White Privilege

(originally published Sept 20, 2006)

“As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.

I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege.” – White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, Peggy McIntosh

Today’s class discussion was interesting. Our assignment was to read Nodelman and Reimer’s chapter on children’s literature and ideology, and in class we broke up into 2 groups for discussion. At first N (white American), C (black American) and I (Korean American) mostly talked, and the three of us were exactly on the same page about the way children’s books reflect certain ideologies. We discussed how we might have enjoyed The Giving Tree and Where the Wild Things Are as children, but now as adults (and as scholars of children’s lit) we definitely see how those two books can perpetuate certain ways of thinking. Another one of the Caucasian students looked uncomfortable with the direction our conversation was going, and when she finally couldn’t take it anymore, she interjected with, “It’s just children’s literature! When we overanalyze children’s literature, it totally ruins the experience of reading it” (I’m paraphrasing here; I can’t remember her exact statement but it was something along those lines.)

This type of reaction to critical discussions on children’s literature does not surprise me. I often have discussions with white students about whether or not it matters that there are orientalist images in children’s book; about why we shouldn’t keep The Story of Little Black Sambo in print if it’s “such a great story”; why it’s important that not all books portray girls as nurses and boys as doctors. Why diversity matters. Why respect matters. Why truth matters.

C brought up an example: If huge numbers of Native Americans criticize the way The Indian in the Cupboard stereotypes Native Americans, and then the author (a white woman) writes a sequel, what does that say about the white woman’s atittude towards Native Americans? If anything, shouldn’t authors consider the opinions of the Native Americans whose images the book purports to represent?

Apparently not. Because it’s “just a children’s book.” Because “I read it as a child and I turned out okay.”

Yes, but you probably also think having Chief Illiniwek as your school mascot is okay too.

I think N, C and I are used to taking advantage of “teaching moments.” We kept saying, “Yes, you bring up an important point! But…” and tried to explain the dangers of leaving harmful messages in children’s books, the need to publish more responsibly, to discuss these issues with children, etc. She was defensive and resistant, insisting that “children’s books are just a small fraction of popular culture” and that “most children don’t read anyway” so “shouldn’t we be more concerned with all of popular culture, which, by the way, we can’t control?”

When I was young, I read the Baby-Sitters Club books as soon as they came off the press. I was drawn to Claudia Kishi because she was the only Asian American face I could see in children’s books. She was as close to a mirror as I got; no one told me about Laurence Yep or Yoshiko Uchida or Sooknyul Choi. An Na and Marie Lee had not yet published their books. As a child, I read voraciously, but I read voraciously about white people because that’s the literature that was available to me. So I grew up thinking that this was a white person’s world, or more accurately, a white man’s world.

For someone who didn’t see herself reflected in children’s literature, did I turn out okay? Sure, but now I’m working to correct those misrepresentations and absences so that the next generations of Asian American youth won’t suffer from feelings of invisibility and inferiority.

“But the impact of all-white books upon 29,600,000 white children is probably even worse. Although his light skin makes him one of the world’s minorities, the white child learns from his books that he is the kingfish.” The All-White World of Children’s Literature, Nancy Larrick 1965

Something to think about.

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