You're A Bit Too Oversensitive

"Why not let kids be color-blind for as long as they can? Let's just let them read a story and enjoy it, for goodness' sake."

I'm predicting this response -- spoken or unspoken -- to my article releasing tomorrow in School Library Journal. And when I blog about these issues on the Fire Escape, I often ask myself whether I'm being "over-sensitive." Who wants to have a chip on her shoulder -- or be accused of having one? Not me.

That's why I was encouraged by the always-brave Debbie Reese's post today, in which she uses research reported in Science Daily to demonstrate how subtle racism in books can take a toll on American Indian children. If an educator asks the hard questions about race while reading a book in the classroom, wouldn't that be a relief to young people who must constantly process such questions alone?

Debbie's post led me to other studies, like this one, showing that children as young as preschoolers tend to follow majority opinion. It's a Lord of the Flies world on the playground, people. Or this one, where white people – including children as young as 10 -- avoided talking about race so as not to appear prejudiced. "But that approach often backfires," the researchers concluded, "As blacks tend to view this 'colorblind' approach as evidence of prejudice, especially when race is clearly relevant."

So let me ask you -- how young is too young to ask questions about racism while reading a story with kids? Have you ever done it? If so, when, why, and how?


AliceB said…
Beverly Tatum talks about racism as a kind of smog that you start breathing in as soon as you're born -- which I agree with. So I have talked about it with my kids as soon as they were old enough to carry a conversation. It was always simple. And it's always contextual. When we watched a video of Peter Pan, my husband and I leaned over and said, "You know, American Indians don't walk around with war paint and feathers in their hair." The answer, "Of course not." (Insert exasperated tone.) "And they don't speak that way either." (Insert world weary sigh.) "I know that." And we left it. But every time a stereotype might appear, we'd say something along those lines. And almost every time there'd be the equivalent of an eye roll. But I think that as they grew, it sunk in, because, as they got older, they'd point it out themselves.

But we were also conscious of what we brought into the house, trying to weed out materials we didn't like and add books that showed the variety of peoples in the world. We weren't perfect. But when I picked up Good as Lily and American Born Chinese because I'm a total comics fan, the kids nabbed the copies and raved about them before I got a chance to finish either.

The discussion of "What's missing from the pages?" happened later than "What's wrong on the page?" And again it was always short and contextual. Our kids really hate lessons or lectures. But they listen when we talk at the dinner table about how things are or aren't right.

I'd say our approach was similar to the way we taught our kids manners. We modeled. We corrected. We instructed when absolutely necessary. And we started as soon as possible. Did we get it all right? Of course not. But it's better than ignoring racism and trying to broach the subject after all of society has inculcated it in.
Color Online said…
Mitali, I see the effects in the responses or better the lack of responses to my postings about what I've read. Many teen readers (and adults)simply do not respond to the books I share or they say they never heard of them. Well, now that I have introduced them to you, would you read them is what I want to say but ususally don't. And it doesn't matter that often the books I'm sharing books that have the same themes and concerns they read with white characters. Recently I posted a book about a teen romance, drama, chick lit for teens. Not a single teen commented about the book.

I commented earlier at Book Kidlet that mainstream publishing and the market expects people of color to read and inject themselves into stories with characters who don't look like them, but we cannot expect the same from the majority and honestly, I resent that. If we're going to argue the colorblind logic or say everything isn't about race, then why doesn't the market promote more writers of color and why aren't white teens for example reading teen drama with black characters? And when I do see white teens reading other ethnicity is almost always Asian, Latino, Indian, anything but AA.

Rather than argue that we're overly sensitive, maybe the other party should be asking is the sensitivity legitimate. Can they imagine how it would feel to be invisible?
Color Online said…
Sorry, I failed to answer your question. I agree with Alice's approach. I don't have a lot interaction with very young readers but I do with teens and by the time their teens they are very much entrenched in following the crowd.
Color Online said…
Read the entire article not skimmed but read it carefully. Loved how thorough you are and I especially appreciate the book examples and issues with them. I also commented. Thank you.
tanita davis said…
I neither have children nor do I write for younger readers, so everyone can take my comments with a grain of salt -- but I believe that as soon as a small child realizes that there are differences between themselves and others -- genders, skin colors -- then the process of teaching them not just tolerance but to embrace differences can begin. My mother is the director of a school for early childhood (2-5) and I know they talk about things like treating each other nicely, etc., and very direct questions are asked. The kids will probably not learn the word "racism" until they're well along in school, but they certainly do start talking about that early.
Thank you for writing the article and sharing your thoughts. You did so with great grace, insight, and some self-depreciation that I'm sure did wonders to offset any negative reflex response.

I couldn't help but notice your blog post title and identify with it. I sometimes feel as though I have to be "hyper reasonable" in such conversations, to the point of unprecedented linguistic contortions.

Just once I'd love to say, "I understand that you're disappointed that I'm not Malibu Pocahontas and can't 'paint with with all the colors of the wind,' but come on! Are you kidding me?" Oh, wait. I just did.
Christine M said…
This is a great topic, Mitali. I don't think it's ever too young to tackle the concept of racism and prejudice. When our children were very young we tried to avoid the labels of "black" and "white" as descriptors. If I asked my child to describe one of their classmates they might describe someone as having "brown" or "tan" skin - and more often then not that person would be Asian or Latino and not African American.

I realize that in society and in history and in lots of other things that race does play a part (I wish we could get to a point where it really didn't, but we're not there yet) but we tried to not let it play a part when it comes to the friends our children have. And I think we've succeeded.

I think it helps that we have different cultures and nationalities represented in our family. It's harder to be "us" and "them", when "us" includes "them."
Jennie said…
It's easy to be "color-blind" when you're part of the majority. Not so much if you're not.

I work in an extremely diverse community and the kids I work with long for books about them. They don't want books about their race, or about what happened in the past, they want normal stories about normal kids--normal kids who look like them. Sadly, they're hard to find.
susan said…
Hi Mitali,

I've linked your article to my Little Lov'n Monday feature.
Anonymous said…
In the early section of the SJL article you criticize western authors for being overly positive when writing characters of color. This comes in the wake of the criticism of past decades that characters of color are always portrayed as negative. Seems authors can't win. I'm also not sure what's so wrong about authors leaving race out of descriptions. Readers can fill in with whatever their imagination wants. Of course as the world has greater mixing of ethnicities there are not going to be physical characteristics that identify a particular race. Perhaps the best solution to this dilema is that authors should follow the old adage: write what you know. If you don't know any people of color don't write a character of color. It will be false. And of course what's really needed is to get more authors from diverse cultures writing, especially for young people. Authentic voices will tell authentic stories. -- One last point, you chastise yourself for referring to your character as an "exotic Indian princess." I fail to see what's wrong with the image, depending on who's making the statement. South Asian's are exotic to Westerner's. What's wrong with saying that? American suburbanite teens don't wear sari's, at least not everyday. And when they do they are making a statement. For immigrants who are in between cultures both cultures may be "normal" but that's not the perspective on the non-immigrant, or the second and third generation immigrant. The identity crisis of immigrants is an old story in the US, and even when the cultures change the story remains the same. Assimilation happens regardless of efforts to forstall the process. The voice of the unassimilated is the voice of the "other." You can't have it both ways.

A WASP living in the ethnic jumble of LA.
Mitali Perkins said…
I'm not interested in any of us "winning" or "losing" when it comes to writing about race; I think it's time for ALL of us to think about it proactively and creatively.

As for including race in descriptions, if the character's or narrator's voice would naturally do so, then it must be done. But only if the plot and characters lead the way, not an author's bleeding heart or heavyhanded intentions.

And when I look back with distaste at the "exotic Indian princess" descriptor for my between-cultures Sunita, I'm not thinking of "WASP" (your term) readers but of young Asian women who must deal with the fact that some non-Asian men will pursue them because of an exotic-cum-submissive Asian female stereotype. My writing emphasized that unhealthy dynamic because it was said by Michael, the object of Sunita's affection. The point of the novel is that Sunita IS a California girl, not an exotic "other," so it was a misstep that I was glad to fix on many levels.

Finally, I see young America in flux, and sense that they are all to some degree feeling "unassimilated." See THE END OF WHITE AMERICA? by Hua Hsu in the Jan/Feb issue of The Atlantic for more on this.

Thanks for all the comments. Keep them coming, please.
Doret said…
I loved the article and the examples. I am not a fan of the term exotic to describe foreign characters. I don't work with kids, so I can't answer when topic of racism should be introduced. However I think its never to early to share diverse images in books with children.
I am enjoying this conversation and all the subsequent posts on your blog recently, Mitali. Thanks for opening this line up for us!

I have three sons and I can think of conversations with all three of them about race and ethnicity from very young ages; starting around 2 or 3. I think it all depends on the environment kids are raised in. If there are adults and older kids/teens that talk about race and ethnicity then the youngest ones will follow suit. If it's kept mum they learn that too.

In my library I read as much diversity as I can manage. I discuss racism in the context of the folktales and biographies we read. The kids sometimes seem a little stunned that I will bring up the hard facts, but once the topic is open they are usually glad to talk about it. They often have quite stereotypical understandings of characters and of historical facts, which makes me feel even stronger that kids need more adults willing to open the subjects up and talk more freely.
Laura Simeon said…
Bravo, Mitali! I loved your SLJ article on so many levels. As a school librarian and biracial woman (half Greek, half Japanese) I grew up feeling both too visible - in real life, where my family was the object of clumsy questioning, overt curiosity and, sometimes, hostility - and completely invisible - in books, TV and in the movies. I believe many adults would like to have honest conversations with young people about race but simply do not know where to begin or are too afraid of putting a foot wrong. Like you, I think we can both respect great works of literature (e.g. the Narnia books, which are among my favorites) *and* subject them to scrutiny. Race has been one of the single most defining features of my life, something which is true for many young people today. To ignore it out of fear or misguided politeness does no one any favors.