Thursday, April 20, 2017

RWW Interviews: Elizabeth Denevi & Teaching While White

By Elisa Gall

I’m excited to continue our RWW Interviews series today with a conversation with Dr. Elizabeth Denevi. Elizabeth is the Associate Director for Mid West Educational Collaborative, a nonprofit that works with schools across the United States to increase equity, promote diversity pedagogy, and implement strategic processes for growth and development. Before that, she served as Director of Studies and Professional Development at the Chicago school at which I work - and she is a current parent in my school community.

Elizabeth writes and presents nationally on topics of social justice, equity, and diversity as educational excellence. She recently co-founded (alongside Jenna Chandler-Ward) Teaching While White, a new blog and podcast resource for promoting racial literacy and helping educators build skills to create anti-racist classrooms. I look forward to learning from TWW and I hope everybody adds it to their resource lists and bookmarks toolbars.

How did you get started doing anti-racism work? What has changed over time?

I started when I was teaching ethnic studies courses. As I got more into American history and literature, it became impossible to ignore issues of race. I went back to do my PhD so I could study racial identity development and to develop strategies for teaching about racial identity and racism in schools. Unfortunately, not much has changed over 25 years. We are still struggling to understand how race affects teaching/learning. And most teachers do not know that racially diverse classrooms create higher levels of critical thinking.

Can you share with our readers your definition of “diversity?”

“Diversity” is simply the presence of difference. In a school context, we are referring to differences which impact learning. Since we can correlate racial identity development with academic achievement and the social construction of race in schools, we know that racial differences matter. We need to explore our own racial identity as teachers so we can help our students to explore theirs.

Can you tell us about your new site?

I felt like I needed a way to keep my Whiteness front and center in my work with schools. And I don’t like to do anything alone, so as Jenna and I continued to talk about the kind of work we wanted to do with teachers, this felt like the right way to go. Writing has always been a way for me to consolidate my thinking, so I was eager to try the blog format. And Michael Brosnan has been a wonderful writing partner for years as he published the first piece I ever wrote about being White. Jenna had the brilliant idea to do a podcast, which is both terrifying and exhilarating. I think it’s a very powerful medium that I’m eager to learn more about.

Who are your heroes, both within and outside the education world?

Oh, my. This will sound corny, but my husband, Randolph Carter, is one of my biggest heroes. He was a Black Panther and has spent his life working for social justice in all kinds of contexts. He never quits and never backs down. He is uncompromising when it comes to the lives of children and people of color in schools. And he has raised three amazing children.

In your opinion, can classrooms or libraries ever be “neutral?” Why or why not?

Absolutely not.  This is such a critical issue. I am talking to teachers across the country who are terrified to talk about race or what is happening around race and ethnicity in our country right now. Most are White teachers who are scared to death of getting in trouble for saying or doing the “wrong thing.” They have seen their colleagues sanctioned, and even fired, for challenging racism and racial privilege in our current climate. They hope their silence, or even their decision to avoid any “controversial” topics, will keep them safe. The problem is that it’s an illusion. Because staying quiet is the same as keeping the status quo in place. And this collusion with racism extends way beyond classrooms and into administrative offices and boardrooms. The leadership structures are just as complicit, hoping they can just “go along to get along.” It’s an old story, but one that will always have the same ending. Teachers make choices every day what to teach. There is no generic curriculum. We have so much content out there, and we carefully choose what to teach based on many factors. Not one of those factors – be it our experience, identity, or location – is neutral.

Do you have a favorite children’s book to share? Can you recommend a professional book?

What a hard question! Because I’m a mom of multiracial kids, I love Black, White, Just Right because it names and affirms racial difference as just that -- different, not deficit. I’m also a huge fan of Todd Parr because his books do the same thing: affirm difference. For teachers, I love Mica Pollock’s work and Robin DiAngelo’s scholarship on White fragility. I’m also a fan of Paul Gorski  because he has held our feet to the fire on promoting equity. He reminds us that our work to make schools more just and fair is not about “inclusion” or “cultural competence.” It’s about being excellent, informed, well-trained teachers who know how to manage all kinds of differences so all children can thrive.

What advice do you have for other White people working on anti-racist practices?

Challenge racism because it’s bad for White people. If you try to end racism for people of color, then you can choose to fight or not. And if you get tired, or it gets hard, you can stop. If you do it for you, because it’s the only way you can get up in the morning and look yourself in the mirror, then you won’t stop. And you will see why racism is bad for everyone. The effects of racism clearly impact White people and people of color differently. But as B. D Tatum noted, it’s a kind of smog, and we are all breathing the same air.

Monday, April 17, 2017


By Elisa Gall

Photo from
 In two weeks, a few of us from RWW will travel to Kansas City, MO alongside teachers, librarians, academics, nonprofit leaders, activists, counselors, members of spiritual communities, high school and college students, and more to attend the 18th annual White Privilege Conference, or WPC. If you haven’t heard of the conference before, you might have questions about what it is all about. 

The WPC website offers several explanations:
  • WPC is a conference that examines challenging concepts of privilege and oppression and offers solutions and team building strategies to work toward a more equitable world.
  • It is not a conference designed to attack, degrade or beat up on white folks.
  • It is not a conference designed to rally white supremacist groups.
  • WPC is a conference designed to examine issues of privilege beyond skin color. WPC is open to everyone and invites diverse perspectives to provide a comprehensive look at issues of privilege including: race, gender, sexuality, class, disability, etc. — the ways we all experience some form of privilege, and how we’re all affected by that privilege.
  • WPC attracts students, professionals, activists, parents, and community leaders/members from diverse perspectives. WPC welcomes folks with varying levels of experience addressing issues of diversity, cultural competency, and multiculturalism.
  • WPC is committed to a philosophy of “understanding, respecting and connecting.

The conference was founded by Dr. Eddie Moore, Jr. and it “looks at White Privilege intersectionally, in the context of various systems of privilege.” (You might also recognize Dr. Moore from the documentary film, “I’m Not Racist...Am I?”)
Dr. Eddie Moore, Jr.
Photo from
If you are attending WPC, there are pre-conference workshops held on Thursday. The main conference starts on Friday and goes through Sunday. There are a few keynote talks each day, and several sessions from which participants can choose. There are also daily caucus meetings where people with shared identities can get together and process learning from each day. There are early morning walks and discussions with Dr. Moore, and at night, there are film screenings, dinners, fundraisers, performances, and additional community events. All of these sessions offer learning opportunities for people to practice the process of anti-racism work.
You can register for WPC here. In addition, the Association for Library Service to Children is supporting a meetup at 7 p.m. on April 29 for members and prospective members interested in joining together to discuss their learning and conference experiences.  All are welcome to that event, even non-librarians and folks not registered for the conference. Click here for more information and to R.S.V.P. for that meetup. Allie, Ernie, and I will be there and look forward to meeting and learning with everybody. Please spread the word!
If you can’t make it to Kansas City this year, follow along with participants as they share their learning via #wpc18. ALSC members will also use #alscatwpc. If you are planning your professional development for the year ahead, note that WPC is always around the end of April. We believe this conference is a learning opportunity not to be missed, and we hope our conversations and tweets encourage even more people to engage in this work and perhaps attend the conference next year.


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Reviewing While White: The Secret Project


by Sam Bloom, Allie Jane Bruce and Elisa Gall

After reading Jonah and Jeanette Winter’s The Secret Project (Beach Lane Books, 2017), a few of us at Reading While White wanted to discuss our own reactions to it and what we have learned from reading and reflecting on criticism including Dr. Debbie Reese’s review at AICL. During this conversation it also came to our attention that Reese’s critical review was posted to the All The Wonders promo page and later taken down, adding another layer of complexity to our discussion (we recommend you read “What Happened to “A Second Perspective” at All The Wonders?” by Dr. Reese as well). Feel free to join our conversation and add your questions and/or thoughts in the comments!

Elisa: When I first read The Secret Project, I was immediately drawn into the visual narrative of the ending. It was so gripping that I found myself focusing on that part of the book and remembering little else. When I saw the critical review on AICL, I knew that I had allowed myself to be wooed by the final pages. Sometimes a “WOW” effect like that can lead readers to prioritize one successful piece of a book over its serious problems. To me, that choice to overlook is the epitome of privilege I carry with me as a White, non-Native reader.

Sam: I really liked it on first read. It’s embarrassing now, having seen the things Debbie pointed out, that seem so obvious. When I saw the spread with the Hopi man, I thought to myself, “I’m sure they got it right, this is the Winters we’re talking about.” That’s such a naive statement, but it was my first thought, so I just glossed over it. And like you, Elisa, I was gobsmacked by that ending.

Allie: My first reaction was just like both of yours.  That ending--so sad! So powerful! So, just, beyond words (literally)!  To be honest, I still feel that way.  That ending is one of the most powerful things I’ve seen in a picture book, ever.  This is where I need to practice my nonbinary thinking: The book has incredible merits; the book erases Pueblo people.  These things are both true.

Elisa: Sam, that hope (“I’m sure they got it right”) is something I’ve noticed myself having. I find myself wanting to take the easy route of just going with the flow and trusting that a book (especially from a publisher or author whose past work I admire) is authentic and accurate. Looking critically and asking questions can be tough work. It definitely pulls me “out” of the narrative, which is why almost subconsciously I find myself resisting and wanting to “gloss over” as you put it. I have grown accustomed to getting to stay “in” the books I read. I try to remember that so many readers NEVER get to stay “in” (and some never get “in” at all) because the world of children’s literature has never been inclusive to them.

Allie: What you’re describing is, I think, a set of skills that are not prioritized in library school.  I’m reminded of this post that Megan wrote about her process of letting go of A Fine Dessert a year and a half ago.

I need to practice that skill of letting go.  It is a professional skill.  When I love a book for a particular reason, and then find out that it contains one (or more) problematic elements, I need to do what Megan did with A Fine Dessert: Sit. Breathe. Think. Go through whatever mental process I need to go through.  Then, practice saying the words “I changed my mind.”

Megan’s older post is, in fact, so completely on-point here that I want to quote from it:

I cannot ignore the voices of those who have helped me understand something I didn't consider before: No matter how thoughtful the intent was in depicting this mother and child, the end result is that it can be seen as perpetuating painful imagery of "happy" slaves.

Am I ashamed I didn't see this myself? Yes. Because it's the kind of thing I'd like to think I wouldn't miss.

But I'm not so ashamed that I'm going to dig in my heels.

I can let go of A Fine Dessert.

Did I come to this decision easily? No. Am I sad about letting go of the book? Yes.

But it's a small sadness.

Yes, I still appreciate many other things about A Fine Dessert, but I can also accept that this is a fault it cannot overcome for me when it comes to recommending it to librarians and teachers.

Swap The Secret Project in for A Fine Dessert, and alter that second line to read, “No matter how thoughtful the intent was in depicting the setting, or how successfully it communicates the massive global and moral implications of developing nuclear weaponry, the end result is that it erases Pueblo people from this story.”

Elisa: Yep. It is admittedly tough to come to terms with the fact that a title you first thought was excellent, or even haven’t read yet but want so much to be flawless, misses the mark...but again, tough for whom? Is it as tough as being a Native reader who sees (to quote Debbie Reese’s recent post) The Secret Project as yet another book in the “ever-growing pile of books in which this or that topic is more important than Native people?” Whose reactions and feelings are being prioritized if criticism is ignored? And there is plenty to talk about with regards to the way the conversation about this book played out after concerns were being discussed.

Allie: I followed the way the conversation unfolded with great interest.  I had hopes that this would become a groundbreaking case of mainstream non-binary thinking, that we could acknowledge the merits of the book, and talk about how powerful that ending is, and also acknowledge the ways in which it erases Pueblo people, and what implications that has in the context of our history and our world.  Instead, I saw the same patterns as always, and found myself asking the same questions as always.

Particularly troubling to me was Matthew Winner’s comment on AICL, in which he says that All the Wonders enters into a “verbal agreement” with book creators to shine a positive light on their book.  If I were entering into an agreement, verbal or written, to promote somebody’s work to the exclusion of criticism, I would change my job title from “librarian” to “salesperson” and ask to be paid for this work.  Now, it’s not my prerogative whether anybody else follows that advice--except that it impacts our profession as a whole when leaders in the field refer to themselves as “teachers” or “librarians” but in fact serve as de facto members of publishers’ advertising teams (for more of my thoughts on this, see my post responding to the recent Wall Street Journal article here). I see so much personal, passionate “I looooooooved this book” from the “rock stars.”  By contrast, I see such rational, researched, informed opinions from Debbie.  But somehow Debbie is always the one who gets called “nasty” or “unprofessional” while the “rock stars” are seen as the pinnacle of the profession.

Sam: I think some of the backlash Debbie received is due to the fact that she is a woman, and the “rock stars” are men. I’ve been called a “rock star,” too. For doing the same damn thing an enormous number of women in the profession have done before. What’s that phrase about standing on the shoulders of giants? Well, I am certainly standing on the shoulders of giants to get to a point where I can get invited to the publisher dinners and shmoozy events, and guess what: pretty much EVERY ONE of those giants is a woman. And yet I, as a man (a White man, at that) may get up and read a story or two to kids; I may sing and dance and act goofy; I may do book talks for school age kids; and I’m the “rock star” even though there are how many women doing ALL of those things, probably with more skill and grace, who won’t get any attention for simply DOING THEIR JOB?

Elisa: I know we have shared Robin DiAngelo's work on White Fragility before, but it is worth sharing again to notice these patterns you’re describing. You make good points, too, about "librarian" versus "advertiser." I have been reflecting on this a lot. The line has definitely become blurred. Influence marketing works (which is why we see it),  but it is so important for our profession that it becomes clear if/when librarians are getting paid (or given benefits) to celebrate a book/author/publisher. Librarians DO spotlight and promote books and authors, but after careful evaluation. And even then, it is okay (expected!) to reevaluate your position after receiving new information. You might even change your mind.

It feels good to get a book sent to you because a publisher thought you'd like it, or invited to a dinner with a creator whose work you admire. These gestures can feel like agreements. Let's be real - it is business! It can be hard to separate those warm fuzzies from problematic texts. But it is imperative. I acknowledge my own participation in this system. I keep telling myself: you want to go to that dinner or schmooze with creators? Fine. But then be ready for the hard reality that at the end of the day, no matter what you’ve been given or how much you like that person, you have to do your job.

Allie: We spend much of our professional lives, by nature of the profession, in the thick of conversations about judging books, whether to spend budget money on this book or that, whether this book is good enough for this list or that award.  We form opinions, positive and negative, sometimes passionately so, informed by our expertise in book evaluation, our experiences sharing the book with kids, observations about a book’s accessibility, popularity, and so much more.  When it gets into that “passionate” territory, though, let’s face it:  It’s often hard to separate one’s personal love or hate for a book from a professional assessment, based on expertise, research, and knowledge.

Elisa: I agree. And going back to how critics can get accused of bullying or being “nasty,” I think there is a myth that it is somehow always easy or fun for critics to interrupt racism or bias in a text. It can be disappointing, alienating, and scary. If representation of your identity is at the center, it can be traumatic and in some instances, people’s safety can be put at risk. No matter how it is shared though (and even if/when it is directed at something I am passionate about), I am working to remember that criticism reflects care and commitment. It is how things improve, because I have hope that discomfort will lead to deeper reflection in the future, and more honest, thoughtful, and accurate books getting made as a result.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Reviewing While White: Undefeated

by Sam Bloom, KT Horning, and Megan Schliesman

Some of the football fans at Reading While White (Sam, KT, and Megan) have read Undefeated by Steve Sheinkin (Roaring Brook, 2017) and are finding it extraordinarily discussable. If you are familiar with Sheinkin’s books you’ll be Unsurprised (hehe) to learn that it has garnered 4 starred reviews. We can’t imagine it won’t be discussed later in this year as a major award contender. Recently we had an email conversation wherein we weighed things we greatly appreciated against questions we still have. The conversation is below, with a few tweaks for the sake of coherency.

Sam: I loved so much of this book, but I think there is A LOT to talk about with the choices Sheinkin made.

KT:  If you were expecting the book to be about the Carlisle Indian School, you might be disappointed.It's actually about the Carlisle football team which was so influential in the development of modern football. Jim Thorpe is the central figure but he is just one of the many star players that Sheinkin writes about. Thorpe went to Carlisle specifically to play football because he wanted to play on the greatest team at the time – maybe of all time, once Thorpe was was added to the team. Anyway, the boys on the team were treated very differently from other students at Carlisle – they had their own dorm, got good food, etc., something that contrasted with the conditions for the others. So there was a really big incentive for the athletes to excel because they didn't want to be treated like one of the regular kids. But even so, they were really exploited (kind of like college players today) because they brought so much money into the school. I thought Sheinkin did a really good job of writing that part of the story. The parallels to modern football are fascinating.

Megan: I agree, KT.  I actually started this book and could not put it down.  The stories of the athletes are so compelling. And there are so many fascinating stories about how this team influenced the way football is played – including the forward pass! The game owes so much to the Carlisle Indian School team and individual athletes there.

Sam:  Speaking of the forward pass, Megan, that particular section is one of the most thrilling bits of writing I’ve seen in years. (It’s on pages 120-123, if you have the book and want to follow along.) Sheinkin recounts the way Carlisle fullback Pete Hauser’s “lordly throw, a hurl that went further than many a kick,” set the powerful Penn football team and fans back on their heels. This is one of countless times in Undefeated where Sheinkin writes about football in such a skillful way that fans of the game will certainly be in heaven, but football haters (I know there are more than a few of you out there!) will also be compelled to keep reading.

KT:  Yes! I loved the story when Thorpe kicked the football and then ran down the field to catch it himself. It was also interesting to learn about their coach, Pop Warner, who really helped to develop the Carlisle team but who wasn’t really the most admirable person. His ultimate betrayal of Thorpe was terrible. And there were just so many interesting personal stories of other teammates who were also great athletes and were so influential in the development of modern American football.  They were the first football players to figure out they could run around, rather than through, the other team, and they also practiced and practiced to increase the length of their field goals, kicking distances we take for granted today but that were unheard of in the early 20th century.

Megan:  At the same time, I came away from the book thinking that if I did not have prior knowledge that the Indian Boarding School System was brutalizing not only to students but their families, and that policies forced Native children to attend, I would not come away from this book understanding this. I think all but one of the Carlisle athletes he briefly profiles went to Carlisle if not willingly (and sometimes eagerly, at least as outlined here), then because their family wanted them too. That is so counter to the overall narrative of boarding schools with which I’m familiar. And at the least, I wanted an author’s note contextualizing the experience of these athletes at Carlisle in the larger story of Indian Boarding Schools, so that readers can understand that this was an experience forced on generations of Native children and had a profound impact on them and their families. It was psychically cruel, in addition to the physical cruelty that children often experienced.

Still, I thought Sheinkin did a good job of pointing out the elite athletes at Carlisle had preferential treatment—better food and conditions—compared to the grimmer reality for most.

KT: I agree, Megan. All those haunting before and after photographs of the students when they first got to Carlisle, and then afterwards when they had been forcibly assimilated speak volumes. But I also agree with Megan that an author’s note would have been helpful for readers who don’t know much about Indian Board Schools in general.

Sam:  There are moments when Sheinkin seems to remember the brutal facts (such as in the Epilogue, when he writes about the difference in experiences between athletes and non-athletes: “[I]t becomes clear that these schools inflicted enormous and lasting pain on entire generations of young people”). In the acknowledgements Sheinkin admits to struggling “to find some kind of balance between stories about this thrilling team… and the harsh realities behind the stories.” Personally, I don’t think he entirely succeeded. I’m not a fan of didacticism, but like Megan and KT, I wanted more of the “harsh realities” Sheinkin alludes to in the above quote. I think he owed that to young readers, and while he gave glimpses, they were too few.

(Plus, let’s be honest: Sheinkin is such a great writer, surely he could have included more analysis of this complex and painful part of history without it turning his audience off.)

Megan: In fact, I was struck by his choice to offer a brief mention of how racism is playing out today in terms of Native people and football when he brings up the controversy surrounding the Washington R**skins team name. It felt almost tacked on in the chapter it was part of, and yet I was glad he acknowledged it. (This topic, too, could have been further discussed in a Note.)

KT:  Even with its faults, I still think it’s a pretty great book overall. But, again, we’re all reading it as non-Native critics. I’ve given a copy to a colleague here at the UW-Madison School of Education who is Lakota. He’s a football fan, too, and he knows a lot about the Carlisle Indian School, in general, and the story of this team. He also recommended an adult book on the subject by Sally Jenkins called The Real All Americans. He’ll let me know what he thinks about the Sheinkin book once he’s read it.  I’m eager to see what he has to say and, with his permission, I’ll share his comments when they come in.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Why "Rock Star Librarian" is an Oxymoron

So, in a weird way, I think the Wall Street Journal kinda nailed it this time. If you read it right.

The article talks about a bunch of White men as "rock stars" of the children's literature world. I think that's one of the more accurate descriptors I've heard. Sure, they'll call themselves book "champions," but with cardboard cutouts, fancy titles, huge contests, highly publicized road trips, book deals, and more, who could blame the Wall Street Journal for terming them rock stars--or us, for thinking they doth protest a little much?

"Publishers can’t advertise in classrooms and marketers can’t reach kids who haven’t yet hit social media, but these experts enjoy a direct line to school gatekeepers." Just look at all the blurbs, the cover reveals, the cheerleading blog posts, the fervent tweets, the... um, the advertising, the marketing. And what a sweet deal for publishers! They don't even have to pay these rock stars the usual rates they pay those who work in their advertising departments--free books and some perks (fancy dinners, access to big names for interviews) will do just fine. Unless… until... they do... hire... them. Which makes me ask: Since when are the skill sets for librarian-ing and advertising so similar? And, can we fix that, please? Because they shouldn’t be. And neither publishers nor librarians should think that they are.

Here's the real kicker, as far as I'm concerned: What has the growth of the rock star done to the professional field of librarianship and other children’s literature professionals? Are we just here to function as de facto members of every publisher's advertising team? I know the "right" answer, but I'd believe it a little more if I'd ever seen one of these rock stars do something that might piss off a publisher even a little.

The ugly upshot is what happens to librarians (and other field professionals) who do actually (and thoughtfully) criticize books, book creators, and/or publishers. Especially the women of color and Native women who dare criticize. They're labeled as angry, combative, overly-sensitive, and generally unreasonable. Is it harder to get hired/published? Darn right it is. And perks? Fancy dinners? Forget it.

(A slight pause here to thank those publishing professionals who do, in fact, appreciate the hard work of these librarians, and who expect and encourage criticism and critical conversations. We see you.)

I understand why the article’s subjects aren’t happy with it (and are denouncing it on social media)... and I'd be really interested in what their conversations looked like with the Wall Street Journal.  Did you confront the WSJ about how they've belittled and dismissed calls for better representation in their previous (ha) reporting on children's literature?  Did you say “if you are taking the time to visit me at a work event, please do the same for a woman of color?”  Did you think about saying, perhaps, “I will give you a comment about inequities in the field, including yours, as well as a list of names of people to whom you can talk in order to right some of those inequities?”  I’m grateful to Donalyn Miller (whose voice and advice to include more diverse voices were excluded from the article, despite the fact that she co-founded the Nerdy Book Club), and to many others, for speaking up about this; see this thread by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas for one.  I wonder what other conversations took place before the fact.  Did anyone consult with friends and allies about whether doing this piece was a good idea in the first place?

And, what now? Will you take a look at some hard truths and use your power to advocate (not just advertise) for marginalized people? Or will you reap the best of both worlds--you get to be rock stars AND you get to be appreciated because you denounced the article?

What are our responsibilities, as children’s literature professionals living in a rock star world? A few thoughts (add more in the comments, please!):
-If you are in charge of selection/buying, actively seek out voices beyond these white men--for that matter, seek out voices beyond white women and the major review journals too.
-Deliberately incorporate the vital work of librarians and critics of color and First/Native Nations into your decision-making processes. Need somewhere to start? Check out our list of Kindred Spirits.
-If you are a rock star, acknowledge your privileges, and your limitations. Do you practice admitting that you do not know it all, or that you are still in the process of learning about structural racism and unconscious bias? Do you regularly guide people to voices beyond your own?
-Do not put anyone on a pedestal. The truth is, these guys are on pedestals that other white people (largely white women, like me) created. We crowned these rock stars; we can un-crown them too.

This brings me back to the article, which correctly did not include any women, people of color, or Native people under the descriptor "rock star." Because they're not. Partly because “rock star” denotes “white man” in the first place (at least, it does to the Wall Street Journal) but also because they’re so many other things. They're educators. They're critics, and critical thinkers. They're responsible budget-spenders. They’re tireless fighters. They're advocates. Who would have time to be a rock star, on top of all that?

-Allie Jane Bruce

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Questions Agents and Editors Can Use to Evaluate American Indian Content, by Kara Stewart

Note: This post, authored by Kara Stewart (Sappony), first appeared on From Here to Writernity.

Are you seeing American Indian characters or content?
Questions Agents and Editors Can Use to Evaluate Native content

Developed by Kara Stewart (Sappony) with many thanks to Debbie Reese (Nambe Pueblo) for contributions.

Dear Agents and Editors, 

Have you just been presented with a manuscript that has American Indian content? I know what you’re thinking. “Great googlie mooglies, how do I tell if the Native content in this doorstop is accurate or if it will cause a garbage fire for my agency/house?”  

Or you may be thinking, “Well, I really like the voice, the plot is killer, and the author says she did a lot of research.” 

Or you may not be overly familiar with problems in the ways that writers create American Indian content, and think “I’m sure it’s fine…”

Or….*eyeswipe over listed resources*  
“Okay! A resource list! Content should be good to go.” But that niggling doubt… are those resources reliable?

Or perhaps you’re thinking, “It’s just this one little paragraph that has American Indian content... and it sounds okay to me...we don’t need to check on just that!”

Stop right there!

I know neither you nor your authors want dumpster fires, so here is a handy (errr… I think it’s handy and hope you do, too!) set of questions (and answers!) you can use to evaluate that manuscript. And a bonus resource list! By using it, you can gain skills to inform yourself and help authors create great books that help, rather than harm.

Just pick from List A (for authors who claim to be American Indian) or List B (for those who do not) and have at it!

A couple of notes on the questions:
  • These are meant as guides. Any single question may not lead you to a definitive answer, but will inform you. Or you may come up with additional questions to ask or research on your own.
  • It is not racist or bad form to ask questions specific to American Indian citizenry. For American Indian populations, the question/answer is larger than underrepresented minorities or historical oppression, and involves tribal citizenship.  American Indian people are, first and foremost, sovereign nations­ with structures in place to govern ourselves. This includes citizenship. Asking “Are you enrolled?” or “Are you a citizen of your nation?” then, is a question that many welcome. The answer will tell you a lot. Most American Indian authors will understand why you are asking and openly share their citizenship with you.
  • One little paragraph, sentence, or phrase can make a difference in a book’s tone, believability, consequences, and how an American Indian reader may respond to it. Why include American Indians at all in that phrase, sentence, or paragraph? Choose from List A or List B.
  • For List A, Question 4 and for List B, you will need at least one, preferably two, vetted readers from the tribe whose content is included. The author’s American Indian contact and their auntie who works at the college does not count. An objective, tribally-vetted person from the tribe who is familiar with Native literature does.
  • Is pondering these questions slightly uncomfortable? It is for me too, but I believe it is crucial that agents and editors take an informed, pro-active stance in the stream of what gets published. Cliché, but we need all hands on deck. I’m not suggesting an interrogation, but a conversation that includes these questions will greatly improve depictions of American Indian people in children’s and young adult books.
  • As editors and editorial agents, you often ask writers to revise something that you think isn’t right. It might be a factual error, or asking for clarity. You can do that, too, with American Indian content.
  • Ultimately, what you’re asking is this: “What will children most likely walk away from this book/section believing about Native people?” Boil it down to what is/isn’t on the page. And don’t forget American Indian children! What will they walk away with, when they read this book or this section?

LIST A: For authors who claim to be American Indian

1. I see your bio says you are Native American. What tribe do you associate yourself with?

2. Is that a state, or federally recognized tribe? 
3. How are you involved with your tribe? 

4. Are you writing about your tribe or another tribe?

List A Cheat Sheet Potential Answers:
1.       The author should be able to definitively name a specific tribe. If not, they may have Native ancestry at some point in their family lineage, but they are most likely not part of a tribe or familiar enough with it for them to be able to write in the #OwnVoice framework.  If an author seems to change their mind, giving  different tribe names at different times, that indicates they’re in an exploratory phase of finding out their American Indian ancestry. Note: if an author tells you they are Native via a DNA test, hit the pause button! Read (re-read) Kim Tallbear’s article, There Is No DNA Test To Prove You’re Native American. DNA means nothing. What matters is lineage and kinship, not DNA.

On the plus side, an author may say, “I am a citizen of the Choctaw Nation and of Navajo descent” or "I am Sappony". Or, “I am Lumbee and Sappony, enrolled with the Lumbee” or "I am an enrolled member of the Sappony", if the author understands that there are members, and there are enrolled members, and it sometimes makes a difference.  Note: if a writer gives you enrollment information for two distinct tribes, that’s a sure sign that the writer is not versed in citizenship. While we may have parents or ancestry from more than one tribe, we are enrolled in one. That’s a protocol widely known amongst those who are raised with knowledge of their native communities. You can also ask the author for their tribe's website and contact information. Many tribes verify membership through tribal ID cards. You can ask to see the tribal ID card. “And do you have a tribal ID card?” is acceptable. If the person does not have a card, but is a member/citizen, they’ll likely know that they (and you) can verify enrollment or citizenship through letter/email. We are asked for our tribal ID cards fairly often – at university offices, to register to dance at powwows, or as acceptable forms of identification to vote in some states, for example.

2.      Question 2 is, in essence, a check on Question 1. It is easy for someone to fudge their way through Question 1, especially if you, agent/editor, don’t feel confident in your ability to sniff out American Indian authenticity. If they don't know if their tribe is state or federally recognized, that is a red flag that points to shallow understanding and knowledge.  It lessens the chance they are really part of any tribe. Neither state nor federally recognized is 'better than' or more authentic than the other. If their tribe is neither state nor federally recognized, that could be a warning signal to find out more, since there are many groups that claim to be American Indian tribes.

3.      Asking how one is involved in the tribe they claim is another check on Question 1. Being a member of a tribe is more than an enrollment number or membership verification. It a way of life. It is giving back to your tribe, your family. It is being involved. Some nations require tribal members to live nearby, or require participation in tribal activities. Possible follow up questions: Did you grow up in the community you are writing about? Do you live there now? Are you able to get back to see your family much? If a person says they serve on the tribal council, or sit on a committee for their tribe or state or federal Indian organizations, volunteer at tribal events and can name them, or can tell you other ways they give back to their own Indian community, their state-level Indian community or the federal-level Indian community, then they have a higher chance of creating content that is accurate.

Caveat: volunteer work at various Indian functions or organizations is not really an indicator on its own since many non-Natives volunteer and may therefore think they have enough Native experience and friends to write about us. See List B.

4.      If the author is American Indian but writing about another tribe, see List B. American Indian tribes are so varied that a Lakota writing about the Mohawk, a Pueblo writing about the Sappony, a Tohono O’Odham writing about the Ojibwe, means that the author is writing about a culture not their own, a culture outside of their own experience. They may have a fundamental understanding of the overarching issues, stereotypes and values in ‘Indian Country’ in the generic sense, but would be an outsider to another tribal culture. We think that you will still need a vetted reader, or two, from the tribe whose content is in the book. See List B.

LIST B: For authors who are not American Indian but claim to have done research and/or have enough American Indian experience to result in authentic, accurate, non-stereotypical text:

1.       Why did you want to write a book about American Indians/include this part with American Indian content in your book?

2.      What tribe are you writing about/what tribe’s content is included in this part of your book?

3.      Why did you select this particular tribal nation for your story?

4.      Who have you interviewed/spoken with in the tribe, and can you give me the names and a statement from the tribe that acknowledges that these people are vetted by the tribe to speak for them?

5.      What is your personal experience with this tribe?

6.      What resources have you used to inform your work?

List B Cheat Sheet Potential Answers:
List B questions are more recursive than List A questions.

·       If the author talks about having worked with American Indian kids/community and says that they asked the author to write a story for them, and this is that story, we have an example of saviorism. It’s not just authors of European ancestry who can get it wrong. Writing from ANY ‘outsider’ culture – White, African American, Asian, Hispanic – should have equally rigorous scrutiny when including American Indian content. If the author is being a savior, they may have saviors in the story, too. Also, very commonly, authors will express having an affinity for American Indian culture, being fascinated with Indians, or growing up near a reservation – Danger, Will Robinson! Proceed with caution! This can be code for “many stereotypes ahead”.  See Answer 6 for great resources to combat that.
·         If there are a couple of American Indian references in the book, “some Indian tribes say…” or “..look like an Indian..” or “Hopi legend says…” or “Indian burial ground” or “wise, old Indian man said …”, ask the author why they chose American Indian culture for that reference. We’ve seen many books in which it seems the author did not imagine American Indian children as amongst the audience for the book. With that in mind, ask why the author needs to include American Indians at all in that phrase, sentence, or paragraph. Can the scene stand without it? Why is it there? Can another group reference be substituted there? If the answer doesn’t support accurate, non-stereotypical text, you probably want to lose it.

2.  If there is no specific tribe mentioned . . .  
Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!

3.      This answer circles back to Question 1 but will give you more specific information. Pay particular attention if the author says something like, “I had a neat idea for a historical fiction book based on a real tribe/person/event.” See Answer 6.

4.      Via a social event or mutual acquaintance, a non-Native author may feel they have someone they can turn to who can help them with their American Indian content.  But that doesn’t mean that the Native person your author spoke with speaks for the tribe, has a larger view of the cultural questions, or knows anything about American Indian representation in literature. The author may pose questions and receive vague or simple affirmation for that content. The assumption is that feedback from any American Indian person is fine, or that positive feedback from an American Indian person is validation of authenticity, accuracy and acceptance. That is a false assumption.  You and your author—and your author’s readers—deserve more than that. Writers worked, in some cases, years on the manuscript. It is important to find someone who can give the content the serious attention it, the writer, and readers, deserve.  This is why it is important to have not only appropriate, but objective, American Indian information contacts as well as vetted (someone the tribe agrees can speak for them) readers. 

5.      This answer circles back to Questions 1 and 2, but will give you more specific information. Again, if the author talks about working or living with/near American Indian kids/community and the story written was well received by them . . . time to ferret out more information. What experience? For how long? Time frame? What did the work/interactions consist of? What about this experience enables you to write from the point of view of an American Indian person?

6.      The Devil is in the details . . . and the overall tone. Authors can have all their facts historically correct according to accepted sources available. But it is the interpretation of the facts into a story that makes the book harmful or helpful. I’ve seen a number of books that get most of the ‘facts’ correct, but the overall tone is that of stereotypes (which may be difficult for non-Indian writers, agents and editors to see when that has been the prevailing mode of American Indian representation). I’d highly recommend that agents and editors read the Revised Criteria from How to Tell the Difference: A Guide for Evaluating Children's Books for Anti­-Indian Bias. Reading a manuscript through that lens and thinking deeply about Eurocentrism and colonialism will make all the difference. You can find guidelines, suggestions, statistics and a number of resources here at Writing About Native Americans. It is a long post (as was this).

       But if it is truly important to you and your author to stop perpetuating stereotypes, you will have made it to the end of this post. And that one.

Is My Novel Offensive? by Katy Waldman for Slate
Writing, Tonto and the Wise-Cracking Minority Sidekick Who Is Always the First to Die

-Kara Stewart (Sappony) is a Reading Specialist in the public schools. She currently serves on the North Carolina State Advisory Council on Indian Education and on her Tribal Council.