These Books Matter

When I took a course on Race, Culture, and schooling at grad school, the instructor’s main goal as stated was not to get us to “do” multiculturalism better, but to examine the very nature of discourse on race, ethnicity, and class. That course changed everything for me: it changed my reading practices, it changed the way I think about culture, it changed my ideas about research methods, truth claims, and identity politics. So many of the racialized images we see are of poverty, inner city crime, gang violence, and the “exotic other”, and they encourage a perpetuation of essentialist ideas. I don’t like talking about race, but the fact that I think I have a choice is why it is part of my work.To be honest,  I’ve also sat on this post for three weeks, just in case I’d screwed it up. But, as I have said before, It only gets better if we do something about it.

I didn’t pick up the button for my Blog Action Day post, nor did I snag any photos of women carrying huge burdens of water on their heads. If you have ever read anything I’ve written, or met me, you will know that it is not that I don’t want these situations alleviated. It is that I fear that images like this evoke pity, not solidarity.  And I will be darned if the only picture of a person of colour on my blog is an image of poverty and pathos.

I also avoid reading explicitly “multicultural” books to my kids. Multiculturalism may be better than allowing a tacit assumption that everybody is white, middle-class, Christian, able-bodied, and male. But it is a step on the path, not the solution itself. As a person with some invisible othernesses, I don’t find myself accurately represented, so I deduce that they are probably not doing a very good job for others. When I choose to read a book to my kids about people that don’t fall into the same categories as us, I try to make sure that it was actually written by a member of the group that is represented.

These books matter to me, because my children are growing up white. Really, really, white. In this rural area, we are at risk of staying stuck in 1956, where everybody looks like us, does what we do, and believes what we believe. (Clearly, the last is not true, since we are not actually members of the dominant culture around here, but let’s assume that is a risk.) So I try to make sure that my babies see diverse images in which diversity is not the point. These books matter because they normalize the idea that urban kids with dark skin go out and play in the snow. And have fun. And play tickle with their moms and dads. I am assured that they also matter to urban kids with dark skin who get to see themselves represented.

I was just reading a book by a white male author who was reflecting on his own childhood reading. (I will not name names, because I’m about to say something Not Very Nice about him, and he’s trying.) He was questioning the idea that girls want to see girls in their picture books and African Americans want to read about African Americans, because he remembers wanting to read about people different from himself. And I thought, “Ah, yes. But you had the option.” There are white boys that are heroes, and white boys that go on adventures, and do magic, and drive cars, and write books, and give wells to the “third world”. They get to be the villains, and the ones who fly in Peter Pan, and Treasure Island, and Where the Wild Things Are, and Harry Potter.

We talk about race, and the way it is portrayed. But more important for me is to include situations in which race is present, but only incidentally. This work is hard. But that is no excuse not to do it.

2 responses to “These Books Matter”

  1. It’s hard work, even for myself, a POC. I assume things are evident but forget I actually have to explicitly teach and discuss, or else the dominant culture will fill in the blanks for my boys about who they are and what they should be.

    • That must be difficult, because I can see that you aren’t going to like the blanks that the dominant culture fills in.

      I like this website: although their offerings above middle school are more of the history and exhortation variety (that is, IME, not very interesting to kids because they are too darned earnest). Do you think you could write some novels? In your copious spare time?