Tuesday, August 14, 2012
Reading Racist Books
My closest friends and family know of the often uncomfortable interactions I've had with others regarding "Where I'm From" and for some, have walked the path with me as I seek advice and insight and an ear to bend. Assumptions and innocent curiosities get the best of people who impulsively catch me off guard (still) when wanting to know my race and ethnicity, and not surprisingly, that of Misa and John-Pio's too.
Living who I am as a Micronesian (my race) and Chamorro (my ethnicity) should not be this great of a challenge.
But it is. And I think about it more than some might think.
So last night Misa was reading one of the Little House series. At one point, she asked why Laura's father - a good man - participates in a kind of talent show displaying racial caricatures, and then comments with confusion that Laura - her favorite character - calls the performers "darkies." I can barely keep up with the ambush of racist imagery when reading classic children’s books, but it is my unavoidable responsibility to explain this along with the multitude of other cultural generalizations. It challenges my intellectual, social, and emotional self all the time.
I can barely explain it, really.
But reading classic children’s books cannot be ignored or avoided, especially when I feel an affinity myself to titles such as The Story of Little Black Sambo and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, to name a few. In the Little House series, Laura Ingalls Wilder is a product of a time and a place, and when reading them across a span of time, it makes the stories difficult to connect to – strange, in fact. Portrayals of African and Native Americans seem bluntly stereotypical, yet at the same time, it is part of the value of reading old, classic stories. I can help Misa discover how people of past times lived and saw the world, taking the good with the bad.
But even with that reality, there is still the question I intuitively navigate when it comes to encountering obsolete racial attitudes and stereotypes that, if internalized, could hurt or confuse a young person’s ability to navigate our multi-racial world, causing hurt and shame, especially for kids of color.
In my own messy and imperfect parenting role, here is just one of three pieces of advice for myself and others when reading classic children’s books:
Race and racism exists - talk about it. Let's face it, colorblindess doesn't work so don't even say it. In fact, I am my own data point when I say that race is one of the first things I perceive about a person. Kids don't fake it when they see differences in eye shape, skin color and hair texture so when adults pretend, it confuses them. Likewise, omitting racist language and imagery ignores my belief and the fact that kids are deeper than we think they are, and understand more than we think they do.
Does admitting that I have these perceptions make me a racist? No. In fact, I believe that for all those people in my past and in my future who have confronted me about my race and ethnicity - that if they were raised or included or could talk about multiracial environment and people - that they would be more conscientious about their kneejerk questions and responses, and have some impulse control.
We've always had books on our shelves that show the history of people of color - the history of Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American and how they were treated at different times in American history. If you have books like Si, Se Puede, Pie Biter and even the Magic Tree House series - all do a pretty good job dealing with race and racism in historical context. These point to the realities but also give kids heroes, people who have struggled and fought against prejudices.
Kids need to exercise who they are intuitively. That is, I believe kids are born with compassion, empathy and fairness, and need messages in their social and personal environments that help foster their true nature. Be explicit - I think that is one active way we can overcome racism - talk about it, don't ignore it.