Tag Archives: institutional racism

Acceptable Racisms and Children’s Literature

There are two kinds of racism: incidental, by which I mean something that happens because of the actions of individuals; and systemic, by which I mean the deep-rooted, institutionally-supported disadvantages experienced by people of color.  These two racisms are not mutually exclusive; often, someone feels that their individual racist comment or belief is justified because the system or society does not censure their speech or action.  Equally, if individuals were more willing to examine and censure the individual racisms of themselves and those around them, systemic racism would begin (or at least be easier) to break down.  But they certainly manifest in different ways.

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Anne Rooney’s Race Hate tries to take a balanced approach by interviewing racists. But Race Hate is apparently an individual, rather than an institutional, problem.

This week, news items in the UK and US showed both kinds of racism.  In the UK, what seem to be examples of incidental racism actually point to systemic problems.  And in the US, a result that seems to suggest systemic problems highlights the responsibility of individuals.  Bonfire Night in the UK saw one group of people delighting over the burning of a model of Grenfell Tower (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/grenfell-tower-model-bonfire-burned-guy-fawkes-party-a8618661.html), and a Tory councilor wearing blackface at a Bonfire Night event in Hever (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/nov/07/tory-councillor-wears-blackface-kent-bonfire-celebrations).  These were both roundly condemned in the media and the public, as well as by officials.  Theresa May criticized the Grenfell Tower bonfire.  And yet, her condemnation was called out by several people who pointed out that many Tower residents are still unhoused nearly a year-and-a-half after the fire (see, for example, Nikesh Shukla’s tweet from 6 November 2018).  The bonfire was unacceptable racism; but the system that allows the people of Grenfell Tower to continue to suffer at the hands of the government is not changed.  Similarly, the Tory councilor was participating in the bonfire as a member of a Church of England school PTA.  The school dissociated itself from the incidental racism, saying, “We are very proud to be a multicultural school with ‘respect, love and wisdom’ as our motto” (Guardian online); but they failed to acknowledge their responsibility to ensuring that all members of their community—PTA included—embraced the slogan.  Neither the government nor the church created or directly encouraged the individual racist behavior.  But the government’s and the church’s own lack of action on racism makes it easier for racists to act.

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“People may have racist ideas instilled in them”: but who is doing the instilling?

Children’s books, even well-intentioned ones, do not always make this link between individual acts and institutional racism.  Anne Rooney’s Voices: Race Hate (Evans Brothers 2006) is part of a series which, according to the back cover, “brings alive a range of modern-day issues—many of them highly controversial—and aims to stimulate debate and discussion.”  Although I am not convinced there is much that is “highly controversial” about any kind of hate (hate is something we tell children is bad, no?)—not to mention the lack of controversy about the issue of hunger or child labour, other titles in the series (also bad, no?)—this series is clearly designed to discourage, rather than encourage, readers’ participation in or support of these issues.  But by failing to address the link between systemic racism and individual acts, the book ends up excusing people from the responsibility for racism.  Thus, the double-page spread, “Why Hate Other Races?” excuses individuals from racism by blaming “stereotypes” without explaining that stereotypes are connected with systemic, structural and institutional racism.  The photo on page 9 includes a caption that says, “Many white families employed black workers to serve them” but does not connect this servitude with a history of slavery, or a lack of other available employment opportunities for Black people.  Claire Heuchan and Nikesh Shukla’s recent book, What is Race? Who are Racists? Why does Skin Colour Matter? And Other Big Questions (Wayland 2018) addresses this failure to link structural and individual racism head on, pointing out the consequences of such a failure: “Even when people are aware of racism, they can hesitate to point it out because of the implication that somebody has been racist . . . So we end up in a strange situation where there is racism but, supposedly, no racists.  Except racism is produced by people who are racist—so if we are ever to pull apart the racist structures of our society, there must be a way to say who is propping them up” (6).

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Heuchan and Shukla’s book recognizes that institutional and individual racisms matter.

While individual racist acts exposed systemic problems in the UK, the news from the US this week highlighted the opposite problem.  One of the headlines of this week’s midterm elections was the record number of women who ran and won in their races.  Some media even called the elections the #MeToo Midterms (https://thehill.com/homenews/house/406183-women-wield-sizable-power-in-me-too-midterms), and election reports frequently mentioned the “suburban women” who helped defeat Trump-approved candidates.  Of course there is nothing racist in women running and supporting candidates for office (indeed, many of the new congresspeople are women of color).  But “suburban women” is media code for white women (here’s one report on “suburban women”: https://www.msnbc.com/stephanie-ruhle/watch/how-will-suburban-women-vote-in-the-midterms-1358101059960?v=railb&), and the #MeToo movement (which was started by an African-American woman) has been criticized for its focus on white women as well.  Just as second-wave feminism was about the middle-class, educated white woman, excluding and eliding the rights of women of color, the midterm elections reveal that white women will unite around an issue that directly affects them, but cannot extend their understanding of oppression to issues such as police brutality against African-Americans or racist and jingoistic language and threats against migrants and refugees.  The system allows racism to exist, and white women—who understand what it is like to be oppressed by that system—do not, through their individual votes, call for an end to that system.

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Curiously, even though White’s book mentions both abolition and the civil war as causes Morris supported, there is not a single African-American depicted in the book.

Again, even well-meaning children’s books can sometimes reinforce systemic racism (and classism) under the guise of individual choice.  Most children’s books about women’s suffrage show photographs of white women only, and have lines like, “only men can vote” (I Could Do That! Esther Morris Gets Women the Vote, by Linda Arms White, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 2005).  This elides the fact that in America, African-Americans could not vote, and in Britain only rate-paying men could vote until 1918, the same year that women over 30 got the vote. An alternative approach can be found in Nosy Crow’s short story collection, Make More Noise: New Stories in Honour of the 100th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage (2018).  Unlike many books about women’s suffrage, which focus almost exclusively on white women and their struggle, Make More Noise includes stories about all kinds of women and girls, historically and contemporaneously.  Patrice Lawrence’s story, “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” for example, tells the story of Olive Malvery, a woman of English and Indian parentage, who “came to London when she was twenty-three and was shocked by the way poorer women were treated” (83).  Lawrence’s story shows Malvery helping a young mixed-race girl who suffers not just from being poor, but from being brown.  When the young girl, Victoria, asks for an extension on her rent, her landlady tells her, “the best thing your father could have done was take you with him back to whatever country he came from!” (59).  This and other stories in the collection show that no woman has an identity based entirely on gender—so all women should band together to ensure everyone’s rights.

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Nosy Crow’s Make More Noise listens to the noise of all kinds of women, not just white suffragettes.

Racism is, or should be, unacceptable to people of all backgrounds because it harms the entire society.  But if we can’t recognize our individual racism, then we can’t fight systemic racism.  And if we don’t see the systemic, structural and institutional ways that racism is supported, then fighting individual racism will never lead to victory.  Racism will go on being acceptable, and we will all be the worse for it.

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.