Shaping the Truth of What they Read about Race

“Young children do not readily question the truth of what they read and they are unlikely to be able to identify racial bias” (Anthony Page and Ken Thomas, Multicultural Education and the All-White School: 30).

While working on my current book project, I came across the quotation above, published in 1984. The authors were discussing how schools could become more “multicultural” in their curriculum, and they were arguing in favor of “removing” racially offensive books, such as Hugh Lofting’s Dr Dolittle series, from the classroom because primary-school children would be likely to accept racial stereotypes blindly. I found this idea depressing on two levels: one, the encouragement of censorship (especially as a means to improving racial relations!); and two, the assumption of an absence of critical thinking on the part of the very young.

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Young children, according to some critics, accept that this brown doll is “black as ink”. From Dean’s Gold Medal Alphabet and Counting Book

I know for a fact, however, that such an assumption is unfounded. Critical thinking in the young is not absent, and an awareness of ‘race’ as a way of othering is also present from an early age. My daughter asked if she was Black at the age of two, having been labelled thus by her nursery school classmate. When she was eight, I read her Oliver Twist; she asked why Dickens repeatedly referred to Fagin as “the Jew”. Children question the idea of otherness all the time; the answers they receive to their questions dictate whether they will be likely (rather than able) to “identify racial bias” to a teacher or other authoritarian figure.

Of course, Page and Thomas were particularly focused on the all-white school, and their thesis was that students who only saw white children in leadership roles or non-white people in stereotypical ones would be unlikely to dispute this. This is not, however, the fault of the students (as Page and Thomas would have it); instead, it is the result of a pervasive societal emphasis on the value of whiteness. As Darren Chetty has effectively argued (http://www.periodicos.proped.pro.br/index.php/childhood/article/view/1653/1246), the normalcy of whiteness closes off discussions of race and racism. However, it is possible to open up these discussions, depending on the literature a child is presented with—and the other people they have to talk about it with.

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What did this picture mean to viewers in 1947? To the editors, it showed an object, beginning with N.

Two examples from my research at Seven Stories this year come to mind. One is a book that Page and Thomas might well consign to the censored book heap, W. Suschitzky’s Open-Air ABC (Collins, 1947). The book, like many alphabet books, has a picture next to the letter of the alphabet and a word that starts with that letter. In this case, each picture is a photograph, taken by Suschitzky, of outdoor scenes in Britain. While many alphabet books from this time had pictures of (G is for) Golliwogs (hideous or comic dolls supposedly representing Black people), or (I is for) Indians (usually white children dressed up in headdresses and buckskins), Suschitzky’s book takes an unusual step in presenting the letter N. Here is a full-color photograph of a well-dressed, beautiful child with a book, looking patiently at the camera. This is not the common image of people of African descent in 1940s children’s literature. So in that sense, the photographer was doing something quite radical. However, at the same time, the publisher describes the book as presenting “all sorts of objects the child is familiar with” (jacket flap). A “Negro,” however beautiful and beautifully photographed, becomes an object for (presumed white) children to look at by virtue of the book’s paratextual information. In this way, the “normal” (defined by the publisher’s blurb as the white, English) reader is closed off from thinking of the radical possibilities of Suschitzky’s photograph. But children can and should be taught to read and understand this information to see how publishers and editors shape readers’ understanding of whiteness as normal.

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From Over the Hills and Far Away, four similar rhymes from around the world. Why do children know Miss Muffet best?

 

Another example can be found in the beautiful book and Seven Stories exhibit (on until February 2017) about nursery rhymes. The exhibit is titled Rhyme Around the World—and it is a delight—and the book that the exhibit is based on is entitled Over the Hills and Far Away: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes from Around the World, edited by co-founder of Seven Stories, Elizabeth Hammill (Frances Lincoln, 2014). The book compares what might be considered “traditional” English nursery rhymes with similar rhymes from around the world. The page of rhymes that begins with “Little Miss Muffett” has four versions (illustrators Clara Vulliamy, Jenny Bent, Amy Schwartz and Bruce Whatley), each given equal space, but the Jamaican “Miss Julie” is the most prominent child figure on the page, in her red dress and with her powerful stance. Although the other rhymes are, like the Jamaican version, in different forms of English (Australian and American), the Jamaican one is the most different-seeming (because it is in patois). Hammill’s collection and exhibition aim to give value and introduce readers to other cultures; in this case, the English rhyme dominates (it is certainly more common to Americans, for example, than the given American version, “Little Miss Tuckett”) and a sensitive interlocutor might lead a discussion as to why this is so (especially since most children have no idea what tuffets or curds and whey are anymore). Not all the pages are comparisons; some have just English rhymes and some have just rhymes from a particular country or region. The set-up of this page might suggest the “normalcy” of English/British versions of the nursery rhymes, but it doesn’t close off discussion by providing only that version.

 

Both of these books have, I would argue, anti-racist intentions (at least at some level). However, closely examining these books (and others that you can probably think of yourself) with children (or children’s literature students) could potentially lead to difficult discussions about how certain discourses/images/ideas come to dominate the literature that the majority of children (white or not) see in their day-to-day lives. But discussions of racism and whiteness are not comfortable, and a racially hierarchical world has never been a safe space for non-white people. If we as adults direct discussions in ways that protect the “safe space” feelings of white people (including, sometimes, the white people leading those discussions!), we accept that whiteness is a privileged space in need of protection. We allow racism to continue, and keep our children from seeing the truth about racism in children’s literature.

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