White-Default Mentality Makes Our Brains Lazier

Rosse • Writing Characters of Color (Erasing White-Default Mentality).

Rosse writes regarding explaining cultural terms in her writing. Terms like “mami” or “papi” and the idea that constantly explaining them makes them “other” while things in British jargon, for example, are just quirks of being British–they don’t need to be explained. The reader will either figure it out or look it up.

I am currently reading Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson. It’s cool so far, a mixture of technology, romance, and Middle Eastern culture. There might be a jinni soon! In the novel, Wilson uses Middle Eastern terminology regarding clothing, food, and even insults or praises between characters. Because I am reading the hardcopy and not an e-book, looking up things takes more effort (just saying that my vocab skyrockets when I can press and hold a word and the definition comes up–a point in favor of e-books from my hardcopy loving self). I have looked up a few things, but either you can figure them out or it’s there to lend authenticity but not knowing precisely what it is doesn’t hinder from the reading experience. If it comes up twice and you still don’t know, look it up.

I think some of the problem we have to day is that we are lazy. I know I can be. I will move on rather than look something up. But if Wilson had replaced or explained the cultural terms she uses, I would be even lazier and it would bog own the narrative of the story. I wouldn’t use context clues to figure out a definition or an insult. And I wouldn’t learn something new about a culture that isn’t my own. In America, where so many people are different, we sure do want to homogenize everything. We accept different European cultures and traditions as being the norm (Halloween but not Dia de Meurtos, Christmas but not Kwanzaa), but don’t even want to learn about the traditions of other cultures.

It’s a common argument that diversity in children’s literature will make them more aware of the larger world and knowledge of how to accept and interact with people of different backgrounds, but it also will help them be smarter. Learn from context clues, research definitions, learn about cultural traditions, and/or delve into new histories and world facts. Get those gears working.

[R]ight now, we are so underrepresented that we have to announce our presence, so we are no longer invisible. When enough of us do so, and seeing a Person of Color in a book, or movie, or TV show is no longer an event, but just normal, completely ordinary, then our ultra-visibility will become another kind of invisibility, but a good kind of invisibility, born of equality instead of otherness.

–Rosse Raith

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NBC Interview with Dr. Zetta Elliott

NBC Interview with Dr. Zetta Elliott

I can’t seem to embed the video. But click through for the interview. Dr. Elliot talks about her struggles publishing books with characters of color and editors telling her “there’s no market for this.” Only about 5% of books published are written by people of color, but we are about 40% of the population. Dr. Elliot says that children of color are already the majority (which supports claims I’ve heard where PoC will be the majority by 2020). It’s crazy how the media doesn’t reflect reality at all, then get all affronted when PoC ask for more representations of themselves. No one believes in our buying power, but it is there. And we are so starved for representation now, that we go out in droves to see films, and watch TV shows, and read books with PoC as the main characters. Look at the success of Scandal or Kevin Hart’s films from last year. We want representation and we want it in our children’s literature too.

Dr. Elliot also says “Books can be windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors. If you don’t see a mirror, you start to feel invisible.” Which I believe I’ve also heard author Junot Diaz say something similar. What he says, and I’m paraphrasing, is that a lot of monsters in folklore don’t have reflections–vampires are the most well known for this–and if you don’t see your reflection, you can begin to view yourself as a monster. Elliot says that when she was writing in high school and when she sees young black kids who present stories to her, it is white characters at the center of those stories. I am working on a piece for the website Black Girl Nerds that talks about my own experiences on the matter. Elliot says, “I had to dream myself into existence.” You have to undo years of conditioning to get yourself to write stories that are about people who are like you, rather than the people you’ve been reading about.

“Without a mirror it becomes difficult to see yourself in particular scenarios.” I didn’t know there were other “black nerds” besides me. I thought I was the only one reading mysteries and speculative fiction stories and wishing I could attend San Diego Comic-con. I couldn’t imagine that there were others like me. And there are so many fields and things that young people of color want to do and be and experience but don’t because they think that people of color don’t do those things. Books are a great way to show kids that they really can do whatever they want, because someone of their ethnic background has done it somewhere. Or they can read others’ stories of being the first [x] to do such and such a thing and be encouraged to do the same in whatever field they’ll be the first in.

Dr. Elliot also talks about the Diversity Gap and presents this fantastic image. I’ve read a lot of the books in the 93% but not a lot in the other percentages. This blog is helping me find those other 7%.

 

by Tina Kugler

Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers Discuss Diversity in Children’s Lit in the New York Times

http://ncvfoundation.org/book

via The Storylines Project

Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers are two black children’s book authors who have written a plethora of books, both together and separate, that cater to the often ignored community of young black children. Walter Dean Myers, Christopher’s father, has written over fifty books including picture books and nonfiction. He has won the Coretta Scott King Award for African-American authors five times (thanks Wikipedia!). Christopher Myers is a writer also, who also illustrates his work and others’. They each wrote a piece for the NY Times regarding diversity (and the lack thereof) in children’s literature, each having decades in the business.

The Myers each have their own article stemming from the same abysmal percentage:

Of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people, according to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin.”

That’s only 4%. And that’s in one recent year. I’m sure the numbers aren’t much better when you include figures from the last decade or the last century.

Walter begins by talking about his upbringing with books.

As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. I didn’t want to become the “black” representative, or some shining example of diversity. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me. […]

Then I read a story by James Baldwin: “Sonny’s Blues.” I didn’t love the story, but I was lifted by it, for it took place in Harlem, and it was a story concerned with black people like those I knew. […]

The story gave me a permission that I didn’t know I needed, the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map.

What he says really resonates with me. I loved the books I read growing up and it wasn’t really until recently that I realized how few black children were in them. I actually can’t think of any at the moment–not too many black children in science-fiction/fantasy/mystery. Realizing that there are indeed books out there featuring children who look like me, even now, has seemed to–as Myers said–give me “permission” to write characters who were also black. The few stories that I wrote for school or for creative writing class or back when I was a kid had protagonists that weren’t really described, but were most often visualized as white. It’s so strange to think that the books you read have an influence on who you visualize when you write, but that’s another post I have in mind.

Myers then discusses an incident where two equally qualified people were reluctantly given an equal chance at a job–one was black, the other white–because the hiring manager couldn’t imagine a black chemist. Walter says that allowing for diverse children’s literature gives both black and white (and any other) children, a sense of black people as real and equal people in society.

Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books? Where are the future white personnel managers going to get their ideas of people of color? Where are the future white loan officers and future white politicians going to get their knowledge of people of color? Where are black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?

We look to books, especially children’s books, to teach us about the world, teach us about things we haven’t yet experienced. So why is there a lack of books about non-slave, non-Civil Rights era black people? How can we get the books that are out there more visibility? So that future writers who are reading now don’t suffer the way I did, the way Walter Dean Myers did, and put reading to the side because they don’t feel represented. Or their writing suffers because they feel they’re not writing protagonists they can relate to. (Of course I’m not saying you can’t write protagonists that aren’t your race, but knowing you can and it doesn’t matter what genre you want to write in, is freeing.)

Christopher talks more about the separation of books about white kids from books featuring black kids.

“This apartheid of literature — in which characters of color are limited to the townships of occasional historical books that concern themselves with the legacies of civil rights and slavery but are never given a pass card to traverse the lands of adventure, curiosity, imagination or personal growth — has two effects. One is a gap in the much-written-about sense of self-love that comes from recognizing oneself in a text, from the understanding that your life and lives of people like you are worthy of being told, thought about, discussed and even celebrated.”

 Christopher talks to children about the 4% figure and they’re confused as to why there are more books about talking animals than about black children, which reminds me of a similar issue on television, as tweeted by Wyatt Cenac: “No disrespect to monsters, but it’s weird that there are more TV shows starring vampires than starring minorities.” Seems the same goes for children’s literature.
Christopher goes on to talk about the publishing side of things. Publishers don’t publish books about black kids because they don’t see the demand for it.

The Market, I am told, just doesn’t demand this kind of book, doesn’t want book covers to look this or that way, and so the representative from (insert major bookselling company here) has asked that we have only text on the book cover because white kids won’t buy a book with a black kid on the cover — or so The Market says, despite millions of music albums that are sold in just that way.

He ends with this:

I will make a fantastic world, a cartography of all the places a girl like her can go, and put it in a book. The rest of the work lies in the imagination of everyone else along the way, the publishers, librarians, teachers, parents, and all of us, to put that book in her hands.

It’s a personal mission statement, but also a call to action. Young black kids have a plethora of things keeping them away from books with characters like them. We all need to do our parts to make it easier for them to access them. Discussion helps. Telling teachers you know helps, librarians, parents, all of us. We need to help create more of a demand, stronger, louder demand for these books, so publishers have no choice but to provide them. Maybe we can get one made into a million dollar motion picture and it will start a new trend? Wishful thinking, sure, but if you shoot for the stars, even if you fail, you just might land on the moon.

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