White-washed Children’s Books and Single Stories Leave Kids Lost, and There’s a Way Out of It

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The New York Times recently published an incredible opinion piece by Walter Dean Myers about the lack of people of color in children’s books.

In a particularly poignant passage, Myers describes the way his voracious love for books turned into a problematic relationship:

“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.

Books did not become my enemies. They were more like friends with whom I no longer felt comfortable. I stopped reading. I stopped going to school. On my 17th birthday, I joined the Army. In retrospect I see that I had lost the potential person I would become — an odd idea that I could not have articulated at the time, but that seems so clear today.”

This passage made me think of another writer’s perspective. One of acclaimed author Chimamanda Adichie’s incredible TED Talks about, what she calls, “the danger of a single story” is something I’ve returned to many times when I’m writing.

She details her upbringing on a university campus in Nigeria, where she read mostly British books. She began to realize, like Myers, that the lives she read about were not her own, but it didn’t even occur to her that books could be about experiences like her own until she finally read some.

She talks about the stories she began to write as a child:

“I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading. All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather—how nice it was that the sun had come out. Now, this, despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria. I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn’t have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather because there was no need to.”

Adichie uses her own life to illustrate the need for a diverse spectrum of narratives to choose from, a wide variety of voices to be heard. The danger of the single story, she explains later, is the potential for a complete misreading of a group based on the idea that one story can perfectly represent all people with somewhat similar experiences or similar identities.

Drawing on the clear pictures Myers and Adichie present of this problem, I break down the need for representation of a wide variety of racial identities in children’s books—and diversity in the media as a whole—into two major points:

1. People belonging to marginalized groups need to see more people with experiences like theirs reflected in the media. We see media images, both consciously and subconsciously, as models for our own lives. When the only people we see in media who are like us are minor characters, are not protagonists, are one-dimensional, or are altogether absent, we can begin to see ourselves in the same light.

2. People belonging to dominant groups need to see more people with experiences unlike theirs reflected in the media. By gaining the ability to relate to people who are not just like us, we also gain understanding. We learn to understand lives that are not lived identically to our own, and by doing so, we become more empathetic people, less likely to write off those who we don’t immediately understand.

Kids of all races and ethnicities are being slighted by the current imbalance. The children’s book issue is an indicator of the much wider media representation problem, and it’s an important indicator. Books are some of the first exposures to media we have, at a crucial time when we’re learning about society, about who we are, and about what we can one day become.

Myers writes about finally reading a story that spoke to his experience, saying:

“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. By humanizing the people who were like me, Baldwin’s story also humanized me. The story gave me a permission that I didn’t know I needed, the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map.”

When publishers support children’s books about non-white characters, about characters who defy gender norms, about characters who have dynamic abilities and emotions, about all kinds of family structures, etc., those publishers are giving kids validation.

To borrow Myers’ analogy, the more kids receive that permission to be and appreciate themselves, the more people may be able to end up, one day, comfortably moving through the world according to their very own maps.


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