Friday, May 28, 2010

White Mind

The article below appears in the current issue of the Bulletin of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, in my regular column, "The Illustrator's Perspective." With SCBWI's permission, I am posting it here to open it to a wider audience.

Also, I've been receiving quite a few emails in response to the column, each with stories of experiencing and wrestling with white conditioning. These personal examples really help to illuminate the nature of White Mind and deserve a wider audience. If you would like to respond to this column, I encourage you to post your comments here as well as contacting me directly. Thanks!


We belong to a field full of well-meaning people who care about children. If asked, most would surely agree with poet Lucille Clifton (Some of the Days of Everett Anderson) that “the literature of America should reflect the children of America.” I have never met an aficionado of children’s books who I can imagine wanting those books to misrepresent, marginalize or render invisible whole groups of our nation’s children.

So how can it be that in 2010, this is where we find ourselves:

  • The percentage of published children’s books featuring characters of color is far smaller than - perhaps less than half - the percentage of people of color in the U.S. population, and the majority of these books are still created by white writers and illustrators.
  • Many of the most popular book series, particularly in fantasy, have no significant characters of color at all.
  • Cases of “whitewashing” book jackets, of editors requesting that an author erase a character’s ethnicity so that a book “can reach a larger audience,” of booksellers or librarians passing on certain titles because “our community doesn’t respond to those kinds of books,” suggest an assumption that white readers won’t respond to characters of color.

And so on.

I want to suggest a cause for the gap between our intention and the reality we’ve created: the patterns formed by white American socialization, which I’ll call White Mind.

By White Mind, I do not mean conscious prejudice or racist attitudes. It is not what you believe, what you intend, the values you are committed to or how you choose to behave. I’m speaking instead of the unconscious patterns that result from social conditioning as the dominant and majority race in the U.S. for the last several hundred years. Being a dominant group member is like having a free pass that members of out-groups don’t have, but with no awareness of having it. Given such conditioning, developing White Mind is pretty much inescapable.

Brain researchers such as Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard University ( have documented the presence of implicit bias as a universal human experience. When we think about people like ourselves, they report, a certain part of our brains light up; when we think about people different from us, a different part lights up. This kind of bias is completely unconscious, Banaji states, present in people who are absolutely positive they don't have it and who are committed to treating everyone fairly (and think they do). According to Banaji’s studies, 80% of whites show bias for the white race; people of non-majority races do not show this bias for their race. These implicit biases can drive our behaviors without our awareness.

White Mind shows up in the stuff we have no idea we’re doing (as in those studies in which a majority of teachers of both genders were shown to call more frequently on male students than female, even though they were committed to and convinced they were being fair). It’s usually invisible to white people, though often quite visible to people of color.

It’s part of the explanation for how scores of thoughtful white writers could create so many books with no significant characters of color, or how so few manuscripts by and about people of color get accepted. It’s one of the reasons why our children’s book conferences and conventions are overwhelmingly white, and why I might walk out of a bookstore or library with a stack of picture books, not even noticing that not a single one of them starred children of color.

From writing and illustrating to hiring publishing staff, editing and marketing to selling, buying and reviewing, White Mind affects children’s books today. Unless we become aware of and develop strategies to directly challenge these patterns, white norms will continue to prevail.


Sometimes, when facing puzzling and seemingly intractable problems, we can find clues in myth. Picture in your mind the lovely Snow White, asleep in her glass coffin, with the piece of poisoned apple stuck in her throat.

White Mind is a kind of sleepwalking. It can be as obscuring as fog, as ineffable as mist, as taken-for-granted as breath or gravity. So how do I break the spell? I wake myself up, cough out the poison, and step out of the coffin.

More about that in the next column.


Unknown said...

Years ago, I started tweaking preconceptions however I could in my
novels. If a character went to the emergency room, for instance, I'd
casually make the doctor female. No problem, usually. But if I made
the doctor black, all hell broke loose in the editing process.
Editors apparently consider it rude, like pointing or staring, to
"call attention" to someone's color in a book. "Why? It has nothing
to do with the plot!" Usually I have to give in.

In my recent young adult novel, SOMEBODY, I wanted the friendly hardware store woman to be black. I was firmly overruled. There was no REASON for her to
be black and somebody might take OFFENSE if I described her as a woman
of color. Whaaaat?

In my most recent YA, POSSESSING JESSIE, the protagonist's best friend
is black. Somehow this time I got away with it, but even so, when I
mentioned her race late in the book, an editor objected, "Why draw
attention?" My response was STET. At least that once I was able to stand up to the editor. Maybe as writers and illustrators we all need to do so more often.

Nancy Springer

Ben Woodard said...

As an old white guy (67) raised in Kentucky, I was taught racism, lived racism, and have spent most of my life overcoming it. Your article hit a nerve. My gut told me such a thing as white mind existed, but I had never seen any research. Thanks.

I'm writing two books dealing with racism. A MG set in Kenya with the protagonist a mixed race boy. A women from Kenya is helping me. The other is based on my dad's experiences in rural KY during the twenties.It deals with the Jim Crow laws and the Klan. Both have made me try to see what it could be like to be a persecuted minority and it has stretched me to the limit. They may never be published, but were definitely worth writing.

Looking forward to part two.


Anne Sibley O'Brien said...

Thanks, Nancy and Ben, for your comments. You raise two issues and two actions book creators can take to move us forward:

1. Examine our characters, looking for opportunities to represent the broad range of people who make up our national community (and our world); and be strong advocates for this choice, even educating editors when necessary.

2. Write about race and racism directly, both expressing our own experience and understandings, and stretching ourselves to imagine racial identity from other perspectives. Naming the truth about how we are taught racism is a powerful step on the journey to free ourselves from it.

Mama C said...

This article needs to be in every teacher's handbook too! I have insisted that my sons (both children of color) see a character that looks like them in books as often as the other non children of color see characters that look like them at story time etc. It takes work to keep their library stocked with enough books, but we do it. Or I think we do! Now that the oldest is approaching kindergarten my work will start all over again on a much larger scale than preschool...

I hope this piece gets out there and out there and out there.

Thank you again!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this thoughtful essay; people of color are often dismissed when they ask others to confront racism, so it's wonderful when white allies step up and join the chorus. The question is, if racism is "unconscious" (and I believe that, to some degree, it is) how do we change publishing? I refuse to accept that the children's publishing industry is being run by well-intending racist zombies--many actions are deliberate and conscious--there's simply *no penalty* when those actions cause harm. Blogger outrage did pressure publishers into addressing certain cases of cover whitewashing, but lasting change can't be left to folks who don't even see and/or won't own their own racism. I support efforts in the UK (DIPNET) to establish a publishing equalities charter--where signatories agree to take specific actions to create equity, AND submit annual proof of these actions. Waiting for the industry to get it right is like waiting for Wall Street to regulate itself...

MissA said...

@Nancy-I can understand what your editors meant in a way. If the person you want to make Black (or any other minority) is not crucial to the novel, only someone passing by/uttering a few lines, that it is a little odd (in my opinion) to mention their ethnicity. However, if the main character's best friend is Black than that should be mentioned and it can be subtle, but just knowing that the main character is a person of color and/or jas a multiracial group of friends goes a long way towards erasing the white mind set.
Thanks for standing up to your editor!

This is an excellent post and I'll Tweet about it. I hope everyone reads it too becuase it is so spot-on! I agree, no children's writer wnats to demean or misrepresent children but by not including non-white characters in their books, they are sending a very subtle message (not at all intentional) that non-white children don't really matter, that authors can write books with all-white characters and no one will care or be upset by it. We children/teens of color need to be represented as well. It is the White Mind (now there's a name for it!).

Bravo =)

Anonymous said...

I think my IQ was cut in half reading this article.

Vincentine Vermeille said...

Came to this via Resist Racism's open comment post.

@nancy and Miss Attitude: I think it is equally important to frequently describe white characters as white. Even when it doesn't seem to be "pertinent." Otherwise, we're suggesting that white is the default. It's only rude to "call attention" (per nancy's editors) to someone's ethnicity if it is only done for characters of color.

Thanks for this post.

Anne Sibley O'Brien said...

@zettaelliott: Amen. Your question is what we must address: How do we change publishing?

True awareness - beyond denial, beyond defensiveness, beyond justification- that there is real harm being done, moves people to act out of integrity.

As you point out, if the will is there, the solutions are not beyond us. Imagine what could be invented by a core group of book creators, editors, publishers, and booksellers, fiercely committed to ensuring that all our children can find themselves in our books!

Anonymous said...

Thank you SO MUCH for writing this. I think the first step is continuing to draw attention to this issue until people become more aware.

Anne Sibley O'Brien said...

from Laura Atkins

Excellent post. As Zetta says, it is so important for whites to speak openly about the privilege we carry, and the unconscious biases we may perpetuate. I think this should be built into training for those working in publishing, to challenge themselves and push beyond their automatic comfort zones. Greater diversity amongst those working within publishing is also key - in terms of race, class, sexuality, physical ability. This increasng diversity can only expand and enhance the books produced. Thanks again for speaking out.

Blaque Ink said...

Great post. This goes along with what I've written in my blog about cartoons and animation. I wrote how most of the cartoons of the past and the new cartoons of today features white characters, casts white voice actors and created and produced by whites.

BiG hEaD BoOkS said...

As a black author and publisher this article really struck a nerve. The white mind is alive and well. It took one and a half years of pushing my children's book featuring a contemporary child of color on the cover. After 150 rejections I figured out how to completely self publish and have had great success. My customers (mostly black)state how refreshing it is to see a black child as a protagonist that is not depicted in the 40's 50's or 60's that doesn't deal with segregation or "how we over-came". It is my mission in life to fill my books with characters from all backgrounds in a fun and contemporary way. To learn more go to
Great article, but to change this mindset we need more bLack authors to create fun books with characters that anyone, from any ethnic background will find entertaining. As long as we continue to make black books, with black topics in black settings, we will stay in the dark....PUN INTENDED ;)