Antiracist Activism for Teachers and Students/Literature for Youth/Analyzing Language

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Language can be a powerful tool that can help or hurt people in our society. Multi-cultural education can provide an opportunity to look at how language can be used to break down stereotypes and bias. Our goal is to provide an approach to children’s literature that will improve a child’s understanding of diversity and aid in the recognition of bias.

We have included information about the background of the relationship of language to race, a guide to analyzing books for racism, a number of examples of books that handle issues of race both successfully and unsuccessfully, and an overview of the importance of including this in the curriculum and finally. Language is manipulated in both positive and negative ways to define or alter the image of people in the US along the lines of color. Language has the power to turn abstract ideas into reality. That is to say stereotypes have become common vocabulary which has resulted in many people in society believing them to be real. Stereotypes have very tangible consequences. The language people use to talk about race is indicative of general stereotypes and assumptions. There has been a concerted effort to change the language used in books used for education. As an educator (in the classroom or at home) it is important to be able to identify the potential harmful language in the literature that we are teaching to our children.

Racism and bias have a long history in children’s literature from Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit to modern books where racism appears in more subtle ways through tokenism or a general sense that “white” behavior and lifestyle is superior. Author Ruth Frankenberg attests to the fact that much of our vocabulary about race was established during the colonial period and carries with it the extreme prejudices of that era making it close to impossible to speak about race and related subjects without unconscious bias. Thus, students of all races are exposed to and internalize stereotypes that they encounter in daily life and in the language and pictures of books. Frankenberg also states that most descriptions and analyses of race and slavery are written from a white perspective and lead into a veritable labyrinth of bias when carefully deconstructed. Frankenberg maintains that race is a social construct with real consequences and criticizes the myth of colorblindness in which people claim not to see race. People of color experience constant signs of racism that may be subtle in nature. These subtle signs can be confusing as many people of color have to struggle with whether or not the racism is real or intentional and how they should respond to it. The harm that implied racism can cause to a person is real, and should not be dismissed as an overreaction. Microaggressions (Sue, et al.) “The ‘new’ manifestation of racism has been likened to carbon monoxide, invisible, but potentially lethal.” A powerful way to breakdown the stereotypes in society is by changing the images and language presented in books.

Examples of Multicultural Children’s Literature…and Examples of Books to Avoid[edit | edit source]

The Great Migration by Jacob Lawrence is a true story of the relocation of southern African Americans to the north after World War I. Lawrence illustrates the motivations of those migrating by citing examples of injustice by the hands of whites: “For African-Americans the South was barren in many ways. There was no justice for them in the courts, and their lives were often in danger. Although slavery had long been abolished, white landowners treated the black tenant farmers harshly and unfairly.” Here, Lawrence is showing that whites held the power at the expense of blacks. Stating, “slavery had long been abolished” yet acknowledging that whites were still malicious toward blacks reinforces the idea that people can be racist even if their government is “racially equal.” The migration is not romanticized in Lawrence’s story, a pitfall of some multicultural literature, as romanticization can negate experienced inequality. Lawrence refutes a widespread belief that racial inequality is a Southern phenomenon: “Although they were promised better housing in the North, some families were forced to live in over-crowded and unhealthy conditions. The migrants soon learned that segregation was not confined to the South. Many Northern workers were angry because they had to compete with the migrants for housing and jobs. There were riots.”

Additionally, Lawrence illustrates the judges and factory owners in the story with white skin and all other characters with dark skin. This portrayal properly depicts the reality that whites held all of the powerful jobs in America after World War I. The pictures visibly show how power is stratified across racial lines in society; a fact that is important to teach children as positions of power have not changed much in society today.

Lawrence concludes his story with: “Theirs is a story of African-American strength and courage. I share it now as my parents told it to me, because their struggles and triumphs ring true today.” This sentence affirms that racial equality has not been established in America and there is still much work to be done in order to achieve equality. Using these stories can aid in teaching children that they can become active in social issues. Teaching these stories at an early age can prepare children to recognize stereotypes and use their voice to refute them. Stuart H.D. Ching (2005) would describe Lawrence’s book as one of “multiracial democracy” as it “assumes active contest over and weighs the ethical and unethical uses of power (130).” He would also classify it as a “passing into advocacy” book, as it “signifies replacing one’s comfortable position with a deeper understanding of power relations that enables one to comprehend and advocate for another’s cause (131).”

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats is not a multicultural children’s book, but it is an example of a good book to read to young children. The book illustrates a black child enjoying a day in the snow, talking with his mother and playing with his friends. The book describes a day that any American child could experience, yet the author chose to portray a child of color enjoying the snowy day instead of a white child. This conscious decision has to be celebrated because it does not happen often in American children’s literature. Children of color are usually left out of storybooks unless their culture or different features are the focus of the story. Such depictions perpetuate the idea that people of color are and should be treated differently than the white norm.

Across the Alley by Richard Michelson is an example of a story that Ching would classify as one of “assimilationist pluralism”, or “one that requires different groups to follow standards they had no share in making and that they may dislike, even as it presents these requirements as the bedrock of orderly freedom (130).” The story focuses on a young white boy named Abe who has a young black friend named Willie who he can only talk to at night: “During the day we don’t play together, but at night, when nobody’s watching, Willie and I are best friends.” The story is told from the perspective of a white child and how he interacts with a black child. Though Abe is Jewish, the issues with the book have to do with how race is portrayed. The book does try to challenge stereotypes that are used in society. For example, Willie feels pressure to be good at baseball because “his daddy was a starter in the Negro leagues.” Despite his practice, Willie cannot grasp baseball. Similarly, Abe feels pressure to be good at the violin because his grandfather wants him to be. The boys find that they are good at the other’s activity, which breaks down the stereotype that baseball is for African Americans while activities that are associated with high culture are for whites. This stereotype however is somewhat reinforced when Abe’s grandfather tells him: “‘God gave you a brain, Abe. Let those Negro boys play ball.’”

Another example that downplays racial inequality takes place when Abe and Willie share stories of discrimination experienced by members of their families: “‘Grandpa was a great violinist in the old country,’ I tell Willie late that night. ‘But there was a war and the Nazis broke all of his fingers and worked him like a slave. Grandpa says he was lucky to escape with his life.’ Willie is real quiet now and I wonder if I said something wrong. Maybe he doesn’t know about the Nazis. ‘My great-granddaddy was a slave too,’ Willie finally says. ‘I never knew any white folk that were.’ Then we’re both real quiet until Willie decides that it’s time we went to bed.” This passage conveys the Jewish experience of the Holocaust was an equal struggle to that of African Americans being enslaved. The excerpt is meant to show children that Jewish Americans and Black Americans have experienced the same suffering because of their social identities. Although the Holocaust was an atrocity in which Jews were wrongly exterminated and has led to discrimination their experience is not equal to slavery and the present day inequalities that African Americans experience. As a result, children will understand Willie’s great-grandfathers enslavement as something that white people experienced too. By ending this difficult conversation with Abe and Willie going to bed and not addressing it further, the author is stating the racist idea that the past should be forgotten in favor of looking toward the future.

The story ends with Abe and Willie walking down the street together “like best friends, and everybody is staring.” Willie’s father and Abe’s grandfather are behind them, and Willie’s father states that: “Ignorance comes in as many colors as talent.” This statement negates the presence of white privilege and systematic racism in America today by stating that people of color can be racist and it holds the same consequences as white racism. Willie plays violin in Abe’s temple, and when he finishes “the clapping is so loud you’d think he’d just walloped a homer,” conveying to children that Willie’s musical talent has to be celebrated in athletic terms in order for him to appreciate it. The last page of the story is a picture of Abe’s grandfather standing amongst a group of Blacks who are all cheering on Abe while he plays baseball. This image conveys the idea that Abe’s grandfather is accepted among Blacks and is meant to represent racial harmony when in fact there is no picture of Willie or his father amongst a group of white people showing children that blacks do not need to be accepted by whites.

Hats Off to Hair by Virginia Kroll is a picture book about many different haircuts that is not recommended for children. The book has pages and pages of white children sporting many hairstyles and colors from pageboys to red ringlets. The book only shows a handful of children of color, who are drawn with other children of color in stereotypical styles and captioned as “Afros on Abe and Ahmed,” “Waves with a bloom on each ear for Samoa,” “Thick and straight, Shin-He’s hair parts in the middle,” “Curls at the temples for Yoel and Shmuel.” This book portrays children of color as “different” than the white majority who dominates the book. The pictures show children of color in stereotypical styles of their particular culture. Depicting an African American or Asian American child to hairstyles of popular belief is problematic as it will teach children to identify their classmates as such. Additionally, the author defines hairstyles in the back of the book; “Afro” is defined as a “bushy hairdo from Africa that became popular in the 1960s.” In fact, any style sported by a Black child is defined as an “African” style. A Mohawk is sported by a Native American child and defined as a style made popular by the Mohawk tribe. These definitions are troublesome because they teach children to categorize identity merely on racial terms. Overall, this book is dangerous as it coveys the idea that white children have many choices in hairstyles while children of color are easily categorized.

As discussed previously, literature is an extremely important aspect of multicultural education within the classroom. Text and pictures can send extremely explicit, and in many cases, implicit, messages about who is in power, what is “normal” and what is not. Multicultural literature is important for children in order to see characters that look like them, think like them, and act like them. Every child should be able to find several books in their classroom that portray people like themselves, in order to form a healthy, positive self image. Therefore, it is incredibly important for teachers to recognize which children or adolescent books represent a variety of different ethnicities in a thoughtful and positive way, in order to provide them in their classrooms. Additionally, a teacher cannot effectively work with students from diverse backgrounds if they themselves have not researched current issues that surround children from their classroom. Teachers need to be aware of issues of race, socioeconomic status, religious beliefs, and gender while working with a group of students as these issues may affect students in different ways. When choosing books for the classroom, the teacher should have goals in mind for what s/he would like their students to get from the activity.

Multicultural literature can accomplish a number of goals: increase student awareness and appreciation of other people, help them recognize similarities and differences between groups of people, to show how people are connected through their emotions, needs, and desires, and to develop an understanding of the effects of social issues on individuals. Students should be an essential part of the discussion of the book and a safe, confidential environment in the classroom should be created to allow students to feel comfortable sharing their thoughts with their peers. Most importantly, multicultural education is a theme that should be integrated in every classroom every day of the year and not only on special cultural holidays or remembrance days. When this is done sporadically it reinforces stereotypes and downplays the significance of the cultures represented. An ongoing discussion should be present when reading all types of literature to determine whose voice is heard, whose is missing, and what the students can do about it.

An article from Rethinking Our Classrooms, written by the Council on Interracial Books for Children provides the following abridged version of ten quick ways to analyze children’s books for racism and sexism. If students are old enough, they may be able to do some of the following themselves, which would be an excellent class activity.

  1. Check the Illustrations
  2. Check the Story Line: standards for success, resolution of problems, the role of women
  3. Look at the Lifestyles
  4. Weigh the Relationships Between People: how are family relationships depicted? Do whites in the story possess the power or make the important decisions?
  5. Note the Heroes: are they “safe” non-white heroes? When minority heroes appear, are they admired for the same qualities as the white heroes?
  6. Consider the Effects on a Child’s Self-Image: are norms established that limit the child’s aspirations and self-concepts?
  7. Consider the Author or Illustrator’s Background
  8. Check out the Author’s Perspective
  9. Watch for Loaded Words: sexist language or loaded adjectives that can be racist, such as “lazy”, “superstitious”, and “docile”.
  10. Look at the Copyright Date: this can be a clue to how racist or sexist a book is, depending on the decade in which it was written.

References[edit | edit source]

  • Ching, H.D. S (2005). Multicultural Children's Literature as an Instrument of Power. Language Arts. 83, 128-136.
  • Keats, Ezra J (1962). The Snowy Day. New York, NY: The Viking Press.
  • Kroll, V (1995). Hats Off To Hair. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.
  • Lawrence, J (1993). The Great Migration. New York, NY: The Museum of Modern Art.
  • Michelson, R (2006). Across the Alley. New York, NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.