Casaubon's Book

I don’t know a single person on any end of the political spectrum who doesn’t want to see an end to police shootings of black folk. I don’t know a single person who doesn’t want to make sure that shootings like the Charleston one never happen again. But most ordinary white people also don’t have a clue how they could help with that, other than posting the occasional facebook meme or generally feeling it would be a good thing if something were done. Or maybe they’d like to do something, but are nervous about it – how will other people feel if they just show up to a protest or meeting? The blunt truth is that Black and White people in America often live very separate lives, and even if their is a desire to cross the boundaries, a lot of people don’t know how. So while I’d love it if you showed up, I’m going to give you something easier as a start. Read to your kids.

Ok, you already knew you should be reading to your kids, and odds are, if you have them, you are. Because most of the readers of my blog (and most blogs) are white, middle class and reasonably well educated, either self-educated or otherwise. If you really needed it you could look at some studies about the neurological value of reading, including one that just came out: or you could go with something slightly older. But honestly, you don’t actually need science for this, you already know that reading is incredibly important both for the much-vaunted “preparing our children for their 21st century world” and also for giving your kids things like empathy, imagination and the ability to understand how people other than themselves might think.

Again, if you have kids and read this blog, I bet you already read tons to your kids. But what you may not do, because most parents don’t, is actively, consciously make sure that your kids are reading lots of books with non-white protagonists, with Black language, Black culture and themes that make everyone deal with difference. Or for that matter, books with other non-white protagonists. Or if you are doing so, you probably aren’t trying to make sure that a PROPORTIONATE amount of your children’s reading is made up of books with major non-white characters. Most of us have a long list of great classic books in our head – and comparatively few that we know have non-white characters as anything other than a minor sidekick.

No, this is not trivial – a lot of what’s happening in America stems from the basic inability to recognize that other people are fully human and like to us. That’s a subtle kind of racism that gets imbedded in a lot of heads, because we don’t live closely enough to fully understand one another.

When I say we don’t recognize one another as fully human, I should clarify I don’t mean explicitly racist assumptions like caricaturing Obama as an ape, or wishing harm to those who are different than you. What I am talking about a kind of acknowledgement that is really difficult to do – to look at another person and in a momentary interaction, grant them the same consciousness and depth and complexity that you have. Let’s be honest – that’s hard with people who we know. We tend to jump to conclusions and judgements – that your neighbor who always parks so close you can’t get into your space is just a jerk, not someone struggling with chronic pain who needs to get that much closer. Your sister who always expects you to help her out at the last minute is a lazy procrastinator, not someone trying to juggle a lot of things in difficult circumstances. Right? Whereas we are deeply hurt when someone fails to see why our choices are not the product of our necessities and circumstances. Even with the people who love the best, seeing them to be equally whole and human to ourselves is very hard.

And the more visible difference there is, the less knowledge of one another, and the more cultural transmission of racist or sexist or homophobic cultural assumptions, the harder it is to see other people as human, and the easier it is to use the placeholder assumptions we get from stereotypes and racism in our snap judgement. To go for “thugs” not “kids,” to assume that the non-white guy in the drugstore isn’t there to buy Zantac just like you are, to say that kid who is acting up in class may have a disability rather than being a bad girl, to see language or clothing as cultural, rather than an affront. To make those tiny little microdecisions that say “This person is just as human as I am” – let us acknowledge that this IS a hard thing for most white people in America. And that the failure to do so has consequences involving death and suffering. In that sense, we know that all of us have racist assumptions.

One of the best tools we have for developing empathy with others, besides getting to know them, is reading. After all, the first thing that reading does is ask us to imagine ourselves in the heads of others, either through through identification or vicariousness. Books mostly DEMAND we see others as human, because, well, that’s what good books do – make characters into people who see the world in a way necessarily different from ourselves. Childhood reading is often our first experience of seeing the world through other eyes, and developing the empathy that emerges from that reading.

Most of us spend a lot of time making sure our children read great Children’s literature, and most of us probably recognize that Black and Native American and Asian and Hispanic kids need to see kids like themselves on the page, that reading books about all white kids is subtly disheartening for non-white kids, that an all-white literary lineup implies that the greatest acts of imagination and adventure are not for them. What we’ve been less likely to think about is the way that reading mostly great books about White children shapes the way that WHITE Children recognize or fail to recognize others as human in the same ways they are. It shapes the way WHITE kids think about the world and what kinds of acts and adventures and imagination are for non-white people.

By twelve, many of our book-devouring children have crossed the plains in a covered wagon (sometimes multiple times ;-)), they’ve imagined themselves orphaned and forced to survive in complex situations, been tossed to magic kingdoms galore, discovered they and they alone can save the day, sorted out complicated feelings about growing up, divorce, first loss, first love, sneaked ahead to read books about things they aren’t quite supposed to know about yet. Their childhood of picture books has taken them through childhood anger and misbehavior to the kingdom of Wild Things, where there are no limits, except the need for someone who loves you best of all. They’ve been left home without parents with a destructive force that wears a funny hat and speaks in rhyme that shows you can both make and repair mayhem and asks whether you really need to tell the truth about it. They have undergone most real life difficulties with guidance through most of the early traumas and adventures of childhood with familiar characters. They have lived over and over in worlds knowing that little mice and anthropomorphic pigs and little girls from Kansas and sibling sets from England escaping bombs and children from the turn of one or another century are both like and unlike them, and are fully, deeply real.

What they often haven’t done very often, however, is had that experience enough with Black children or Asian ones or Native American or Latino ones. Those books usually come later, assigned by their teachers as schoolwork. Don’t get me wrong, most of us do provide a smattering of them, but not enough to counteract several messages our kids are getting – first, that really compelling adventures and experiences mostly happen to white children, second to provide regular imaginings of living in our culture in a different skin and different world that enables us to start from the instinct of granting another full humanity. We don’t read enough pictures books with non-white kids for our kids to see those children as fully like them – the occasional introduction of a moralistic book about Ruby Bridges or a black girlfriend is not enough. Instead, we have to introduce a world in which everyone has adventures and where crossing cultural and skin lines is part of our imaginative training.

Is reading perfect? It isn’t. It isn’t a substitute for Black or Hispanic or Asian teachers, schoolmates, best friends, doctors, neighbors, family members. But what if you don’t have those things, or not enough of them? We live where we live, and we know who we know, and most of us should work harder at diversifying our community, but don’t for all sorts of reasons – time, energy, fear of rejection, fear of awkwardness…. But it is a start, and we don’t know where that start will end. From very early on our children notice difference – race, skin color, disability. If we don’t give them books that talk about these things and show these things, if we implicitly suggest that those books are for Black Children, not our children, if we think that books that make race complicating are too hard or uncomfortable, we will raise another generation of white kids who think that pretending to be color blind is the same as ending racism, and a generation of white children that will again feel helpless to stand with their black friends – because they don’t know how to make any.

Yes, my Black sons and daughters need lots of books with pictures of children like them. But so do my White ones. In learning that Black experience is as whole and real as their own, in developing empathy that crosses cultural and racial barriers, and in imagining themselves into Black lives, they are unlearning the implicit racism of their culture. That’s not all there is to do, but it is a beginning, and one everyone can offer to their own children.

Where to start? There are lots of suggestions out there, but some great books our family adores. My next post will include a list.

Comments

  1. #1 Judy Saunders
    SW New Hampshire
    January 26, 2016

    I have recently observed this about myself, that I don’t have enough exposure to non-white culture to not be surprised to learn that the black podcaster I am listening to is a multi-millionaire. I live in northern New England, the least diverse part of the country. My state is 3rd for least diversity, and is bordered on either side by the 1st and 2nd least diverse. I asked my best friend, who lives in DC and works in diversity, what I can do and she also told me to actively seek books and music and art by non-white people. I am very much looking forward to your list.

  2. #2 See Noevo
    January 26, 2016

    “Again, if you have kids and read this blog, I bet you already read tons to your kids. But what you may not do, because most parents don’t, is actively, consciously make sure that your kids are reading lots of books with non-white protagonists, with Black language, Black culture and themes that make everyone deal with difference.”

    How about playing some *rap music* for your kids?
    Some bleeped versions of the CDs are probably available that hopefully preserve some of the lyrics from the ’hood.

  3. #3 Sharon Astyk
    United States
    January 27, 2016

    I play rap music for myself, and I don’t have to watch out for the language in that nearly as much as some of the other music Eric and I enjoy ;-).

  4. #4 ProgJohn
    UK
    January 27, 2016

    Another side to this is that there is a lot of fiction out there which leaves the race of the participants down to the reader. This is particularly true in the SF and Fantasy genres. Maybe not as good as having emphatically black etc participants, but better than nothing.
    For me these non-specific characters are a one of the reasons reading is so for me much more enjoyable than film and tv.

  5. […] Further Reading: Why reading books by black* authors is important: http://scienceblogs.com/casaubonsbook/2016/01/26/want-black-lives-to-matter-want-to-help-end-racism-… *the principle applies to any non-white-straight-male authors, in my […]

  6. […] Want to end racism? Read! […]

  7. […] white people who want to do something meaningful in the face of ongoing racism, Astyk recommends reading or “actively, consciously mak[ing] sure that your kids are reading lots of books with […]

  8. #8 Mary Lackore
    United States
    January 27, 2016

    Thnk you Jackie Robinson is my all time favorite to read to Kids.

  9. #9 Julius
    UK
    January 27, 2016

    “What I am talking about a kind of acknowledgement that is really difficult to do – to look at another person and in a momentary interaction, grant them the same consciousness and depth and complexity that you have. Let’s be honest – that’s hard with people who we know.”

    F**k me, that’s profound. Not being facetious here, that is a really deep and succinct observation (especially, to me, the bit about “that’s hard with people we know”). But it’s also one that ties together, or is at the root of, so many different issues, I’d say. Certainly feels relevant to all sorts of things I’ve been trying to get my head around.

  10. #10 Siobhan
    United States
    January 27, 2016

    Thank you so much for this. We are taking a hard look at the books we read to and offer the children at our school and the timeliness of this blog post couldn’t be exaggerated. Can’t wait to see your list of recommended books!

  11. #11 Ros
    January 28, 2016

    Thank you so much for this.

    We’ve made a conscious effort to include books with Black protagonists in our toddler’s library (and pull them out repeatedly), as well as an effort to include books about other cultures and religions (aka: something not steeped in white Anglo-Christian culture… for Jewish stories, Shik Shak Shabbath is a favorite – a book about multicultural community-building through food, seriously, what’s not to love?). Religion-wise, though, there’s an issue: Jewish books, semi-easy to find, Hindu books so-so… but books about muslim culture and religion aimed at kids under 6? Forget it. I’ve even asked a pre-school in a primarily muslim neighborhood to recommend things, and they don’t have any to recommend.

  12. #12 Sachi
    January 28, 2016

    Sharon, thanks for this post! I just re-posted on https://www.facebook.com/raceconscious…would love to connect at some point and also would love to invite you to guest blog on Raising Race Conscious Children if you are interested!

  13. #13 D
    January 28, 2016

    Ooh, I have book ideas! I have been doing this for my littles as well, as part of my ’50 books by authors of color’ reading challenge. Specifically I have favorite authors.

    African American:
    – every. single. thing by Jacqueline Woodson. My favorite is Each Kindness, which I think should be required reading for all humans. She also has a story about fostering.
    – Rita Williams-Garcia wrote a great trilogy starting with One Crazy Summer set in the 60s.
    – everything by Nikki Grimes, also has a few foster stories.

    – Mildred Taylor and Octavia Butler, of course, for the older ones. And I *strongly* recommend the biography of Ida B. Wells written by Fradin, for ages 12-to-adult.

    (East) Asian American favorite authors, in approximate order of reading age (and favorite book) :

    – Grace Lin (Where the Mountain Meets the Moon)
    – Allen Say
    – Lenore Look (Ruby Lu, Brave and True)
    – Lisa Yee (Millicent Min trilogy (best as a trilogy))
    – Wendy Shang (I LOVE BOTH HER BOOKS SO MUCH)
    – Jenny Han (starts out ‘teen romance’, ends up surprisingly awesome)

    I don’t have any good lists for any other culture, but there’s Malala’s autobiography of course, and there is a children’s version which I’ve read. Since she was a middle schooler in the early events of the books, it’s written to be accessible for middle schoolers. (Um, I’ll get to the grown up version someday myself.)

    http://weneeddiversebooks.org/where-to-find-diverse-books/

    Also, I recommend the links on this page for new ideas, and I especially recommend the searchable database at the Jane Addams awards.

    Yay books!

  14. #14 Richard Boeke
    Horsham, England
    January 29, 2016

    I am readiing “Black Hawk Down” – an awful reminder of the stupidity of the US in trying to be the policeman of the world, the bravery of our soldiers, and the hostility toward America created by these “good intentions.”

  15. #15 Sarah
    Maryland
    February 2, 2016

    Books for kids about Muslims are not easy to find. Here are a few:
    -Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors
    -My First Ramadan
    -Rashad’s Ramadan and Eid-ul-Fitr
    -1001 Inventions and Awesome Facts from Muslim Civilization
    -Malcom Little: The boy who grew up to be Malcom X
    -Deep in the Sahara

    I think one of the things that is difficult for people to understand, but easy to teach children is how diverse Muslims are. We often get lumped as ‘Arab’ but Muslims come in all colors and nationalities.

  16. #16 Mary Elizabeth Allen
    Princeton Junction
    February 27, 2016

    As I understand it, Islam and Nation of Islam are not exactly the same thing. Could you please help me understand if this is a misconception.

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