Monday, October 18, 2010

White Mind III

The following piece appears in my column, "The Illustrator's Perspective," in the current issue of the Bulletin of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. (See also "White Mind" and "White Mind II"). As always, I welcome reader comments and perspectives.


This final installation examines what illustrators can do so that all kinds of children can see themselves reflected in our books. If that’s our goal, what do we need to know about White Mind in order to achieve our vision?

1. Good intentions aren’t enough, or if the stuff is unexamined, it will leak. Take a look at a selection of picture books, even recently published ones, and it quickly becomes clear that there are ways of getting it wrong despite meaning well, such as:

  • creating an all-white world without even realizing it
  • “coloring in” faces with varied skin tones, but all Caucasian features
  • portraying people of color in stereotypical ways
  • adding background children and adults of color, none as significant characters
  • always situating white children front and center
  • featuring children of color only in “ethnic” roles, never as Everychild or hero

2. We can’t see what we can’t see. This one applies to everyone portraying people across race and culture lines. But for some of us there’s the added veil of White Mind, which posits white as normative and race as something that “people of difference” have. Having no experience of "racialization" is like wearing blinders without realizing they’re there; you can’t even imagine the questions that need to be asked.

The solution: Do extensive research to get the necessary references to create an authentic visual portrait. Then show your sketches to at least one person who’s a member of that group. The core of the question to ask: Do you recognize yourself and your people in this image?

While illustrating Who Belongs Here? An American Story, by Margy Burns Knight, I was challenged by one spread picturing the Six Nations Convention of the Iroquois Confederacy. I had excellent National Geographic photos of the convention, the representatives, and the longhouse interior. Despite this primary source reference material, I knew I could still get it wrong, so I called an Iroquois cultural center in New York. If I faxed a sketch (this was 1992), could someone comment on the authenticity? The response: the details were fine, but how about showing some people smiling and cracking jokes? I had drawn everyone looking serious, as in the noble savage stereotype. It was obvious, but until it was pointed out I couldn’t see it. (See notes on carefulness, below.)

3. White should not be the default. Don’t limit the inclusion of children of color to roles that have been identified as “ethnic.” Any character without specified racial or cultural details offers an opportunity to add more color to your palette. This is one place where a certain colorblindness, like race neutral casting in films and plays, can be useful. What if all races of children got auditions for all picture book roles that didn’t require particular racial identities to tell the story truly?

Which children rarely get to see themselves pictured as pirates or mermaids, princesses or wizards? Here’s your chance to make their dreams come true. (Put in the sketching time to draw varied racial features with authority and delight, not duty.) Elizabeth Bluemle’s “A World Full of Color” list at LibraryThing has many examples of Everychild books in which the hero happens to be a child of color.

4. Don’t just be careful; care. White Mind misleads by labeling those who are not white as Other - unconsciously, so that we’re not even aware it’s happening. Without a strong sense of race (because white is “normal”), white people often have little experience in navigating racial territory. Unfamiliarity can lead to discomfort and overcompensation in the form of extreme caution, tiptoeing around trying to avoid doing something racist. But reproducing the outward surface of other lives is not enough. Though every detail may be “correct,” if our illustrations aren’t alive with the sense of other human beings with liquid eyes and feeling hearts, the work won’t be authentic.

Beyond all the essential research and checking of assumptions and expert help, we can reach for our core human connection, which White Mind would deny us. When we are drawn to or touched by something or someone of another race or culture, we can dare to follow our hearts’ responses and let this love shine through our images.

Again, Simunye: We are one.


WilsonW said...

Thank you so much for this series of articles! It is so great to see a growing number of advocates for the inclusion of all types of children within our literature. With your permission I would love to repost these articles on my blog and some other places. A number of people need to see these and think more about the content they create.

Anne Sibley O'Brien said...

Thanks, Mighty Kwan.

I'm delighted to have you repost this.

As we get more conscious of how all this works, we can do a much better job of representing all of our children. It's within our reach!


Michelle Cusolito said...

Thank you for these posts. I hope other authors and illustrators will be inspired by your words. I hope they will push themselves to include all kinds of children in their stories and to portray them as accurately as possible.

I've been following this conversation in the blogosphere (Lee and Low, Elizabeth Bluemle, etc). I'm encouraged by how many people have participated in the conversation. I'm hopeful that the conversation will continue to expand.

I'm posting this to Facebook and to my blog.

Athena Hernandez said...

Thanks for this series! I just wrote a blog post based on your series with a link to your blog. I am an African-American "aspiring author" that dreams of the day that all children can see themselves reflected in the pages of books. It is my goal portray children of color as "every child." Your insight is comforting and encouraging. Please keep up the good work!

MrBibleHead said...

Great articles Anne! I came over here by way Of Wilson William's blog (Mighty Kwan) I catch myself falling into the "default" sometimes, but I've been consciously working on a better representation of all children. Thanks again!