Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Lessons in Reading While White

There are lessons I’ve learned about how my Whiteness informs the way I read and respond to literature that slowly insinuate themselves into my psyche and my understanding, and lessons that hit me with force.

In a recent post on American Indians in Children’s Literature (AICL), Debbie Reese shared a quote from an anonymous commenter:

“I find the idea of a reader -- particularly a child -- having to wait to see herself humanized an inherently problematic one. Yes, it might accurately reflect the inner journey many white people take, but isn't the point that our dehumanizing views were always wrong?”

I’ve been thinking about that ever since. Wow.

One dimension of challenging racism is sharing the experiences of those learning to see it and respond to it (although at this juncture in our history, I think it’s even more important that the voices of those underrepresented for too long are amplified). But the way that story is told matters. Of course it does. 

Near the end of another post, Debbie Reese recently wrote, "the work I do here on AICL and elsewhere privileges the children who will read what writers write." Another wow. Privileging the child as reader. And of course implicit in this is all children -- First Nations/Native children and children of color, not just White children. That's a thought I want to carry with me, too. I think it struck me profoundly because while I'd like to think it's stating the obvious -- isn't that what we all should be doing? -- so much of what I see and hear tells me otherwise.

So now, going forward, I have two new things to carry with me as I read while White.

But how do I make sure I'm privileging all children, or at least trying?  It begins with an essential awareness that I must bring to all of my reading: that I am White, and because of this there are many things I don't understand. I can try to understand; I do try -- in part by reading as many books written by people of color and First Nations / Native authors as I can; by reading critical commentary from those who are cultural insiders; by engaging with what's happening around me. But this is external knowledge I'm working to internalize; not understanding rooted in my existence as I move through the world.

The truth is this: I am always going to be discovering yet another way I do not get it because I am White. And I have a choice: be paralyzed by shame, become defensive (and sometimes I do), or ask myself when I’m feeling uncomfortable or challenged: What can I learn from this? 

I read a lot of books in the course of each year, looking for outstanding ones to share with teachers and librarians. But I can't do this responsibly if I don't evaluate books for racism as part of my assessment. Only then can I begin to privilege every child. It's my responsibility to learn what questions to ask. I won't ever learn them all, and there won’t always be a single answer or definitive opinion when I ask the ones I do know, but every effort I make to find answers is going to give me more knowledge to carry with me into my future reading.

I'd like to think I have a good foundation, one on which I'm continuing to build, but I still can't always articulate why something I'm reading makes me uncomfortable. This isn't for the reasons Nina discussed in her post last week -- not because of the backlash that always seems inevitable -- but rather because my sense of something being wrong, or not quite right, is too vague.  I'm still learning.

At other times, I completely gloss over things that others find problematic. Sure, this can be a matter of opinion. It can also be a matter of not knowing enough to see what's there. I'm still learning.

And sometimes, I'm simply dismayed.  Really? Someone just said, “Let’s powwow”? Really? Pidgin English?  Really? A diverse classroom in which there isn't a single brown-skinned child who is dark rather than light?

Whenever I encounter something unsettling like this in a book that I appreciate for many other reasons, I struggle with how much weight to give it, especially when it's a single line or brief scene in the context of a lengthy novel. It seems so small. But I am White. Who am I to say that it's small, that it's any different, or less damaging, than the glaring omissions, the misrepresentations, the dehumanizing that are all still far too prevalent?

Book to book, publishing year to publishing year, painful moment to painful moment, the weight of these things should be unbearable for all of us.


Anne Sibley O'Brien said...

"Book to book, publishing year to publishing year, painful moment to painful moment, the weight of these things should be unbearable for all of us."

In my experience with navigating Whiteness, I notice a constant pull towards comfort, towards getting it "right," towards the need to be Good. It's a form of addiction that I have to be vigilant against.

In 1998, I got to tour Robben Island off Capetown, South Africa, to see where Nelson Mandela spent 16 of his years of imprisonment. The guides sharing stories of what life in the prison had been like were themselves former prisoners. It was extraordinarily moving, at once heart-piercing, enraging and inspirational. The whole day I had tears brimming in my eyes. Since then, that response has seemed to me the most appropriate way to be fully human while White.

There are so many ways in which those of us who, paraphrasing James Baldwin, "believe ourselves to be White" have been systematically trained to not see, not feel, not respond. Learned Whiteness is a way of losing our humanity. Regaining it is not a quick or easy task, and not one that's ever completed. We need to wake up, we need to let our hearts break, again and again and again.

Sometimes this stance gets interpreted as guilt or shame for being White. I experience it as the opposite. It's a deeply joyous journey towards regaining my whole self and restoring my birthright: to be deeply connected to all my human family.

K T Horning said...

Megan, I find what you (and Debbie) said about privileging child readers to be quite interesting. All too often I think bloggers (and sometimes even reviewers) think first of the book creator, then of the publisher, then other teachers and librarians, and lastly the children who may read the book.

K T Horning said...

What an incredibly powerful statement, Anne! Such an interesting take on White guilt. I also like that term you used -- "learned Whiteness" and would like to see that dissected a bit more.

The "trained not to see" part I have witnessed more than once when small White children are shushed when they point out that someone has brown skin -- as if that is something shameful. I'm trying to think of other ways we are trained not to see, other than merely growing up in a segregated society where we see White all around us, all the time.

Megan Schliesman said...

That's interesting, KT. I also think how often those who are outside the world of children's and young adult literature assume that the whole point of a children's book is to "teach" something, and how we work hard against that assumption, because good books are not didactic. And I think the best writers are driven first and foremost by story, not by audience (though their ability to shape and tell a story for a young audience obviously matters). But this now has me thinking about the invisible (often reinforcing) lessons that are imbedded into narratives--something Debbie has written about over and over. Authors may typically be driven first and foremost by story but the responsibility for privileging ALL children begins, of course, with them, and continues with their editors and then on down the chain, so to speak, to those of us whose work is to look critically at the books they create.

Allie Jane Bruce said...

Hi Anne, I love how you characterize and talk about Whiteness and the need to be "Good" as addiction. There's so much truth there.

I want to challenge your use of the Robben Island story here. I think I understand what you're saying--that if we White people were really vigilant about noticing our Whiteness, we would be tearing up all the time--correct me if I'm wrong? And yes, that's accurate, in a sense.

But, I think in this case you are veering close to what Robin DiAngelo describes here: http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/white-womens-tears-and-the-men-who-love-them-twlm/

The relevant quote: "White tears are a reminder to people of color that white people don’t notice racism on a daily basis."

I guess my point is: Be careful in telling stories about tearing up. Society rewards us white people who get teary about racism. We get to be the compassionate, good ones. People of color and First/Native Nations people are not so lucky. When they cry, they are playing the victim card. When they cry, they are not being strong or hopeful enough.

Please understand that I offer this without judgment and as a White person who cries all the time. I totally would have cried at Robben Island too. And I do not believe you were trying to "score points" by telling that story, I believe you were trying to have a rich, honest conversation and I appreciate it.

I am happy to have more conversation on this, but FYI, I am visiting my 95-year-old grandmother this weekend and will be offline, so if I don't respond right away it's not because I'm ignoring you!

Anne Sibley O'Brien said...

Thanks, KT. Some other ways I think we are taught not to see:
- Silence around race; the topic never being raised unless it's about someone else's race.
- Adults who not only shush but wince, frown, deflect, tighten up, redden, flinch and in multiple other nuanced ways telegraph to children that the subject of race is off limits - often without even realizing they are doing it.
The default and centering of whiteness: "flesh"-colored bandaids and crayons, character race only named when it's not white, the classical canon in literature, the conflation of American with white... Here I notice how hard it is for me to come up with examples, when I know they are everywhere. Case in point.
History that overlooks, ignores or obliterates the struggles, contributions, achievements, losses and triumphs of people of color. Or as historian Ron Takaki has asked, "What was everyone else doing?"
Racist attitudes, statements and behaviors - from jokes to microaggressions to murder - going unremarked and unchallenged in the White community.
Not just segregation into white neighborhoods and worlds, but the pervasiveness of white-dominated media, so that white people can live in a bubble (what Ta-Nahesi Coates terms the Dream) where they never have any deep, significant interactions with anyone who is not white, never have to imagine what it might be like to live in another skin.

Anne Sibley O'Brien said...

Hi, Allie,
Thanks for this insightful comment. I've seen again and again - and been - the grief-stricken white person overcome by the weight of what white people have done, begging for forgiveness from people of color. Which effectively shifts the story back to a white center and makes it about what *I* need.

What the reference means to me is the experience of allowing yourself to be pierced, your heart to be stirred, your ground to be shaken. Letting it in. Not taking refuge in comfort.

Not tears to ask for absolution or forgiveness or a pass - or to ask for anything at all. Not tears of absolution so that I can feel good about being moved, but change nothing. Simply the human-to-human encounter, as Megan notes, when the weight of these things is unbearable. First honoring this, then resolving, once again, to act.

And I take your point on the danger of sharing stories about how moved I as a white person was by evidence of racism!

K T Horning said...

How often are the tears described in "White Women's Tears" manipulative? I have seen women (and sometimes even men) turn on the tears in an attempt to win sympathy.

K T Horning said...

I would argue that the idea that "good books are not didactic" may be a value judgment not all cultures share. I'm thinking of the sorts of teaching stories that are important in a lot of Native cultures. And when I served on the Coretta Scott King Award Committee, many of the African-American librarians on the committee valued stories that had an uplifting message, in addition to high literary and artistic merit.

Nina Lindsay said...

I think that the Newbery criteria (and I have been unintentionally complicit in this) have tainted the idea of "didactism" in children's literature. I think the point of those criteria, and children's lit criticism in general, is supposed to be an *openess* to viewpoints, upholding the library bill of rights.... that we don't hold up one message over the other just because of the message itself. We want to evaluate how it is done. However, it is a fallacy to say that some literature is didactic and some is not. I think that all literature is instructive, at some level. The very idea that good literature isn't didactic is a form of white privilege...we pretend that "non didactic" literature is not teaching anything when it is actually teaching us status quo perspectives and values.

Anne Sibley O'Brien said...

It doesn't have to be intended for the impact to be manipulative and exploitive. Love these lines from the article: "We can assume that our racial socialization sets us up to reproduce racism regardless of our intentions or self-image. Our task is figuring out how that happens, not if."

K T Horning said...

I once had a big argument with the critic Betsy Hearne on whether there could be more than one set of critical standards. She believed (at that time, at least) that there could not be. We were standing on a street corner in the middle of an ALA conference when this took place.

I have seen book discussions among mostly or all White librarians close down once someone observes that a book is "didactic." This often happens in the discussion of multicultural literature. "Purposeful" is another word people use for the same thing, and this is a word you see in reviews to soften the charge of didacticism.

Allie Jane Bruce said...

"It doesn't have to be intended for the impact to be manipulative and exploitive." AGREE 1000%. I actually want to write a separate post about this, and will one day (hopefully soon).

Thank you so much for your comments, Anne. It's so helpful to list the ways in which we don't see. I find that I forget them, over and over, unless they're written down and I read them over and over.

Megan Schliesman said...

Thank you for bringing up "purposeful." I first heart that term used by Rudine Sims Bishop and I've thought a lot about it since and it's helped me value books that I might have otherwise--not dismissed, but lamented a little even as I appreciated them. You are right, there is often a cultural viewpoint and value that makes "purpose" essential to a book. And the truth is I have seen many wonderful books that are artful and purposeful both!