Thursday, February 25, 2010

White Privilege & Children's Books

In the 1980s, Peggy McIntosh, a Wellesley professor, was working with a group of colleagues, both male and female. She kept noticing the privileges these male friends of hers took for granted and how they couldn't seem to see it even when their female colleagues drew their attention to it.

One day, she had an aha moment: If my male colleagues have unearned privileges and benefits that I as a woman don't have (and they can't see), perhaps I as a white person have similar privileges that my colleagues of color don't have (and I can't see). As an experiment, she began keeping a list, recording social benefits that she could count on, but that she was pretty sure the people of color she worked with couldn't count on.

Her 1989 essay, "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" has become essential reading for understanding how race works in American society.

Making your own white privilege list can cause a permanent shift in awareness.

Here's my attempt at one related to the field of children's books:

As a children's book reader -
1. In any mainstream bookstore across the country, I can be certain to find children's books with protagonists from my race.
2. On the jacket flaps of children's picture books and novels, if there is an author/illustrator photo, I can expect that the majority of the creators will be of my race.
3. Purchasing a gift for a white child of my acquaintance, I never have to wonder if I can find an appropriate book with characters who look like her.
4. If that child imagines herself as a princess/magician/pirate/astronaut, I can find a book to feed her dreams with characters of her race.
5. If a child I love struggles with an issue of any kind - fear of monsters, grief or loss, tantrums - I can be pretty sure there's a book out there to help him starring a boy he could imagine to be himself.
6. Reading books that are wildly popular - Harry Potter, Twilight - I never have to wonder why there's no one in them who looks like me.
7. If race is not mentioned in a children's novel, I can usually assume that the characters in it are the same race as I am.
8. I've never had the experience of reading a book about people of my race by an author of a different race and discovering it to be full of stereotypes, misunderstandings, and ignorance about white people.

As a children's book creator -
9. Attending children's book conferences, book fairs and conventions across the country (except for those specifically multicultural in design), I know that the majority (here in New England, usually about 99%) of the authors, illustrators, editors, agents and other professionals attending will be of my race.
10. Submitting a book I've written or illustrated to a publisher, I can be pretty sure that an editor will judge my work based on its literary merits and/or marketability. I never have to wonder if an editor will reject it simply because they have no experience or understanding of the cultural and racial framework I'm working from and/or don't value it.
11. If I write a book with a protagonist of my own race, I can be certain that the publisher will not change the character's race on the jacket to improve sales.
12. When a book of mine is reviewed, I can expect that most reviewers will be people whose own race and life experience won't make it impossible for them to understand what I've created.

I welcome additions to this list, as well as questions and challenges.


Book Oblate said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Book Oblate said...

Hi Anne. This is a great conversation to have. I've read the Peggy McIntosh "Invisible Knapsack" piece, as well as other essays on anti-racist and multicultural education in BEYOND HEROES AND HOLIDAYS (Teaching for Change). And I do believe it IS getting better, slowly. When I think of how few books were available even when my son was a youngster 15-20 years ago, and breeze through the children's section of the library now, it's affirming and welcome.

And this year's Census will again allow people to check more than one box for race. It's an awesome government acknowledgment of seeing our population in a broader spectrum. Additionally, there's a separate question about Spanish, Latino/a, or Hispanic ethnicity. The millions who see these available options might think twice about race and identity. Here's the USA TODAY article about the Census.

I'm loving your illustrations on this blog!

Best, Eugenia Kim

Anne Sibley O'Brien said...

Thanks for your comment, Eugenia. And for the mention of Teaching for Change and BEYOND HEROES AND HOLIDAYS - both great resources for anyone concerned with making schools welcoming places for everyone in our communities.

While we have some major work to do, it's also important to celebrate the wonderful books that are out there.

Anyone who's looking for more books on Korea than the few I've listed in earlier posts should check out Eugenia's extensive lists at Korean American Readings,

Here's to our becoming ever more conscious of our gorgeous, multiracial national identity!


Unknown said...


I know that the issue of White Privilege is much like teaching Evolution to some people: hard to comprehend and a lightening rod of reactionary, defensive backlash. Sometimes mainstream European-American folks feel it's a abashment of their lives or something, just as Christians sometimes feel Evolution is anti-faith. I'm not really a childrens' book artist more of a cartoonist, but I've done one, Beginning of the Chumash. I was in-between jobs about 10 years ago and my friend, who is a Chumash educator and activist wanted me to illustrate a book based on traditional Chumash creation beliefs, utilizing the language. Now, both my parents are European and American Indian, but I grew up in the city, often the only "White" kid within view, and had a little cultural understanding of Native culture, my own muddled part maybe, but not Chumash culture. Monique Sonoquie was a great teacher and guide as I tried to flush out a positive vision of self-awareness for children who have few, if any, roll models anywhere in books, on T.V. or the movies. We also had to present the creation belief system with the same sensitivity as folks approach the "great world religions." This is what people STILL believe in; it's their worldview and story about themselves, passed down through oral pathways for thousands of years against great odds.

I can relate to being out of place, and all I can say to everyone is try to imagine you are the only one with your background in the room. Now, in the school, or within miles, even. When you finally do go somewhere, for a few moments or days or hours where you are among folks who share your heritage, it is a homecoming, with all the mix of sadness, joy that that entails. But soon it's over, and you have to leave and be alone again. That's what a Pow Wow or other cultural gathering can mean to an "Urban Indian". I am also largely culturally a White person, so I can relate to that, too. You have to do a lot of soul-searching, and view your conditioning dispassionately in order to confront any prejudices that hide in there. As an artist, they WILL come out, and people WILL notice. But I have that other part of me; the outsider. I think we ALL do, especially as Artists, being the sensitive kids that preferred to draw instead of play baseball. We can channel that experience when we work on projects that we might no be able to, at first, relate personally to.

I'd also add that there is a group of White Americans STILL systematically maligned in literature and movies and without seemingly any outcry from folks: Appalachians. My mother is from Kentucky, and as I stated is partially Native, but most of her life, even though she's college educated, people assumed she was an ignorant "hillbilly". That is when folks weren't making assumptions about her for being Indian, of course. No, she never let me watch the Beverly Hillbillies.

My friend Monique is still the director of The Indigenous Youth Foundation in Santa Barbara, California, if anyone is interested. She travels widely, bringing a Native point of view to many topics. The site is:

Thanks for starting this dialogue,
Joel Zain Rivers

Yolanda said...

Go, Annie! Keep the conversation going. It's an important one.

Anne Sibley O'Brien said...

Thanks, Joel. So much to reflect on in your comment. Loved this:
"You have to do a lot of soul-searching, and view your conditioning dispassionately in order to confront any prejudices that hide in there. As an artist, they WILL come out, and people WILL notice. But I have that other part of me; the outsider. I think we ALL do, especially as Artists, being the sensitive kids that preferred to draw instead of play baseball. We can channel that experience when we work on projects that we might no be able to, at first, relate personally to."

And thanks, Yolanda, for the encouragement.

Anonymous said...

TAHNKS FOR YOUR SHARING~~~VERY NICE ........................................

Robert Trujillo/Tres said...

Preach on sis, talking about this kind of stuff is often the first step.I cant tell u how many times I as a young parent have felt "un privileged" when trying to find a book that accurately represents my child.

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