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’.
BUT NOT OFTEN ENOUGH.
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.