Sometimes good people, people you love, aren’t always right. The same is true for classic children’s books. Today, I want to give you a framework to have critical and courageous conversations about how to talk about racism in classic children’s books.
First and foremost, racist, sexist, homophobic books should not be banned. Censorship is not the answer. Most of the classic children’s books written 50 years ago fall into one of these aforementioned categories.
However, I believe we desperately need to use them as a teaching tool because having active discussions and using critical thinking IS the answer if we want our students to do better than those beloved authors did so long ago. Allow me to explain.
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How to Talk about Racism in Classic Children’s Books
Blatant racism and stereotypical caricatures of marginalized communities have come up a LOT in Read Across America week. The thorough research into the racism, harmful stereotypes, and gender equality that pervades many beloved Dr. Seuss titles was a difficult pill to swallow for many teachers.
Should we start throwing out books with racist/sexist content completely? I say no. However, my “no” comes with a big caveat. I believe there ARE certain books that most definitely need to be thrown out, but there are some we need to use wisely.
When Racial Bias is Taught Through Children’s Literature
I love Grace Lin’s perspective on hidden racism in children’s books. She suggests we should treat books like Little House on the Prairie, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or The Secret Garden like out-of-touch relatives. We all have that aunt or uncle, or maybe even a parent, who believes in things you don’t agree with.
Grace explains very eloquently that you can still love that relative, and you can still let them be a part of your child’s life. However, because you know they might say something you don’t like, don’t you try to keep an extra ear open, in case they say something in front of your child? And then, don’t you explain further after they leave?
The same is true for classic children’s books.
Read them, share them, even love them, but make sure you talk to children about them, too. But whatever you do, please do not assign them for homework or summer reading where kids are left on their own!
The Effects of Pop Culture as Children are Learning to Read
Since television is a prominent source of how children learn about culture, we need to look at what is portrayed as “bad”. Walk with me for a moment as I tie in this correlation of simply having a “foreign” accent.
Think about what you associate with a British accent. Most people associate or imitate a British accent with being refined, classy, and overall smarter… (ex. Young children always turn British when they are pretending to have a tea party.)
Now think about your read alouds at home or in the classroom. The very accents you use are forming a child’s worldview.
Don’t believe me? Check out how many cartoon villains have “foreign” accents.
While we wish that books were the key source of information about ethnic groups and identities, research has shown that kids use TV instead.
Not only do children make judgments about their peers’ intelligence and education levels based on language characteristics (with those who speak standard dialects usually being viewed as smarter and better-looking), but also that those judgments often shape how a person or group of people is treated.
These patterns imply that when children see a correlation between evil and foreignness, or between evil and low socioeconomic status, there’s a good chance they are internalizing negative perceptions of themselves or other groups.
Avoiding Racial Bias and What Happens When You Do
If you are reading this and beginning to feel skeptical and possibly asking “why does everything have to be about race” or “we just need to use quality books and stop worrying so much about racism”… I recommend immediately buying Things That Make White People Uncomfortable and then ask you to please keep reading.
Too often schools are the breeding grounds for racial inequality if they choose not to face it head-on. Racial conflicts amongst young kids often remain hidden. Most schools fail to act on racial microaggressions.
This is often due to the high stress of negotiating such conflicts. Teachers also avoid these topics/issues because of a fear of incompetence, public exposure, and accusation.
Those who pay the price: students of color.
Instead of facing these conflicts head-on, teachers and even parents, use avoidance or coping strategies. Adults are afraid of being called “insensitive” or ” offensive” when reading or discussing books or assigning homework.
Furthermore, those that do actively seek out diversity in books still run into problems. “Diversity in books seems easy. They (teachers and parents) are getting books with this content. But they’re not making sure this content is respectful, responsible, and accurate.” (School Library Journal)
How to Cultivate an Inclusive Classroom
There are a million different ways to cultivate a classroom dynamic that is inclusive for children to voice their thoughts and experiences without fear of reprisal or a verbal attack. I suggest actively having conversations about the different types of privilege.
- Economic Privilege
- Racial Privilege
- Non-disabled Privilege
- Hetero-normative Privilege
- Body Privilege
- Religious freedom Privilege
- Colonist Privilege
- Citizenship Privilege
- Cultural Privilege
For example, as an International teacher, I have taught in 6 different countries. Every time I moved, one of the first things you do on arrival is shop for food. When I walk into the grocery store and can’t communicate cost, names of food, or even ask where to find the food I am searching for, I have to check myself when I get frustrated.
The same is true here in the United States. When you raise your voice or speak in condescendingly or get irritated that “people should learn English”, you might think “that has nothing to do with racial bias in my classroom”.
On the contrary, those daily habits we practice will flush themselves out in the classroom. I guarantee it.
Don’t just check yourself in your planning binder.
Check yourself for bias or privilege in all facets of your life.
As NdÃ©la Faye explains, “swatting away microaggressions with an invisible bat has become part of my everyday survival.”
Read more on “The Anatomy of a Diverse Bookshelf“.
How to Be a Warrior for #EqualEd
In addition to discussing privilege, on a daily basis, use the following lenses as you read classic literature:
- Gender Freedom
- Gender Safety
- Social Justice and Equality
- Gender Balance
Sometimes, it’s not what is in the book; it’s what is missing altogether. To use the Dr. Suess example again, even without the bias or prejudice in the books, there are zero girls of color in ANY of the Dr. Seuss books. When you read about books where women are only “allowed” to have certain jobs or male pronouns are exclusively used (fireman, policeman, mailman, etc.), you have implicitly given children a biased worldview.
We should want to show our kids that girls can be anything and anything can be a girl.
Checklist for Analyzing Children’s Literature for Racism and Sexism
I want to be sure I make it as easy as possible for you to know what to look for as you read classic children’s literature or any book for that matter. The following Guide for Selecting Anti-Bias Children’s Books will be helpful to use in your home or classroom to fight for equality in education and tackling bias and racism one read aloud or literature circle at a time.
I also created a FREE Checklist for Reading Classic Children’s Literature with an Anti-Bias Lens that is based on this guide from Social Justice Books to use in your home or classroom to fight for equality in education and tackling bias and racism one read aloud or literature circle at a time.
Other helpful resources:
- Lee and Low Library Questionnaire to help you create inclusive and diverse bookshelves
- Inclusive Teaching Checklist
- Read the 10 Inclusive Children’s Book Laws from best selling author Anna McQuinn
- Checklist for Creating an Anti-Bias Learning Environment
Recommended Further Reading
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria by Beverly Daniel Tatum
White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to be White by Daniel Hill
Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools by Monique Morris
Join My Facebook Group: Teaching Literacy Skills with Diverse Books
Finally, I invite you to join my Facebook group “Teaching Literacy Skills with Diverse Books”.
This is a supportive group to encourage literacy. Furthermore, we want to engage children with reading strategies that foster a love of books.
We want you to ask questions, share advice, and challenge our thinking to give our unique families the safe space to connect and grow. This group is multiracial, multilingual, multicultural, and multi-talented. Through the people in this group, you will hopefully feel a little more interconnected to the world than you were before.
Join us in simultaneously raise global citizens as we raise our readers.
Bethany M. Edwards
Biracial Bookworms LLC