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.