Children's Books and a Changing Definition of Race

Last week I was privileged to hear Princeton President Shirley Tilghman deliver the Center for African American Studies' James Baldwin lecture called Race In The Post-Genome Era (that's my birds'-eye view from the balcony). Several of Dr. Tilghman's ideas jumped out at me:

At the level of the genome we're 99.9% identical to one another.

Differences between individuals are significantly greater than differences between groups.

The classic view of race, based on physical characteristics such as skin color and facial structure, would have placed South Asians in a distinct racial group, yet the genome analysis identifies (us) as a genetic amalgam ... The biological, as opposed to the cultural, notion of race does not hold up to close scrutiny.

Genetic distinctions among individuals that we continue to define as members of different races based on physical and cultural characteristics are declining rapidly ... almost certainly because of intermarriage over the last 300 years.
    As always, I wondered how this applies in the Kid/YA book world.

    When it comes to writing books, as we imagine and pen our characters, doesn't this support a move away from using dated racial classifications in our third-person narrative voices? As I've said before, a character can get away with it in dialog or first person voice, but writer beware.

    When it comes to selling books, doesn't this signify it's time to get rid of the last-gen idea (check for it in the back of your mind) that black kids only want only stories about black kids and white kids only want stories about white kids?

    The scientific view of race is changing fast. Writing, packaging, and marketing, however, has to balance science's changing view of race with society's. Once again, we arrive at a familiar conclusion: our industry is going to require a new level of discussion, imagination, and flexibility to present books as mirrors and windows for a wide range of kids.

    Academic experts like Dr. Tilghman are hammering out the complexities of defining race traditionally, culturally, socially, and genetically. But we're in the business of creating stories that shape the minds and hearts of a new generation when it comes to race. Shouldn't we be inside the tent? Listening, at least?

    Here, for a start, is Dr. Tilghman's speech in its' entirety (it's long, but fascinating):

    You may also find Dr. Tilghman's speech here.


    Anonymous said…
    This is excellent, Mitali! Thanks for sharing your experience. (I just blogged a follow-up to Enchanted Inkpot's discussion about white authors writing POC characters.)

    I think the sooner we start celebrating both our similarities and our differences, the closer we'll get to reflecting the world through kids' eyes.

    Windows and mirrors. Perfect!

    -- Dawn Metcalf
    J. L. Bell said…
    Dr. Tilghman appears to be saying what scientists and progressive thinkers have said for decades: that there’s no genetic basis for the concept of race beyond some superficial traits which are variable within any group and have no bearing on mental traits. Therefore, the many concepts of race that societies have instituted are psychological or sociological constructs.

    Those biological facts don't change the fact that our society, like many others, has psychological or sociological constructs of race and other things. And that those constructs have influenced our neighborhoods, property distribution, popular culture, and so on. Despite having no basis in biological reality, historical notions of race have shaped the reality we live.

    How does this affect writing? If an author is writing about characters in a society in which notions of race play an important role, not referring to those notions seems like it would hamstring the whole project. If an author believes that such notions of race permeate our society, furthermore, then she might see them affecting even “everyday” stories in which race is not a central theme. And in that case, should her stories bring ideas about race to the surface?

    As to selling books, I don’t follow the link between what the president of Princeton and other biologists know about genetic similarities and how people in bookstores might behave. People don't buy books based on their chromosomes. But they buy them based on their self-images, interests, aspirations, and other factors affected by psychological and sociological constructs—which might included those non-biologically-supported notions of race.

    I doubt many people believe that "black kids only want only stories about black kids and white kids only want stories about white kids." For one thing, African-American kids haven't had the opportunity in a white-dominated culture and economy to choose "only stories about black kids." But people selling books do have to deal with how families actually buy books, and whether notions of race—however non-biological they are—or gender or class or other factors play a role in those decisions.

    What would change how books are sold in regard to notions of race isn’t talks by biologists like Dr. Tilghman but solid research on how families actually choose books. Where are those studies? What have they found? Alas, I don't think the book industry has the resources or mindset for that sort of market research.
    tanita davis said…
    As Dawn was saying - this synchronizes well with the Enchanted Inkpot discussion on diversity in fantasy; the diversity needs to expand not only to include race but cultural clues and religion as well.