Doing the Work

I cannot believe that I’m halfway through this sabbatical! I could easily spend another 6 months simply researching the past, present and future implications of the simianization of Black people particularly in children’s books; the antiblackness this expresses and the dehumanization it enacts. But, for now, my work is focused on the writing.

Well, writing with a few disruptions. November, for me is filled with conferences. I’ll be presenting with Julia Torres at AASL, a conference I’ve not attended since I first became a school librarian. I have three panels at NCTE and I’ll also be attending ALAN.

Sibert work is in full gear. ALSC award committees have transitioned into nomination mode. This means me giving some of the informational children’s books I’ve been reading a second or third going over with many, many notes.

That won’t leave much time for blogging, but it seems there never is the time there used to be.

Lerner Publications has recently created infographics that relate information on diversity in youth literature. The information is aggregated from #ReadWoke librarian Cicely Lewis, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, We Need Diverse Books, and School Library Journal.

 Using these graphics, as well as those prepared by Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen  and David Huyck, by Lee and Low, and by Maya Gonzalez are important ways to observe quantitative change in children’s publishing. Each of these graphics documents that while there is some upward movement in the number of books published, the number of authors and illustrators published and the number of people publishing books remains the work done predominantly by White people. The data doesn’t provide a glimpse at changes that should be happening when there is a true commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion. To me, relying on these numbers alone is troubling because this movement isn’t just about the books. It never was just about the books. It’s about disrupting the Whiteness that permeates the culture, language, practices and policies that produces the books. An industry dominated by Whiteness can only continue to produce books steeped in Whiteness. This isn’t me saying all White people need to go, but it is me saying make room for us, too.  Quite acting like there isn’t enough, like Indigenous people or people of color cannot or should not tell their stories, too.

There’s such a dilemma here because improving the representation in youth lit will help lead to a more equitable society, but we need a more equitable society to produce better representation.

The difference we need to make is actually about the Whiteness, the western/euro centric ideas and concepts that dominate the globe. For example, Sunday night, I was listening to a segment on 60 Minutes about work that is currently being done to protect panda bears in China. The reporter mentioned almost in passing that the first pandas were seen by western naturalists in 1869. Read that carefully: The reporter mentioned almost in passing that the first pandas were seen by western naturalists in 1869 with no mention about Chinese interaction with the bears. It implies that the pandas weren’t really seen by anyone until westerners saw them. This seemingly benign statement provides power and privilege to Western Europeans over the Chinese in their own homeland, and it happens all the time. This is one way Whiteness infests us.

Another way is every bit as insidious: we miss the fact that we are all infested to some degree with Whiteness. Yet, we continually act like all IPOC, are ‘woke’, are on the path of resistance and are incapable of bias or discrimination. IPOC, too can value eurocentric ways of being and can harbor implicit racism. Zetta Elliott recently shared this article with me about a race based shooting in which Latinx teenagers shot an African American man when he told them they couldn’t use the n-word. And what about Andrew Yang?  Other incidents of antiblackness from brown people led Dr. Nell Irvin Painter to write an editorial for the NY Times.  She writes, “Instead of asking what the boys’ reported racial identity tells us about the nature of the attack, we should see the boys as enacting American whiteness through anti-black assault in a very traditional way. In doing so, the assailants are demonstrating how race is a social construct that people make through their actions. They show race in the making, and show how race is something we perform, not just something we are in our blood or in the color of our skin.” That performance is scripted by Whiteness; by race base imperialism.

We are not each other’s enemies. Our enemies are imperialism, colonialism, fear and mistrust.

I know there are those who reason that the term  “IPOC” is part of the problem, that it creates a false sense of unity that can lead the unaware to assume that the injustice faced by Blacks is the same as that face by Asians and by this same logic, we realize how problematic all umbrella terms can be: “Latinx“, “Native American”, “Asian American” and even “American”. “Black” ignores the separate identities of first generation Nigerian or Somalian immigrants who have the experience of colonialism and dictatorships with Black Americans who endure the legacy of enslavement. Each of these terms hides unique, individual cultures and ways of being. I think we should use them with care.

“IPOC” can also lead some to expect a single identity (typically Black women) to do the work of us all, and when this out front group goes strong for their own identity or doesn’t address a particular community, then, they’re called out. Yes, if we step up and lead, we take on a responsibility but, if you’re going to follow someone you also have the responsibility to understand their agenda.

“IPOC” people who are working to disrupt children’s literature usually work hard to be inclusive. I know my work privileges cishet, able-bodied African American women,, but I work hard not to diminish or ignore Native Americans, Latinx, Asian Americans, LGBTQIA+ or those with disabilities. I’m not going to criticize another oppressed person’s work that may not mention African Americans. I will lift them up and I’ll double back to do my own work to lift up African Americans. I just doesn’t work to criticize efforts to bring justice into this work and your work is only built on criticizing those with whom you’re yoked. You’ll get much further building your own foundation rather than tearing someone else’s down. My life isn’t any better as long as Latin American children are locked in cages, as long as Asian Americans are white-faced in movies, as long as transwomen are murdered for no reason other than their existence, as long as people with disabilities are denied access. So, stop expecting that all IPOC have the answers on equality and justice. Start checking your own implicit biases.

diversity-154704_1280We’re all learning on this journey and our learning is expressed through our stories. Stories matter. I’ve read somewhere that the only thing that separates us one from the other is our stories. We all want to know we matter. We want our stories told.

If only all we needed to be concerned with is what we find in books. If only! I won’t lie, most of this is motivated by ish I’ve seen and read too much of recently. I watch, I see. And my blog posts often come from how I make sense of these situations for my ownself. I think about the stupid stuff I’ve said and done, things I’ve been taught along the way and how much I still need to learn. And I take you on this journey with me. I research, I learn and I write.


One thought on “Doing the Work

  1. I visit nine DK and kindergarten classes every week and I feel depressed by the books they have on display in their classrooms, very few of which show people of color on the covers. This year I’ve made it my mission to take at least one book every week that features a child who is not White (I also took one about a gender fluid child). Most of the kids in the schools are White, but I think it’s important for them to see people who are different from them.


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