Sympathy for the Devil: Writing about Racists for Children

While in New Beacon books in London, I came across a book whose title gave me pause—so I bought it. Anne Rooney’s Race Hate, part of the “Voices” series from Evans, was published in 2006. According to the back cover blurb, the “Voices” series “brings alive a range of modern-day issues—many of them highly controversial—and aims to stimulate debate and discussion.” A quick glance at the other titles in the series suggest that the issues are not necessarily controversial—presumably one is not expected to be pro-Hunger or pro-Poverty—but that the “debate and discussion” will center on who or what is to blame for whatever eponymous topic is being considered.

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And despite a claim (also from the back cover blurb) to be “broad-minded” about race hate, Rooney’s book from the beginning has already packaged the debate within to give young readers the “correct” answer to race hate: it’s a bad thing (sorry—should I have given a spoiler alert on that?). But it also, subtly, gives readers answers to the question who or what is to blame, and (perhaps most controversially) who is a victim of race hate.

As is perhaps common in this age, race hate is no one’s fault. “Much of the world’s racial tension,” the author writes, “is rooted in the past” (12); later, she argues that “The Internet is used more and more to spread racist materials and bring racists together” (40—note the shift to the word “racist” instead of “racial tension”). These two statements are not in and of themselves controversial, but they do something in the text which prevent the reader from being able to pinpoint blame. “History” and “the internet” are responsible for race hatred, and therefore there is little an individual can do about it. At various times in the text, computer games (28) and the media (30) are also blamed. These things may all be factors in the rise of racist behavior, but they are not the cause of it. Racist behavior is caused by humans, and can only be stopped by humans.

Race Hate seems to acknowledge this on the final two-page spread of the book, entitled “Is there a way forward?” Rooney writes, “Taking a stand might mean arguing a case or choosing to be with different people” (42), but she unfortunately undermines this positive message. One of the quotations she uses to discuss taking a stand is from a former member of a racist group who speaks now to youth. This individual (and none of the individuals are identified by their full names, making it hard to verify the “truth” of this book) says in part that a bad economy “wasn’t [Black people’s] fault then and it’s not their fault now. It’s an economic problem, not a race problem” (42). So now it is the economy that is to blame, another non-human entity. Additionally, the message about “choosing to be with different people” also gets blurred. “Some people forge friendships with those from different backgrounds, but find they are bullied or criticized for it,” (43) Rooney writes. The book’s final quotation is from a girl who “treat[s] everyone the same” (43). This suggests that we should not acknowledge difference, and we should erase the deep and problematic histories of racist behavior across the globe. It is also a bit facetious; if she treated everyone “the same” then she would not understand the question of race in the first place.

That this book is aiming to reach—and perhaps is even mainly directed at—one particular group is clear from a number of the book’s “discussion topics.” Rooney is careful not to blame white people any more than any other racial group in the book, and even discusses white people as victims (this is perhaps why the title is “race hate” and not “racism”). She includes quotations from an African-American who killed a white woman because he “hated white people” (11). The two-page spread about Zimbabwe says that “black militants” and “black aggressors” (15) are killing or encouraging white farmers to leave the only country they have known. But on the very next pages, discussing immigration, Americans are not labelled militants and aggressors for “resentment and even violence” (17) when “unskilled workers” try to enter the country. And in the section titled “Racism against whites?” the author works hard to keep her tone “neutral,” through a passive voice and unanswered questions. “Some white people feel strongly that they are being treated unfairly . . . Do they have a right to protest?” (36). She does not answer the question directly, but white supremacist groups, who “want to put white people in control again” (37) in much the same way as the Zimbabweans discussed previously, are not militants or aggressors. Instead, Rooney says merely, “Their activities often stir up race hate” (37). This is important: the white supremacists do not hurt or kill people, their “activities” stir up bad feelings. But Blacks who want the same control over their country—which was taken from them by colonialism—are militant aggressors.

White farmer falls victim to militant aggression . . .

White farmer falls victim to militant aggression . . .

. . . does he have a right to protest?

. . . does he have a right to protest?

Race hate is a bad thing, no matter who is doing the hating. But arguing that white people suffer as much and in the same ways as other groups of people discounts the past of dominance, colonialism, and brutality by white people over these other groups, and the ways that this white privilege still manifests itself today. We must examine our own actions and statements with this in mind, and teach all our children to do the same; only then can we start to dismantle race hate.

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