In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Monday, July 11, 2016

How children's books help me talk to my kids about race and gender

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Here we are a month later, with three more horrific shootings to process, with more grief and more anger and more unanswerable questions. Along with a number of my friends and acquaintances, I'm searching for ways to talk with my children about current events, ways to be honest about the complexities of race and politics in America on a kid-appropriate level.

On my local neighborhood listserve, someone suggested the websites Raising Race Conscious Children and  ParentsTogether, both of which have some excellent essays about how to talk to children of all races about race, racism, and violence.

For me, as with so many other major issues in life, I come at this conversation with my children through the books we read. Many of these are books I've brought into the house: I know their content, and when a complex issue comes up as we're reading together -- racist descriptions in Dr. Dolittle, for example -- I'm prepared to talk about it.

But increasingly, as we visit the library two or three times a week, all three of my kids are picking up and bringing home books that they read first -- sometimes entirely -- on their own. I try to pay attention without leaping in to censor their reading, even when I'm not crazy about the material they choose, and engage them in conversation about aspects of books that trouble me. As the library books pile up, however, some things slip through the cracks.

Isabel has recently been reading the Asterix comics, which I remember my brother Michael reading when we were kids, but which I've never read myself. Eleanor reads them too, because she reads every book that anyone brings into the house.

Two nights ago, Jeff picked up one of the books lying on our coffee table and came over to me, disturbed. "Have you looked at the depiction of black people in these books?" I hadn't. I did. It's horrendous.

The black characters in Asterix (almost all of them slaves seen serving white Romans) are old-school stereotypically racist, with dark skin, round white eyes, and swollen red lips. Here's an enlargement of an image on the first page of Asterix the Gladiator:


So yesterday morning, over breakfast, we had a conversation. 

I started by telling the girls that Jeff and I had been looking at the Asterix book the night before, and that something we saw in it was really disturbing to us. We pulled it out to take a look together, and do a little kid-friendly image analysis. 

I asked them, "What do you notice about how the black people in this book are drawn?" Then I let them talk and observe the skin, the lips, the expressions, trying to allow them the space to notice things themselves rather than jumping in to tell them what I wanted them to think. (It took me several years of teaching high school to learn how well this works.)

After they had identified a number of physical features, I asked, "Do these people look like real black people?" 
"How does this kind of drawing make them look?"
"They look like they're stupid."

Then I brought up the idea of stereotypes, which Jeff and I have talked about with the kids before: stereotypes are assumptions that you make about a whole group of people, which can damage people in that group by limiting what they are allowed to do and sometimes even hurting them in physical ways. A favorite entry point example in our house: many people used to believe that girls couldn't play sports as well as boys -- in fact, some people still think this. Because of that stereotype, girls who wanted to play sports were denied the opportunity. Bring this up, and both of my girls become immediately indignant. 

I explained that the way the black characters in Asterix are drawn is an example of an old, racist stereotype that some white people have had about black people. (You and I touched on this particular stereotype a few years ago in two posts about Little Black Sambo and its many contemporary retellings.)

Sometimes, I said, stereotypes like this can get into your head without you realizing it, because of what you read or see or hear around you. Subconsciously, those stereotypes start to change the way you think about a group of people.

We pulled out Will's 5-Minute Batman Stories to look for more stereotypes we might not have noticed. Here's a page of villains from the story "Harley Quinn's Perfect Prank": 

I asked, "What do you notice about the way Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, and Catwoman are drawn?"
"They're all wearing lipstick and eyeshadow."
"That's true. Think about the way their whole bodies look, too. I'm a woman -- does my body look like this?" I held the book up next to me. My daughters cracked up. (Answer: No.)
Eleanor said, "It looks like they're wearing corsets. They have tiny waists and really big..." She dissolved into giggles.
"You're absolutely right, they all have really big breasts. So when you read this book and look at the pictures, what do you think you might start to think about what a beautiful woman looks like?"
More giggling. "They have really big breasts!"

[Side note: The graphic novel series Princeless, which stars a strong, independent, black princess, does a terrific job of pointing out and poking fun at both racial and gender stereotypes in comic books. The scene where Princess Adrienne examines and comments on the outfits worn by Wonder Woman, Xena, and Red Sonja, is spot-on and extremely funny.]

Next, we looked at the page at the beginning of the book that lists the cast of characters, heroes and villains alike: 

"What do you notice about who's in this book?"
"It's mostly men. The bad guys and the good guys."
"What else?"
"There's almost no black people at all. It's mostly white men."
Will pointed out: "And Killer Croc. Because he's green."

Later, when the kids told Jeff about our conversation (which they remembered in great detail several hours later), he added the question: "Who do you think is probably writing and illustrating these stories?" It didn't take the kids long to figure that one out, either.

Finally, I made the connection to current events. We talked about the shootings over the last week, and the fact that a lot of people are angry and upset over the shootings of black people by police officers, in situations where it wasn't necessary. Eleanor (very upset and indignant about racism of any kind) asked why police officers would do that. I said that part of it comes from fear, and that I think part of that fear comes from the stereotypes and assumptions that white people have about black people as a group. And part of that fear comes from the images we see -- or don't see -- of black people in the books we read and the TV and movies we watch. That's why it's so important for us to look closely at and think about what we're reading, instead of just taking it in.

Then we closed the books and went to the playground. I pushed Will on the little kid swings, and Eleanor and Isabel got themselves some big kid swings and pumped really high all by themselves, and I thought about that as a metaphor because I'm an English teacher at heart, and everyone got a little wet in the sprinkler before it was time to go home for lunch. One more conversation to fold into our understanding of the world.

Love, Annie

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