Reader’s Response

My friend Crystal posed some interesting questions on my blog, so I’ll answer them in the form of another blog here. Crystal, I apologize for the delay… it’s been a hectic week. (note: Crystal is an international graduate student from China, hence her first question about growing up reading all Chinese books.)

1. I grew up reading all-Chinese (characters and figures) books but haven’t learned that I (Chinese) am the kingfish. Do most Korean children in Korea grow up reading all-Korean books? Do they all think of themself as the kingfish?
Good question. My IPRH Youth Literature Interest Group is devoting several reading sessions to international youth literature, so we’re learning about the state of children’s literature in other countries, which unfortunately has not yet developed to the status of that in the United States or England. In most cases, each country’s children’s literature represents the majority culture – Chinese children will read about Chinese society, Korean children will read about Korean society and so on. There are a few cases, such as in the Caribbean, where there might not yet be a substantial body of works (my friend Sujin Huggins does research in this area) so a lot of what comprises “children’s literature” is literature from other nations – the US and UK.

Furthermore, the trend is that books published in the United States are translated into other languages and republished in Korea, in China, in Japan, in France, etc. The United States translates very few books from other countries. Thus, the U.S. exports its ideas of whiteness, values, cultures, etc. into other countries, whereas other countries seldom have opportunities to import their ideas, cultures, values, etc., into the United States. In other words, the flow is almost entirely one way.

It is healthy for children to see themselves reflected in the books they read. However, in the United States the majority culture is white and we have a history of discrimination and prejudice (slavery, Jim Crow laws, anti-immigration laws of 1882, 1824, etc., Japanese Internment, race riots, institutional racism, hate crimes, etc.) I’m not saying that other countries don’t have their share of social ills, whether they be racial or class-based or sexist or what have you. But in the U.S., there’s been a history of bias and prejudice, and unfortunately it often gets perpetuated in children’s books. Thus, white middle-class children in the U.S. see mirrors of their white middle-class lives reflected in children’s books, and minorities see windows of white middle-class children’s lives. Minorities rarely see mirrors, and white children rarely see windows. This reinforces the notion that what is normal in the United States is white middle-class. Think of the Dick and Jane books, or Nancy Drew series, or Hardy Boys. They portray “All American” characters, and people of color who are written into Nancy Drew, for example, are stereotyped, passive characters instead of multifaceted characters with personality, humanity and dignity.

2. If there is such evil White privilage, why do so many Korean families immigrate to US with “providing good education for their children” as a reason? If they all did it out of ignorance of the problem, why don’t they go back to Korean after they find out the problem?
After World War II and the Korean War, the United States posited itself as a kind of “saving” nation. That image is still popular today, with the rhetoric that the U.S. is saving Iraq and third world countries (supposedly saving them from themselves). Many Koreans came here to pursue the “American dream” because opportunities for education and upward social mobility might not have been available to them in Korea. The Horatio Alger myth, perpetuated in more than 60 books about Ragged Dick and other characters, tells us that we can make anything of ourselves in the U.S. if we just apply ourselves. These types of messages permeate our society. Okay, so once we get here, we realize that the U.S. does have massive social problems and they’re not going to go away just because we can make more money or get into a better school. Well, why should immigrants, or descendents of immigrants, have to “go back to Korea”? That is not a solution; rather it is a defeatist attitude and doesn’t do anything to promote social justice or equality. We have just as much a right to be here as anyone else, and we can, and we have, and we will continue to promote social justice so that all people – whether they’re white lower income or black middle class or Korean upper class – can enjoy the same freedoms that the United States offers.

It’s easy to see the phrase “white privilege” and feel uncomfortable. We don’t say “white privilege” to point blame and make white people the enemy; we say “white privilege” with the understanding that whiteness is also a social construction of a group that historically has been privileged over other socially constructed groups in this nation. Looking at the legal history of this country makes that immediately apparent. For example, in California white laborers were so scared of Chinese immigrants that they passed laws such as “it is illegal for men to have long hair” (thus forcing Chinese immigrants to cut their queue) and “it is illegal for men to carry water across a stick on their back” (thus Chinese immigrants would have a tougher time transporting water for their laundry businesses) and “it is illegal for a Chinese person to marry a white person.” Clearly, white folks in California in the 1850s had issues with the new Chinese immigrants and passed laws to keep them economically and socially inferior.

3. If you look at the percentage of Korean Americans among all US citizens, and then the percentage of Korean American college students among all US college students (especially in the good college), do you see a “Korean privilage” or a “White privilage”?
This is frequently the argument of those opposed to affirmative action, and I welcome opportunities to discuss this topic. About 4% of the U.S. population is comprised of Americans of Asian descent. More than that are represented in many top tier universities across the nation. Is this an overrepresentation? Is it unfair to white students? No, because college is not the end point. When we look at numbers in the workforce, at the percentage of Asian Americans who are politicians or managers or CEOs or what have you, the percentage is far less than 4%. Asian Americans may be overrepresented in college, but their degrees are clearly not garnering them the jobs – and the salaries – to match. At the end of the day, the white male still makes more money and has the higher position.

That’s it for now. You don’t mind these questions, right?

Of course not. You ask interesting and important questions, and it helps both us think through these topics.

Also, in my post about Harriet the Spy’s intense hatred for math, Crystal asked “Yeah, I have to agree that it’s a very rich and rhetorical description. But if it is from a literature or movie for children, is it educational? Does it do more harm or good to the kids who already (or may potentially) hate math?”

Children’s literature began as an educational tool (primers, books on religionm etc). It still teaches something, but not in the blunt, didactic manner that it used to. Is Harriet the Spy teaching or encouraging children to hate math? I doubt it. Children who love math will continue to love math, and they’ll probably think Harriet’s a little odd for not liking it. Children who hate math will continue to hate math, but they’ll absolutely love Harriet (as I did!) because they can identify with her. The children who hate math in this world need to be able to see themselves reflected in children’s books so they know it’s not weird for them to hate math. Furthermore, it’s important to look at the story as a whole. Harriet the Spy is a fabulous story.

A counter argument to this may be: “Okay, so what if there’s a fabulous book but it contains stereotypical images of Asians? Then would you still say ‘It’s important to look at the book as a whole?'” This argument is like comparing apples with oranges. Math is not a human who is going to be offended that Harriet hates it. An Asian American such as myself finds serious offense in books that portray Asians with orientalist images.

A story cannot be fabulous if it contains stereotypical images of any culture out of context. It loses its right to be fabulous.

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