicely) to the mural should be validated and taken seriously, but also that it’s the job of other people to educate him about what the mural means – including what it “means” to have a child of color prominently featured on the mural – and why he shouldn’t disapprove of it (“I want somebody to tell me why I should like that.  That’s what I want somebody to tell me.  Why should I like that?”).  He assumes that because he doesn’t know what the mural’s message is, neither does the “community,” and that because he wasn’t involved in the process of approving the mural design, neither was the “community.”  One has to wonder whether for him, the “community” means the white residents of Prescott who also “can’t stand” the word “diversity.”

As Reappropriate points out, as a city councilman, Blair should have been involved in, or at least aware of, council votes to approve other eco-themed mural designs by the same committee of artists, so his complaint that decisions were made without the approval or knowledge of the “community” rings hollow.  And if he was truly in the dark about the mission behind the murals, one would think a city councilman could at least pick up his local newspaper and educate himself about it.

The bottom line is, Blair and other residents of Prescott, objected to the presence of a child of color as the central figure in piece of public art, because of the (perceived) race of that child.  That’s racist.  And as for questioning why ethnic minorities should ever be depicted in public art?  That’s privilege.

Councilman Blair, you may not be a racist or a bigot.  But when you demand an explanation for why a person of color should be prominently featured in public art and and imply that depictions of POC should be completely absent from public art, what you say sounds racist.

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