Tag Archives: institutional racism

We Didn’t Win to Have You Here: Activism after Victories in Children’s Lit

Yesterday, French voters went to the polls, and much of the rest of the world watched to see if France would go the way of the US and the UK—that is, toward increasingly isolationist, authoritarian, anti-immigrant governments.  In the end, the majority of voters rejected Marine Le Pen’s ultra-right views, electing Emmanuel Macron instead.  Macron is emphatically described as a centrist in just about every news profile of him; an investment banker who worked as economy minister for the socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls, Macron is pledging to fight “the forces of division that undermine France” (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-39841707).  But he has never been elected to anything before, so it remains to be seen how—and if—he will be able to do that.  My first reaction to Macron’s victory was relief that France had not elected Le Pen.  My second was think of a children’s book that warned against the dangers of thinking that right-wing extremism could be ended by a change in regime.

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Anna, in Kerr’s text, came to love France–but not all the French people loved her “kind”.

The children’s book was one that first taught me, as a child myself, about grey areas in politics.  Holocaust literature in general remains popular with young readers because it is “real” history that ordinary children were involved in—and the good guys and bad guys, especially in the books I read as a child, are obvious.  While YA Holocaust literature was more nuanced about the badness of bad guys, books for the under-twelve set typically allied—well, the allies, with each other.  So the French, Dutch, and British were good, the Germans and Austrians were bad.  (And Jewish people typically were just that—Jewish, not British or German or anything else.)  But Judith Kerr’s semi-autobiographical When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1971) presented a more complicated picture—particularly of France.  France, in my nine-year-old understanding of the world, was full of good guys who had unfortunately been “overrun” by the evil Nazis in 1940.  Anna and her family end up in France—though neither as a first nor a last resort—after escaping from Nazi Germany soon after Hitler’s election.  A French newspaper employs Anna’s father, and Anna and her brother Max struggle as refugees to learn the language and fit in—but eventually, “going back to Paris felt more like going home than they would ever have thought possible” (148).  Unfortunately, it does not remain that way.  While many French people help Anna’s family, not all the French are “good guys”.  In fact, their landlady becomes increasingly difficult, eventually lashing out at them by saying, “Hitler knew what he was doing when he got rid of people like you!” (177) and, ominously, “The government should have had more sense than to let you into our country!” (177).  The landlady is French, but sympathizes with the Nazis—not after the fall of France, but several years before it.  My childhood understanding of history fell apart.

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In Carlson’s book, it is the children–not the adults or the institutions–that can see beyond race and build community.

But although my sense of history may have undergone some reorganization, I did not lose the belief that children could play a tangible role in bringing about social and cultural change, or that they could learn how to do this through books.  A less historical—though not by any means ahistorical—picture of French anti-racism can be found in an earlier book, written by American Natalie Savage Carlson who lived in Paris for several years.  A Brother for the Orphelines (1959) may seem, like A Bear Called Paddington, to be set outside time in the unpolitical world of childhood.  But Carlson’s book, published in the midst of the Algerian anti-colonial struggle against France, concerns the rescue of an Algerian orphan by the French orphelines from abandonment.  The well-intentioned orphelines bring the Algerian boy to a “world where the ceiling is leaking and the walls are falling in” (33) because the government doesn’t care about repairing the orphanage; and even the kind orphanage managers squabble over where the “dark-skinned” baby originated.  The orphelines, on the other hand, focus on community, defending their home and “feeling offended at the way the grown-ups were acting as if the baby were different because he was dark-skinned” (32).  Carlson’s text is not problem-free—there are typical orientalist descriptions of the adult Algerians, for one thing—but the orphelines see the Algerian baby as just another child who needs a safe and happy home, and take it upon themselves to secure one for all of them since they can see that the adults and institutions that surround them are either indifferent or prone to casual racism that would divide the orphans into “us” and “them,” deserving (white) children and undeserving (not-white and “foreign”) children.

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Centrist or no, Macron still governs a France that, at least in part, fears the flood at the door.

Kerr and Carlson wrote as adults, and Carlson especially created “ideal” children in her book; but that is not to say that real young people do not understand the consequences of nationalism tied to indifference and racism, whether institutional or individual.  In 1979, the community publisher Centerprise published teenager Savitri Hensman’s book of poems, Flood at the Door, which discusses the racist and anti-immigrant attitudes he faced in 1970s England.  One of these poems, “World War Two,” has echoes of the themes found in both Carlson’s and Kerr’s books.  Hensman writes, “‘We didn’t win to have you here,’/ You say, and flaunt the Union Jack” (8).  The separation between “we” and “you” is a false dichotomy, Hensman argues, when he writes in the next line, “But by your side we fought” (8).  A false dichotomy with real consequences; the poem that follows is about an Asian being stabbed and kicked to death by racists who tell him “to go back” (9) where he came from.  The police do nothing.

While Macron won, Le Pen still received a third of the votes cast.  And this means that while Macron argued that “France” won the election, there is another France that does not agree.  The France of Le Pen, like the right-wing extremist element in America or Britain, is not powerless to affect the day-to-day lives, or indeed the laws and policies, governing ordinary people in France.  That is why activists and children’s authors must continue to fight injustice no matter who is in power—because we didn’t win to have racists here.

Trouble with the Teacher: The Ferguson Commission, Unconscious Bias, and Children’s Literature

Yesterday, the Ferguson Commission released its report on the August 2014 incident in which the 18-year-old African-American Michael Brown was shot by white police officer Darren Wilson. The sixteen-member commission, headed by Rich McClure and Starsky Wilson, decided that it would be pointless to simply examine the shooting in a vacuum, as an isolated incident. Instead, the report looks at St. Louis county institutions, government, policing, and education, through a wide-angle lens. The commission points out disparities in income, unequal access to services, and inequalities in education. A searchable version of the 198-page report can be found here: http://forwardthroughferguson.org/ but I want to focus on just one aspect of the report for this blog. The commission, in a section of the report entitled Youth at the Center, tackles the issue of school discipline and unconscious bias. In Missouri during the 2011-12 school year, more than seven times as many black children as white children were suspended at the elementary school level. This is not, then, the suspension of teenagers, but of children under the age of 12. “In addition to hurting academic performance,” the commissioners write, “this disproportionate discipline of Black students lowers teacher expectations and has been shown to increase the likelihood of future incarceration” (http://forwardthroughferguson.org/report/signature-priorities/youth-at-the-center/). The authors of the report do not argue that teachers are uniformly racist; in fact, they point out, all teachers regardless of race tended to label black students as troublemakers. The bias, they suggest, is unconscious—but sadly pervasive.

This is not, of course, a new or especially American problem. Schools in many multicultural countries have long had disparities in the treatment of children based on race. This difference can be seen in children’s literature over time. One landmark British book that introduced many readers to this racial disparity was Bernard Ashley’s The Trouble with Donovan Croft (1974).

Do you think you can see what the trouble with Donovan is?

Do you think you can see what the trouble with Donovan is?

Donovan Croft is a West Indian boy who is fostered by the Chapman family when Donovan’s parents have to leave, his mother to Jamaica to care for her dying father, and his father to work. Because of the sudden loss of his family, Donovan becomes silent. This, apparently, is the trouble with Donovan Croft: that he won’t speak his feelings and thoughts. There are two groups of (white) people that interact with Donovan in Ashley’s book: the well-meaning and patronizing, and the violent. Donovan’s teacher, Mr. Henry, reacts to Donovan’s silence by slapping him, and a neighbor, Mrs. Parsons, almost slaps him as well. Both call him racial epithets. This is the obvious racism against “different” children seen throughout the world. But Donovan also faces more subtle “othering” from people who are “on his side.” Mrs. Chapman, Donovan’s foster mother “found herself talking to him in a sing-song voice she might have used on a four- or five-year-old” (31), and she often speaks of him in diminutives (“poor little devil,” p. 70 for example). She tells the school that his old school reports have been good, but she speaks of him as though he were in need of help, and not very bright or capable. The psychologist brought in to try and help Donovan speaks to Donovan’s real father in much the same way. Mrs. Chapman and Dr. Spencer both mean well, and are quite a contrast to obvious racists like Mr. Henry. But their unconscious expectations do affect Donovan—and presumably, might continue to do so throughout his school career. The publisher’s (Penguin Puffin) description of the book carries on these unconscious biases, positioning the reader of Ashley’s novel to both pity and blame Donovan Croft for his own situation: “Poor Donovan . . . went on resisting all the well-meaning efforts made to explain to him and to help him, making everything more difficult for everybody” (“Puffin Books: The Trouble With Donovan Croft front matter). If Donovan would only accept the help of white people . . . but “they” never do, and “we” all suffer.

The obvious racism of Donovan's teacher blinds us to the low expectations of well-meaning adults.

The obvious racism of Donovan’s teacher blinds us to the low expectations of well-meaning adults. Illustration by Fermin Rocker.

Ashley’s book was written during a time when Britons were trying to come to terms with changing demographics; one could argue that the biases displayed in the book (conscious or unconscious) are historic, and would not happen now. Certainly the level of everyday brutality of white adults toward black children has decreased (and indeed, is now illegal in schools—which it wasn’t in 1974). But it is important, as the Ferguson Commission emphasizes, not to dismiss bias or assign it only to a few isolated individuals. Unconscious bias is more difficult to dismantle, because it can seem random when not considered as part of a whole picture. To illustrate what I mean, I want to look at a later British children’s book, one I like very much because it is cheerful and optimistic and multicultural: Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s 1988 Starting School. Written during a period of conscious attempts to make schooling in Britain inclusive, Starting School is heartfelt in its attempts to do just this. A group of multiracial children start school in a warm, welcoming reception (kindergarten) classroom with a pleasant teacher. The children are shown in all sorts of activities, and non-white children are shown reading and doing other intellectual activities (puzzles, for example). The culture is assimilative (at the end of the term, the children have a nativity play as many British schools, whatever their religious makeup, still do) but also accepting (an Indian girl wears her sari to show-and-tell). The parents are involved in the school (the Black British boy’s mother plays the piano for music class). The children are not always happy, but they mostly are, and any young reader who read (or was read) this picture book would likely see the classroom depicted therein as an enviable one.

In (almost) perfect harmony--the Ahlberg's racially diverse class starts school.

In (almost) perfect harmony–the Ahlberg’s racially diverse class starts school.

Yet even in a book that tries (and mostly succeeds) so earnestly to depict the kind of society free from racism that we might all want, there is possible unconscious bias. The teacher depicted by the Ahlbergs is, in general, ideal, but “Sometimes the teacher is not cheerful either” (Starting School n.p.). The illustrations on the page show all sorts of situations which might try any teacher’s patience, but in only one is she chastising a child. That child is nonwhite; aligned with him by looking in the same direction (up at the teacher) is another nonwhite child. Standing by the teacher, and aligned with her, is a white child.

We all have bad days--but on whom do we take it out?

We all have bad days–but on whom do we take it out?

I do not think the Ahlbergs thought of this and deliberately depicted it this way, but it does stand out; and it is these small incidents that the people on the Ferguson Commission argue add up to lower expectations and lower success rates for nonwhite children everywhere. One picture does not matter, but it does as part of a societal pattern. The only way to combat unconscious bias is to make ourselves aware of it, not just in the big ways, but in the little, hardly-noticed incidents by which we chip away at each other because we are different.

It Should be Easy as ABC

Six months ago, when I started this blog, I wrote about an incident involving white police officers and African-American youths. Over the last couple of days, white police officers have been in the news again with reference to their treatment of the people that they serve. On Friday, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, head of the Metropolitan Police in London admitted there was “some justification” for labeling the police force as “institutionally racist” (read the story here http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-london-33025853; if you happen to have access to BBC television, you can also watch a documentary series on the Met that began last night). And in the US, of course, the headline news is the white police officer waving a gun at a pool party and arresting a teenage girl wearing a bikini (nowhere to hide a weapon there, officer) and calling for her mother. Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, although admitting that there was a problem with the police force, also suggested that it is the fault of all of us; society, he said, is institutionally racist.

Leaving aside the loaded grammatical (society is not an institution, ergo it cannot be institutionally racist) and cultural (blame the victim) elements of Hogan-Howe’s statement, I would like to focus on what I think is his intended message (and potentially an empowering one for us all): it’s not just the police that need to change, it’s all of us. We need to change how we think, and change our actions. It is quite easy to blame others and then change the channel. But in both the US and the UK (and I’m sure other countries as well, though these are the only two I have lived in) we watch television, go to stores, read books, learn history—the greater percentage of which privileges the white, socioeconomically successful people over others. And most of us (no matter what category/ies we put ourselves in) accept that this is “just the way it is.”

Back in 1969, during another time of institutional oppression and popular unrest, a television show aimed to change the focus for very young children. Television and books for the young were, at the time, both very white and suburban. Think Romper Room (which began in 1953) and the Dick and Jane books. Television producer Joan Cooney wanted a show that would teach kids to read, but not just suburban white kids. She set her new show in the city, with trash cans and plenty of cement clearly visible. She also dictated that the humans on the show must “be a mix of male and female, white and black, and that no character assume a lead role” (Street Gang 168). The show, Sesame Street, was for everyone—because its producers believed that everyone had a right to education AND community.

A Reason to Celebrate

It is difficult in today’s world to reach the broad demographic and high percentage of the population that Sesame Street reached in the early 1970s. But there are ways to reach that population of early readers that didn’t even exist in my childhood, grassroots ways that go back to a different idea of education. Innosanto Nagara, like Joan Cooney, wanted to reach early readers and teach them about community. Nagara, originally from Indonesia and now living in the US, wrote an alphabet book for his son. Friends liked it and urged him to publish it—but any new author who has tried to get work published knows what a fraught business (with emphasis on the word business) that is. So he initiated a kickstarter campaign, and raised enough money to get it self-published. A is for Activist preaches what Nagara practices: getting involved and being a part of your earth. In the book, Nagara promotes everything from “Equal rights, black, brown or white” to “healthy food—a human right” to “L-G-B-Q-T, love who you choose.” The book uses humor (“U is for Weekends. U is for Workers’ Rights! Wait, that’s not U, that’s DOUBLE U. U is for Union.”), collage (photos of people like Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King, Jr. are mixed in with Nagara’s own illustrations), and friendly animals (cats and penguins, for example) to teach an alphabet that is not always the easy version. Reaching the letter X, Nagara urges readers to consider Malcolm X as well as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks because “History’s lessons can be complex.” This is an earnest, leftist alphabet, but it does not presume that peaceful protests, gardening, and learning about other cultures will be enough to change the world.

Although started through self-publishing, A is for Activism was picked up by independent publisher Seven Stories Press—whose children’s books are distributed by global megapublisher Random House, in a rather ironic twist. But global megapublishers have long been part of the “institutionally racist” part of society that Hogan-Howe complains about, so it is only fitting that they too—along with the Malcolm Xs of the world—must be part of the solution. But changing society will take the active participation of me and you too. We may not be willing or able to protest police action, or write books, or admit our own failures. But we can take a stand by doing something as simple as reading to our kids. As Nagara writes, “A is for Activist. . . . Are you An Activist?”