Materials: Book Power

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My starter question yesterday was about race and racism. How do we talk about race with kids, when it’s a subject that we often avoid as adults?

This piece on race by Katherine Fritz got me thinking about my little corner of the world, both at home and in the urban school district where I work. What do I do to increase my awareness of my own white privilege? What do I do to create change in a society steeped in inequality? Or maybe the better question is, what do I not do?

Because to be honest, I don’t do much. I zero in on in my own tiny family circle, and our own tiny problems. We face the universal problem of how to do good work that will pay for our food, housing, and clothing, but we have the privilege of facing the challenge with so many advantages. I didn’t grow up with a lot of money, but I’ve always been comfortably swimming in the water of white privilege. I want to be more aware of that water, and I hope that my kids will be too.

I remember a conversation with Sam when he was about six, about slavery, which resulted from a book we were reading. I gave him a very incomplete summary of the Civil War, and then he asked, “Mom, am I black?” The question surprised me, and I answered, “No, you’d be called white, why?”

“Well, white people were bad for making black people slaves. And they were bad for not letting everyone go to good schools and keeping people separate. I really don’t want to be a bad guy, so I don’t want to be white. I’d rather be black.”

Then we talked about how people of any race could do bad things and good things, and that many white people fought against slavery during the Civil War. That satisfied him for the day, but I know we need to keep revisiting the subject.

When he was six, the words black and white in that context weren’t referencing skin color; for him the words were categorizing people according to their beliefs about equality. Black described a person who believed in racial equality and white described a person who supported slavery.

Now he’s eight, and we haven’t talked directly about race or racism for a long time. The events in Ferguson have (finally) reminded me that we need to be having those conversations.

One relatively simple way for me to do that right now as a parent, is to provide more diverse book choices for both of my kids. We discuss what we read, so if we’re only choosing Percy Jackson and Fancy Nancy from the library, we’re basically swimming safely in our white privilege waters (not to take away any greatness from Rick Riordan or Jane O’Connor). At the same time, I don’t want to just choose books that are about people of different races and ethnicities as sort of a library borrowing quota system. As Fritz highlighted, “That would actually be racist.”

As I sift through book lists and our own book shelves, I’ve noticed a few categories of diversity in books. There are those like Lola Plants a Garden by Anna McQuinn that feature a protagonist that happens to be a race other than caucasian. The text doesn’t communicate an overt message about race; it’s more a slice of life book, which many children can identify with.lola

The next category are those books that show protagonists who are directly affected by race and racism. I Am Rosa Parks by Brad Meltzer is a great example.rosa

The final category is a mix of the first two – a slice of life, that also touches on themes of equality. Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman fits here. Grace is a girl who loves stories, and she’s a girl who takes a stand against racial and gender stereotypes.amazing grace

If you want to expand your own book repertoire in any of the above categories, this list compiled by Marsha Rakestraw at the Institute for Humane Education is an excellent starting point.

I read both Lola Plants a Garden and I Am Rosa Parks to Isabel tonight. She enjoyed both books immensely, but when I asked her later which she preferred she immediately answered I Am Rosa Parks. When asked why she replied, “Because…well, more stuff happened, and Rosa wanted to make a change, even though she was very little, and she was kind of old.” I love it that she saw the difference between the two books, and that she enjoyed both types.

If you do rush to your local library tomorrow to find some of these titles, please also remember this from Fritz’s article:

Because here is the thing, fellow white people. Racism isn’t over because Barack Obama is president. Racism isn’t over because Beyoncé. Racism isn’t over because Oprah. Racism didn’t end when we all read To Kill a Mockingbird in tenth-grade English class, and it’s not over now.

Racism is when you reduce a human being to a series of beliefs, stereotypes, or cultural identities that remove their ability to be seen as a unique individual.

Reading diverse literature is a great start, but it sort of stalls out if you don’t take the time to talk about the books and how they relate (or don’t relate) to your everyday life.

What are some of your favorite children’s or adult books that address themes of race and racism? Why?

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