Last week, two attempts to “start a discussion about race” failed miserably. In the United States, the country’s best-known premium coffee chain, Starbucks, asked its baristas to initiate discussions about race with customers by writing “Race Together” on coffee cups and asking the customers to talk about their experiences. And in the UK, former head of the Commission for Racial Equality under Tony Blair and well-known Black British broadcaster Trevor Phillips presented a documentary entitled “Things We Won’t say about Race—That are True” on Channel 4. Both caused media firestorms. Starbucks was ridiculed on social media (with, for example, the Twitter hashtag “Black Coffee Matters”), and criticized for putting pressure on mostly young, mostly white baristas to initiate these “conversations.” Phillips has been excoriated by members of the Black British community (and embraced by the Daily Mail) for presenting truths such as “most black murder victims in Britain are killed by other black people” without adding “as are most white murder victims killed by white people,” or for his assertion that “Pakistanis were responsible for the systematic abuse of teenage girls in Rotherham” without saying “white people in power looked the other way while Jimmy Savile sexually abused hundreds of children over decades.”
The problem with both these efforts was not that they wanted to talk about something which has clearly become a central issue for many people in both the US and the UK. Frank and open discussion about problems is indeed the only way for people, communities, and nations to move forward without violence. The problem was that both Starbucks and Trevor Phillips wanted to talk about “race” as a uniquely definable entity, as something that “causes” you to act a certain way or feel left out of a conversation. Identities are complicated by all kinds of issues, racial and ethnic and gender and religious and sexual and familial and generational and economic issues, just to name a few. Simplifying the conversation to a single one of these concepts may put a spotlight on that issue, but it can also lead to misunderstanding and trivializing of people and their concerns.
This kind of oversimplification happens all the time in children’s literature, since writing about complex ideas in a few short words is a near-impossible task. It is also complicated when the group in power is writing about ways to solve the problem. Darren Chetty, a critical race philosopher at the Institute of Education in London, has written about how David McKee’s texts Tusk, Tusk and Elmer have been recommended as good starting points for discussing racism with children—but which (by virtue of distance from real people and their histories and issues) often reinforce the status quo and preference certain voices and solutions to problems over others (http://www.academia.edu/7945738/THE_ELEPHANT_IN_THE_ROOM_PICTUREBOOKS_PHILOSOPHY_FOR_CHILDREN_AND_RACISM).
Similarly, a book like Mary Hoffman’s Amazing Grace argues that its main character, Grace, can be anything she wants to be despite her gender and race. Struggle (against economic difficulties, against institutional opposition, for example) is not really a part of the story. Grace, like a neighbor’s daughter from Trinidad who has become a prima ballerina, succeeds in an artistic production designed and initiated by Europeans, and everyone applauds her ability to integrate. Initially, she is told by her classmates that she can’t be Peter Pan because she is black and female. Grace does not protest the selection of the story for a multiracial classroom (no mention is made of who will play Tiger Lily in the production, thus avoiding the difficult racial issues that are actually inherent in Barrie’s classic). In fact, she works hard to earn her place in it. And yet, why should she protest the choice of play? Grace spends her life pretending to be characters in stories—characters from European tradition, such as Dick Whittington, or characters interpreted through European eyes, such as Hiawatha or Mowgli. Although she also pretends to be Anansi, most of her story characters in this and other Grace books are European. When she goes to visit her father in Boundless Grace, for example, she takes only a book of (European) fairy tales with her to Africa, and complains that her own family has not turned out like the endings of fairy tales. She has been brought up believing in a world of white privilege, and it is unsurprising that she wants her life to match what she reads in her stories. Grace’s teacher values and supports literature approved as “classic”; although she welcomes new faces, she does not seek out new voices. Grace must adapt herself to the world in which she finds herself; it will not adapt itself to her.
As long as we keep trying to present human divisions through simple narratives that tell a single-focused side of a story, we will fail. Hoffman’s and McKee’s books are not bad picture books—in fact, they are award-winning and satisfying stories. I like them, and have read them to my children’s literature students and to my own child. But because of their simplified focus and easy solutions, they are as unlikely to change attitudes about racial issues as Starbucks or Trevor Phillips. Kids need multiple examples of the kinds of conflict that people face; we need books, in addition to the Hoffman and the McKee stories, which question the status quo. These don’t have to be books about racism (or sexism, or any other kind of ism). The real truth about ‘race’ that we don’t want to talk about is that although race is an arbitrary construction (we could be focused on all number of things—blue eyes versus brown, or height, or blood type), the history behind racial division on our planet is real and continues to have consequences in the daily lives of people everywhere. We cannot forget that long and painful history—nor reduce people to a single aspect of their existence. We cannot race together until we take a lot of baby steps first.