Thursday, November 8, 2012

Resisting Racism: Evaluating Children's Books for Bias

 © Sharon Chang and MultiAsian Families Blog, Nov 8 2012.

Ok. In this blog I'm spending a good chunk of time identifying the salience of racism. And although it's essential to label it if you want to fight it, let's be honest - it's really depressing.  It's easy for me to get disheartened and feel like I want to give up. Hide my family in a remote desert cave for the rest of eternity. But that would obviously suck too in it's own ridiculous way. Begs the question  - what can we do about it? Well a lot, actually. And we don't have to be politicians, or CEOs, or the President to effect some change (although if you or your child aspire to positions of power that's AWESOME because the top of the hierarchy clearly needs awareness-infusion). So I have an intention to write posts that describe actions we can take. You'll know them by the prefix "Resisting Racism."

Let's talk about children's books for our multiethnic multiracial Asian kids. As you all know, I was an anti-bias preschool teacher. I spent a lot of time researching and locating anti-bias children's books, then reading and discussing them with my diverse students. I think this is one of the most central and positive ways we can impact our children's developing racial identity. First by providing them affirmation and a platform to discuss race with us. Second, and maybe more critically, by providing a counter-narrative for the larger social race messages pressing on them daily. For our children, seeing themselves accurately reflected in their environment is key. Especially for multiethnic multiracial children who easily feel invisible, divided, unblended or confused when they are primarily surrounded with monoracial images. And I need to point out importantly, monoracial images mean pictures not only of White, but of Asian, Latino, Native and Black peoples too. Of course it's healthy to see the faces of all types of people who live in this world, but if monoracial images dominate our particular environment, these images can become invalidating for us multiethnic multiracial families. Why? Because they don't represent us and our many blended ethnicities and races.

How do we evaluate children's books for bias? The following are adapted guidelines from a wonderful online article http://www.intime.uni.edu/multiculture/curriculum/children.htm.

1. Omission. In spite of the fact that many excellent multicultural books are finally being published, omission continues to be one of the biggest problems in literature for young readers today. Exclusion is one of the most insidious and painful forms of bias. The implicit message is that the group does not exist, is insignificant, or has made no contributions to society. Take a look at your child's books. Look at what they aren't saying. Make sure you have a prominent number of books that reflect your specific family make up as accurately as possible.

2. Illustrations. Are their characters of color in the story? What is the ratio of people of color to White people? A stereotype is an over-simplified generalization about a particular group which usually carries deragatory implications. Stereotypes may be blatant or subtle. Check for depictions that demean or ridicule characters because of their race, gender, age, ability, appearance, size, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, or native language. In illustrations, do people of color look just like Whites except for being tinted or colored in? Do all people from parallel cultures look stereotypically alike or are they depicted as genuine individuals with distinctive features? Who is doing what? Do the illustrations depict people of color in subservient and passive roles, or in leadership and action roles?

3. Check the Story Line. Bias may be expressed in blatant or subtle ways. Check for the following forms of subtle, implicit bias: Standards for Success. To gain acceptance and approval, do people of color have to exhibit extraordinary qualities? Resolution of Problems. Are the conditions facing oppressed groups represented as related to an unjust society? Does the story line encourage passive acceptance or active resistance?

4. Authenticity. Check for inaccuracy and inappropriateness in the depiction of cultures and lifestyles. Are they oversimplified or do they offer genuine insight into the character? Check for quaint, cutesy, or exotic depictions. Does the book portray diversity among Asian Americans or are they all lumped together, ignoring differences in ethnicity, time of immigration, generations of life in the United States, and location of origin?

5. Relationships Between People. Do the White males posses the power, take the leadership roles, and make the important decisions? Do people of color function in essentially supporting, subservient roles?

6. Heroines/Heroes. Whose interest is the hero and/or heroine serving? For many years, books showed only "safe" heroes - those who avoided serious conflict with the White, male, able-bodied, heterosexual establishment. Heroines and heroes should be defined according to the concepts of struggles for justice appropriate to their group. When heroes/heroines from parallel cultures do appear, are they admired for the same qualities that have made establishment heroes famous or because what they have done has benefited the establishment?

7. Consider the Effects on a Child's Self-Image. Are norms established that limit any child's aspirations and self-concept? For example, Asian Americans should not be portrayed as model minorities. Every person from every culture should be portrayed as an individual with unique strengths, weaknesses, interests, lifestyles, and beliefs.


Particularly look for portrayals of people of color as only ethnic or exotic (e.g. in traditional garb celebrating ethnic holidays). I have had many a person tell me they thought their preschool programming respected diversity because the children did a dragon dance on Chinese New Year. Though tradition, history and heritage are clearly important - when we only view ethnic peoples in this way, they continue to seem "foreign" or "other." This is known in early childhood anti-bias training as a "tourist" approach to multicultural learning and can lead children of color to feel outside, or that they don't belong. There is a little board book called Global Babies here in Seattle that has wide circulation amongst new parents. I've seen many copies at local libraries. I also know there are medical clinics and doctors offices (especially those catering to families of color) that hand it out for free at child wellness exams. Indeed I read this book to my son endlessly when he was a baby. I looked at it again recently however and had a total aha moment. Though the book predominantly portrays babies of color, they are almost all from other countries and wearing traditional garb. There are two American babies. One Native and the other White. While I appreciate the effort to at least include a Native American child - I was extremely annoyed by the fact that the Asian children weren't "from here" (and I believe most if not all the Black children are from Africa). To be fair the book is called "global" babies - but then why would my Pacific Northwest community back it so heavily as an affirmation for American families of color??? Make sure books show children of color being American too - wearing American clothing, doing American things, living every day American lives.

8. Author's or Illustrator's Background. Analyze the biographical data available about the author and illustrator. What qualifies the author or illustrator to deal with the subject? If they are not a member of the group they are depicting, is there anything in their background that would specifically recommend them as creators of the book? There has been considerable debate recently regarding what has been termed cultural thievery. Is it ethical for mainstream writers to appropriate the literature of parallel cultures? Many people think it is impossible to write authentically from a perspective one has never experienced personally. People who have been silenced in the past do not take kindly to someone else trying to tell their story now that those stories are finally being recognized as significant. If an established European American author submits a manuscript for a story representing another culture, will there be room for emerging writers from that culture to compete?

9. Author's or Illustrator's Perspective. In the past, children's books were written by authors who were White, members of the middle class, heterosexual, able-bodied, and Christian, with one result being that a narrow Eurocentric perspective has dominated children's literature in the UnitedStates.  For example, the abolitionists featured in the past were the White members of the Underground Railroad, when in actuality, most abolitionists were African Americans.  Watch for books that present multiple perspectives. Does the total collection present many world views? Are readers encouraged to consider a situation form several perspectives?

10. Language. Examples of offensive terms include: "savage,""primitive," "conniving," "lazy," "superstitious," "treacherous," "wily," "crafty," "inscrutable," "docile," "backward," "bitter," "barren," "squaw," "papoose," and "Indian givers."  Consider the effect of the use of the color white as the ultimate in beauty, cleanliness, or virtue (angel food); and the color black or use of"dark" as evil, dirty, or menacing (devil's food). 

11. Copyright Date.  Books on minority themes, often hastily conceived, suddenly began appearing in the mid-and late 1960s.  Most of these books were written by White authors, edited by White editors, and published by White publishers.  They often reflected a White, middle-class, mainstream point of view.  Not until the early 1970s did the children's book world begin to even remotely reflect the realities of a pluralistic society.  The copyright date may be one clue as to how likely the book is to be overtly biased, although a recent copyright date is not guarantee of the book's authenticity.  Conversely, do not throw out all the books with old copyright dates!  Use these guidelines to examine each one.

There's more! Please see the blog post "Resisting Racism: Children's Booklist" for a working list of anti-bias books to read with your little one.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

"I Don't Like His Brown Skin"

 © Sharon Chang and MultiAsian Families Blog, Nov 7 2012.

A few weeks ago, just before my son turned 3, he informed me he didn't like one of his teachers because of his "brown skin." My heart stopped. I was horrified and totally panicked. For 5 seconds I was completely tongue-tied. My son looked right into my eyes, waiting for a response. He was clearly testing. What happens when I say this thing? Eventually all I could muster was a, "Really?" (to which he answered firmly, "Yeah") And then frankly I don't remember what I said because I became completely overcome with shame and a feeling that I had failed as a parent.

Before I was ever a mother, I was an early music educator. After a half decade working with primarily middle upper income, White families I felt a growing dissatisfaction with my career trajectory. I wanted to be more involved with families of color. I transitioned into anti-bias preschool teaching and in so doing learned a lot of techniques for discussing and exploring race with young children. So of course when I had my own child, who is a child of color, I launched immediately into racial ethnic explorations with him. I have talked to him about skin, hair and eye color since he was a baby. This was not something I experienced growing up - so I've been flying blind a little bit. Other than the training and reading I've done, I have no role models for how to discuss race with my young child. Just going by the book, so to speak. And I guess I thought this radical, progressive approach would result in a son who would never think a racist thought.

But what happened instead is my little guy developed early a vocabulary to talk about the racial differences and inequalities he was seeing. He knows this subject is extremely important to me and my husband. He hears us talking about it all the time. So he folded what he was hearing and observing into to his thinking and experimenting. And here's the truth - at this particular facility where he interacts with this particular teacher, there are very few people of color. The few that there are, are mostly light-skinned Asian. People with very dark skin, like my son's teacher, stand out like a sore thumb. Watching class one day, I asked a White mother (of a multiracial Black/White child) which was her daughter. She described the girl and I pointed out the wrong child. In correcting me she said, "I know - my husband and I were like, great. The only other Black girl in the room is wearing the same outfit."  There were probably 50 children in the facility at the time. Indeed I later said to my son (referencing his teacher), "Well Mommy has brown skin and you like me." He agreed but then walked up to me, stroked my cheek and said something like, "But Mommy doesn't have brown skin here."

My feelings of failure overwhelmed me for a week. I stopped talking about race with my son. I started censoring myself in his presence. I was embarrassed to reach out for support because I didn't want to admit he had said this horrible thing. I didn't want him to be judged. I felt like everything I had done was wrong. But eventually, with the kind encouragement of my husband and my community, I stopped being so hard on myself and realized it was perfectly normal for a 3 year old to begin verbalizing and exploring these issues. That it was important, no matter how hard or painful, for us to keep talking.

And here is the mind-blowing research: Children actually begin noticing differences, and constructing classificatory and evaluative categories very early.  As young as 6 months, infants demonstrate that they notice differences in skin color. By age 2, children are learning color names, which they begin to apply to skin color. By age 3 (and sometimes earlier), children show signs of being influenced by societal norms and biases and may exhibit "pre-prejudice" toward others on the basis of race (i.e. discomfort with physical differences). They can have negative biases toward others of different racial groups, even if they have never personally met a person of another group. By 4 or 5 years of age, children can already be seen using racial reasons for refusing to interact with other children different from themselves. Studies have found that by age 5, children can attribute an individual's ability according to the racial grouping in which they are supposed to belong. Despite some progress since the 1960s, US society remains intensely segregated across color lines. Generally speaking, Whites and people of color do not occupy the same social space or social status, and this very visible fact of American life does not go unnoticed by children. Not surprisingly, all children in this society learn at an early age that whiteness is privileged and darkness is not.

Young children are not the unsophisticated, innocent beings we adults imagine them to be. So many of us think they are incapable of seriously understanding the implications of race and racism. The reality is that 3, 4, and 5 year olds often hold a solid and applied understanding of the dynamics of race. Ignoring racism - perpetuates it. It's so important for us parents to bring race to the table. To challenge it. To acknowledge how tangible and real it is, but also how unfair. To talk about strategies and techniques for coping, surviving and fighting. And so I keep trying to swim upstream. To have these deeply painful conversations with my sweet little man when all I really want him to do is be young and free.