Watch for My Book

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

My 3 Year Old Has Experienced Racism (and yours probably has too)

(image by Tina Kugler)

©  Sharon Chang, Aug 26, 2013  as seen on Racism Review

I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news. But if there is a child of color in your life and if you ever read to them – then they have already experienced racism. 

First let’s clear one thing up. When many people think racism, they think extreme. Overtly aggressive, easily-identifiable. Slavery, KKK, Jim Crow, Japanese internment, etc. To be sure, very racist. But these overt forms of racism are now widely condemned and far less common. They still happen no doubt, but nowhere near the level they used to. No. These days racism has gone stealth; often taking less obvious, insidious forms. Harder to find. Harder to fight? Nowadays we understand racism as a system of oppression that unfairly advantages some (whites) over others on the basis of phenotype (skin color). Take a look around you and it’s easy to see this system of privilege in place. Who lives in the poorest neighborhoods? Who lives in the richest? Whose children go to the lowest funded, most scantily equipped schools? Whose children go to the most expensive, richly resourced private schools?

When my son was born I enthusiastically set out to find children's books that celebrated and reflected our family's unique multiracial Asian heritage. I figured there were so many mixed kids now I'd find tons of stuff. If not about mixed Asian (which admittedly is very specific) at least about Asian, multiracial or multicultural. I found a handful of books and then? Myself beating my head against a brick wall. I was mystified, frustrated and then infuriated. What was going on? I suddenly got that sinking-yucky-PoC feeling, "Uh oh there's something racial happening here." Not sure what else to do I began blogging, researching and collecting resources on my own (check out my AAPI Children's Booklist and Anti-Bias Children's Booklist).

Then early this summer my fears were confirmed. After it was revealed that whites had fallen to a minority in America's under-5 age group for the first time (NW Asian Weekly), a related 2012 report from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison garnered quick internet/media attention. The report found that despite our increasing diversity, the number of children’s books written by or about people of color is very low and has not changed in 18 years. Of the 3,600 books the CCBC received last year, only 3% were about African Americans, 2% were about Asian Pacific Americans, 1.5% were about Latinos, and less than 1% were about Native Americans and these numbers have stayed fairly consistent since the CCBC started keeping statistics in 1994 (Publisher's Weekly, SoCal Public Radio Airtalk). 

(image from Lee & Low Books)
 Some argue there isn’t large enough demand for main characters of color while others argue there can’t be a demand for something that’s not on the market (SoCal Public Radio Airtalk). But boil it down and it very simply looks like this. There are still few minority owned publishing companies in the U.S. Publishing is disproportionately controlled by whites who continue to favor producing products by, for, and about their own race despite very real evidence that the market demands something more diverse. This then has the trickle down effect of impacting what’s available to you and your family at bookstores, libraries, schools, etc. Yes people. It’s systemic. It’s institutional. It’s covert. It’s about power and race. That’s racism. And your children of color are at a disadvantage because of it.

In one of the most influential works on anti-bias early education, Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves, Louise Derman-Sparks & Julie Olsen Edwards address extensively the omission of diversity as a major dynamic of advantage and disadvantage in early learning materials. They reframe under- versus over- representation as a form of societal invisibility or visibility that “undermines some young children’s positive sense of self, while teaching other children that they are specially deserving” (3):
“Young children are learning about who is and isn’t important. Invisibility erases identity and experience; visibility affirms reality. When children see themselves and their families reflected in their early childhood setting, they feel affirmed and that they belong. When children’s identities and families are invisible, the opposite happens. Children feel that they are unimportant and do not belong. These lessons from societal visibility or invisibility are among the most powerful messages children receive…Children absorb these messages every day, often without the adults in their lives even knowing what the children are learning” (13-14).
And at the end of the day, as they point out, this is something impacting everyone regardless of race. According to FirstBook, a nonprofit dedicated to overcoming illiteracy, literacy is one of the best predictors of a child’s future success but when children see characters and hear stories that aren’t relevant to their lives, it makes it harder to engage and interest them (FirstBook). Low literacy skills lead to poor educational, employment and health outcomes. Many people in this category will not graduate from high school, will live at poverty levels, and be more likely to engage in criminal and anti-social behaviors. Over their lifetimes, they will cost the United States more than a quarter of a million dollars each (FirstBook).

(image from FirstBook)
Children’s books are also one of the most important launching pads for discussions about tough things (e.g. trying new foods, being scared of the dark, bullying, etc). If there aren’t many diverse children’s books then we can guess adults aren’t starting meaningful conversations on the subject at home, in school, etc. Indeed in the popular 2011 Nurtureshock, authors Pro Bronson and Ashley Merryman verify 75% of white parents almost never talk to their kids about race (Wired: Geekdad). Let’s follow this through to its obvious conclusion. We’ve got silence from the critical adults in children’s lives. We’ve got covert societal messages about who is and is not important via (in)visibility. We’ve got our children, left to themselves, easily making misinformed generalizations about groups of people (and not telling us about it). And then we’ve got their fairly innocent pre-prejudices, left mostly unattended, growing with them into…bias. And voila! Racism is reborn.

The early years are critical in setting the stage for who we become and the things we learn as children are the hardest to unlearn. So this is also a critical point of intervention for addressing racial inequities in this country. How can we ever undo racism if its foundation continues to be solidly, firmly poured in place? It isn’t only about naïve children and cute children’s books. It’s about the fact that we still aren’t having the conversations and we aren’t having them early enough. If we truly want to make a difference, let’s head it off at the gate.

What you can do:
  • READ & BUY (if you can) lots of books about/by PoC (request your child's teachers/friends/family do the same)  
  • ASK your local libraries, bookstores to to carry books about/by PoC
  • SPREAD THE WORD. If each one of us notices and cares together our small acts can make a big difference.



  1. Yes! I agree! I believe all children have the right to see themselves and their families represented in children's literature. I also believe that all children should be aware of people and cultures different from themselves. I'm so thankful for publishing companies such as Lee & Low and Barefoot Books for their commitment to producing high quality multicultural children's books. We need more! More books, but also more access to and awareness of them. Thank you for creating and sharing your anti-bias booklist! I'll continue to share book recommendations and do multicultural story times and hopefully more and more parents, teachers, and librarians will join us in our passion to get great multicultural children's books into the hands of children and the grown-ups who love them!

  2. I love this article. I run a storytime that places an emphasis on stories that places children of Colo(u)r at the center for this very reason. Thank you for your research and your writing on this. I'm building my library of books, I'm reading to kids in LA, we're maintaining a list on line and I'm in the process of writing my own Akan Twi alphabet book for kids.

  3. Appreciate the read. Love the work you're doing, Chris. So, SO important. Found LIKE'd you on FB ;-)

  4. It gets even more complicated. Note that the artist who created the image above chose to depict a black male child, a hispanic male child, a native american female child, and an asian female child. A little black girl or a little Asian boy looking at that picture might question why they were not included. Are they not considered minorities as well? Gendered racism begins very early, some combinations are preferred over others. Some children's tv shows depicting POC children depict the POC males as speaking with a foreign accent and as un assimilated while the POC females speak with perfectly unaccented English thus establishing and reinforcing the existing racial/gender paradigm.

    What is wrong with little Asian boys that they are rendered socially invisible? Note, that this particular picture is not an isolated incidence. In the vast majority of media, you will rarely see Asian male children as opposed to Asian female children.

  5. Im sorry to hear that , but your child will get used to it and maybe come up with ways to brush it off especially at that age

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