As parents become better informed about the racism present in media, they’re left with some tough choices — decisions they sometimes need to make in a split second’s time. One of the biggies is: What on Earth do you do when you’re reading a story aloud to a child and you come across something racist?
Lindsay Pérez Huber ran into this situation one night when reading to her eight-year-old daughter. The book in question was Don’t Tell Lies, Lucy!, a boy-who-cried-wolf tale about a little girl with a fibbing problem. In one scene, Lucy borrows a friend’s bike and crashes it. When she tells her friend Paul what happened, she claims a bandit jumped in front of her and made her crash. There’s an illustration of her lie, and the imaginary bandit is shown with brown skin (versus Lucy’s yellow skin), and wearing a serape, a sombrero, and sandals.
“It’s not something you expect when reading a book to your child in the bedroom one night,” says Pérez Huber, an associate professor at California State University Long Beach who studies racial microaggressions and is the co-author of Racial Microaggressions: Using Critical Race Theory to Respond to Everyday Racism. “I stopped reading. (My daughter) sensed something was wrong.”
So how should you address racism like this in children’s books, especially in the moment? First, you have to identify it.
What is a microaggression?
Often, racist depictions in children’s books aren’t overt or even intentional. The book won’t use the N-word or show police racially profiling their suspects. Instead, the depictions are usually microaggressions, an everyday form of mostly subtle racism that happens automatically and unconsciously, Pérez Huber says. It can even be so subtle as to be accidental — but that doesn’t mean microaggressions aren’t harmful.
A microaggression might include using the wrong pronoun for an individual. Or depicting a bandit wearing traditional Mexican garb. To identify a microaggression, look for deficits, Pérez Huber says: Are people talked about in a way that is “less-than”? For example, are low-income people or immigrants depicted as living in a bad neighbourhood?
“All of these things are coded, racial proxies,” she says. “We understand that these things are about people of colour.”
Check out the book’s imagery: Are people of colour portrayed only in a negative light? Are Black characters only in books with a low-income neighbourhood? Does a book focused on immigration depict characters using cultural stereotypes?
Pérez Huber points to 10 Quick Ways to Analyse Children’s Books for Racism and Sexism, a list from the University of Arizona assembled by The Council on Interracial Books for Children, which also includes tips like weighing the relationship between people: Do the white characters possess all the power and make the decisions? Do people of colour and females take on supporting roles? It also suggest checking out the background of the author and illustrator — if neither is a member of the minority group featured, why are they qualified to write about or illustrate the topic?
So you’ve identified racism. Now what? The easiest thing to do is dismiss the racist books entirely, Pérez Huber says — but that can also lead to a missed opportunity. Here are some ways to be prepared for your next story time.
Review the book first
Before reading a book to her children, Pérez Huber tries to first review it. If a parent encounters something problematic, maybe there is enough good stuff in the book to justify reading it anyway. If so, the pre-screening can help a parent plan ahead on what to say when they encounter the racist material.
And one of the best things a parent can do when they encounter something racist during story time is to ask their children what they think about it, and engage in a discussion. When Pérez Huber came across the depiction of the Mexican bandit, she thought about Brazilian educator Paulo Freire and his teaching method called problem-posing education — a strategy that involves asking questions to see if students can figure out a problem for themselves.
So Pérez Huber asked her daughter what she saw. The girl, who was a member of a traditional Mexican dancing group that wears sombreros and large, colourful dresses, recognised the bandit’s “costume,” as she called it.
“I said, ‘If this image is saying the bandit looks like this, what is it saying?’ Right away, she’s saying, ‘It’s saying Latinos are bandits,’” Pérez Huber says. “She was able to decode the image herself. As parents, we think our children are too young to engage in these discussions or too young to recognise differences. They watch movies. They see things on the internet. They’re always exposed to racist imagery and messages of racism.”
Tailor the response to the child — and then check in with them
The best way to address racism in children’s books will have a lot to do with the child. Are they able to answer your questions? What can they handle? What upsets them? Over the years, Pérez Huber has had multiple conversations about this topic with her children, so she knows they have a groundwork for discussion. However, certain topics may not be developmentally appropriate for a young child.
Similarly, if a child isn’t able to answer your prompt about the problem with the book, explain the problem. Even if they don’t understand immediately, the explanation can help the next time they encounter something racist.
After the discussion about the bandit, Pérez Huber continued reading to her daughter, and she noticed she was crying. Pérez Huber asked what was wrong, and her daughter said, “I’m Latino, and they’re saying I’m a bandit.”
“When a racial microaggression happens, we can see it,” she says. “My daughter got really emotional when it happened. I had to take a minute and help her process that. This is what microaggressions do.” Children may not need the vernacular of “microaggression,” but they do need the time and space to process their emotions.
Choose books to lay the groundwork
One way to help children understand racism in a book is to start with books that are less complex, suggest Kat, a member of Offspring’s Facebook parenting community.
“I think the tough piece is that children’s literature is often written with the intention of helping children contemplate and come to terms with very complex situations,” Kat says. “Then you add in seriously problematic issues around racism, sexism, and phobias, and it’s a recipe for story time anxiety.”
Select books that address topics like racism in an age-appropriate way, Kat suggests, such as Separate is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh. The book, about segregating schools in California, can be the lead in to a conversation around the issue of racism and help prepare children for chapter books that might have more problematic content.
It can be challenging to figure out the right thing to do or say in the moment, but addressing that there is a problem will go a long way toward teaching a child about racism.
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