Racism in Children’s Literature
A principal issue in the education domain that affects children whose origins are minority racial groups is the development of ethnic identity in relation to the society’s perception and conflicting notions about their races. The intended message is usually that all races are equal; however, some are superior or better than others are. In developing an understanding of the stereotypical depiction of these races, it is crucial to note the manner in which racism is inculcated into children through various channels. Within the social spectrum, this topic is discussed from a colorblind perspective. However, Van Ausdale and Feagin suggest, through many studies and examples, that American children develop awareness about cultural and physical differences at a tender age (38). According to Solorzano and Yosso, the history of America is indicative of the racial categorization which is a social construct integrated as a means of differentiating the existing ethnic groups in determining their superiority when compared against each other (4). From a social perspective, the meaning assigned to race is commonly based on aspects including white privilege and racial superiority, hence denoting racism as the fundamental ideology being propagated.
According to Audrey Lorde, racism implicates the deep-rooted prejudice that one race is superior to the other based on its established dominance (Van Ausdale and Feagin 38-5293). This definition is supported by various scholars who acknowledge that it is this superiority aspect that associates a race with exploitation, ignorance, power and oppression of pacific Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, American Indians and other marginalized racial communities. The main factors promoting oppression include variations of color, culture, ethnicity, and mannerisms. Racism demonstrated as a construct within the American setting has been rampant for many decades, with its negative impact mainly affecting racial groups perceived as minorities (Murray and Velázquez 45). Aspects such as identity, age, and sex do not confine the prejudice of racial bias; however, its existence is in the daily performed rituals, hence highlighting its integrated presence in day-to-day life. Overt and covert racism is observed in children’s entertainment ranging from media to literature, further exemplifying its infiltration in the American society.
Racism and its intricacies regarding its adverse effects have been addressed by the Critical Race Theory as supported by various scholars and theorists (Murray and Velázquez 56). This ideology offers crucial insights in dissecting the fundamental facets of racism within the American society. Firstly, it indicates the normalization of racism as an ingrained component of the American landscape. With this element in play, various cultures have become indifferent, as racism is viewed as natural and ordinary (Micklos 62). From this angle, it is clear that legislative laws and rules only address shocking or severe cases of racial injustices, while ignoring incidents seen as expected or usual, despite being mandated to ensure racial equality. It is evident that formal equality fails in regulating racism faced by marginalized people in different aspects of their lives, which accounts for their overall feeling of despair, alienation, and misery. Thus, with this in mind, the importance of this theory is validated as it addresses issues of racism through the challenging notions presented by critical thinkers. Given the prioritization of race over other regulations and rules stipulated by the society, racism is a fundamental construct that can no longer be ignored considering its integration in the current younger generation through literature that facilitates its propagation as a norm.
Critical Race Theory
This theory is selected as a component of the theoretical framework of this research because renowned race theorists have highlighted its main principles. Matsuda Lawrence, Delgado, and Crenshaw propose that this theory presents an interdisciplinary explanation on racism depicting it as a de jure and de facto way synonymous with the American lifestyle ((Micklos 63). The theory acknowledges racism as a manifested outcome of racial group disadvantage and advantage and challenges the ideas presented by ahistoricism. While addressing children entertainment and literature, there are principles that should be considered. For example, selecting books indicative of seclusion, dismissal, and neglect of discriminated racial groups highlights racism and racial oppression (Harris 11). Despite the outlook on authors’ intentions, who in this regard are depicted as responsible for perpetuating racism, it is imperative to beware of the propagation of this vice and integration of racist connotation within children literature.
An evaluation of the dominant society indicates that in most instances, lack of awareness of racially negative images depicted in children’s books facilitates the adoption of racist tendencies by affecting their racial identities. In highlighting this ignorance as an outcome of racial prejudices, the need to define white privilege is paramount. According to Stephanie Wildman, it promotes the understanding that the white race is superior within any given context (Harris 25). The advocated idea supported by this social construct implicates the dominance of the white race from social, historical, industrial, and economic standpoints. It encourages the ideality of perceiving the world from a racial filter without the inclusion of ethnic awareness, further promoting racism and its related biases. The societal advantage leveraged by the white race provides a blanket, which hides or normalizes discriminative racism often instigated by white folk stemming from sheer ignorance (Harris 87). The explanation presented by Wildman is useful in pinpointing the perpetuation of racial stereotypes in children’s books to the extent of which some even receive awards as best writers. This aspect is applicableA2 in further understanding the racial stereotypes presented by various authors of children’s books.
In gaining comprehension on implications of blind racism on children, it is necessary to develop awareness of the existing stereotypes in children’s literature. As pointed out by Scott Beck (4), common literature critiques have highlighted the stereotypes of Mexican heritage. Some of the works are analyzed in critiques by Rosalinda Barrera and colleagues (1993), Nilsson (1999) and Murray Velazquez (1999). These authors have played an important role in depicting the inculcation of racial bias in children’s literature through the compilation of instances of damaging misrepresentation and negative stereotypic views of Latinos as portrayed in the books. Some of the perceptions depicted include the misappropriated estimation of dysfunctional families, acceptance of oppression, lack of understanding of the English language, implication of Anglo saviors necessary for the success of Latinos, Anglo-centrism and overrepresentation of heroes as rural farm workers (Gonzalez and Montaño 2). The element of poverty is also highlighted as a stereotype as most of the Mexican families are depicted as low class working as laborers, farmers, and mechanics, while women are portrayed as teachers, dressmakers, and homemakers.
Interracial Books for Children
The main problem facilitating the presenting of racist implications in children’s literature is the lack of seriousness of actions taken against authors and publishers of related content. This issue is attributed to the vague and obscure regulations mandated by the Council on Interracial Books for Children regarding controlling the language used in literature implying racism (Council on Interracial Books for Children 20). The establishment of the Council on Interracial Books for Children promotes the publication of literature materials, whose aim is to encourage a positive reflection of a multicultural society to facilitate change in media and books. It is obligated to ensure that sexism and racism are abolished in children literature through offering strict compliance regulations to publishers and authors. The council is institutionalized to address for the demands of particular racial groups for proper treatment of their history, life, and culture as well as inclusion of accurate information. Such groups include Native Americans, Latinos, and Asians (Council on Interracial Books for Children 33). However, the council fails in addressing the use of derogatory words indicative of racism such as lazy, or dirty for racial emphasis on racial stereotypes, which in this instance is for Latinos.
An update of rules and regulations stipulated by the Council is imminent in regards to regulation of racial slurs and phrases in children literature (Beck 100). Also, educators are responsible for identifying racial stereotypes presented in writing within their profession through highlighting their relationships with the stereotypes. This is imperative in an evaluation of the justified claims of unequal treatment often directed towards students from racially discriminated groups. According to Solorzano and Yesso, this activity is essential in developing an understanding of racism within educational institutions and the role literature plays in further encouraging this vice (7). A study conducted by Gonzalez and Montano (2) based on sufficient reading and its phases presented by Ada and Campoy, offers a highly active mode of analyzing and selecting bias-free book. The study, which involved interviewing students with questions developed by their peers and the theorists, offered a more elaborate way of analyzing text. With the queries requiring an understanding of the author’s background, their racial experiences, knowledge of their history and inequalities faced by the characters in the selected books, the students were able to investigate different aspects of the content; hence determining its biases in regards to race (Ada and Campoy 47). The overall guidelines established in this process presented a practical way that parents and educators can apply in evaluating children’s literature.
In fostering critical consciousness in children, the importance of multicultural texts should be prioritized as a means of empowering the youth against racism and promoting literacy development. The reaffirmation of this claim is presented by Ada et al. who posit that children’s literature should provide models which young people can apply in resolving their issues when faced with life difficulties such as making a moral decision, which is imperative as they create their path and leverage opportunities to make life-changing resolutions (11). Because children have the capability of internalizing the content they read and applying it in their daily lives, literature promoting racism can implicate dire consequences in their social relations and influence their lives negatively. With this in mind, there is the need for writing that allows for a positive connection with young learners to ensure they establish the right understanding of themselves and the society surrounding them. However, if the presented notions imply that their races are inferior, then they lack the motivation to strive for their goals and ambitions, as they are already aware of their disadvantaged position in the society.
Impact of Literature
The internalization of cultural messages presented to children from a historical standpoint is by traditional tales. In the modern day setting, picture books, illustrations and picture stories mimic this trend as preschoolers develop an understanding of their surroundings and themselves as per the content presented. Books with racial bias hinder children from familiarizing with their culture and comprehending its intricacies at a young age. As reiterated by Murray and Velazquez (1), literature is accountable for addressing the societal need for tales and stories. The meaningfulness of these elements is not only the promotion of literacy but enabling a student to define their identity in the society. Bias-free books attain this objective as they empower children to develop a strong affiliation and pride in their race or ethnic grouping. They can select their positive role models and expand their knowledge about their cultural history. Lastly, positive influences from books also strengthen self-esteem as a child establishes a positive self-image facilitated by their understanding of the characterizations of characters of the same race.
Literature promoting racism cripples the ability of the student to experience literature in the appropiate manner. The negative reinforcement and portrayal of stereotypes is the principal causative agent for this demoralization. For instance, in some stories, Latino children find it extremely difficult to establish a connection with the protagonist presented. An exemplary case is curriculum materials and books authored by Kathy Escamilla, which targeted Mexican Americans. The depiction of the protagonist is that of a superhuman character whose main aim is to save helpless people from discrimination, troubles, and poverty (Ada et al. xx 5). The heroes, as portrayed, assist individuals living in the rural migrant camps or urban barrios. As highlighted by the author, they seem to undergo great problems which they overcome and achieve heroic greatness. This depiction is detrimental as it promotes insecurity particularly to a Latino child faced with the issues highlighted but not able to overcome them in the same way the heroes do. Therefore, with this in mind, it is imperative that authors consider developing characters, which offer a positive influence in child development based on the messages intended in literature and their short and long-term effects on their readers.
Furumoto reiterates that through extensive research, it is evident that children’s literature offers a highly effective mechanism of creating recognition of humanity as a collective entity, its capacities to develop history and stir emotions (Van Ausdale and Feagin 38A-5293). Through this form of literature, children can establish connections of their experiences with characters highlighted in the narrative. Books which are authored basing on this consideration ensure that a solid foundation is set in their self-affirmation and identity. As previously mentioned, children are also able to pride themselves in their racial identities as they derive a positive outlook from positive literature. In addition to colored children establishing these connections, others can also learn to appreciate different cultures basing on the existing variations, hence becoming more receptive to diversity, which facilitates co-existence. Mickos explains that familiarization with racial heritage is similarly vital for children learning about other children (61). When presented with literature, which provides a misrepresentation of a child’s race or promoting elements of racism or derogatory cues to inform their understanding, it facilitates the uptake of racist tendencies from children of other races and the affected child cannot engage effectively with the text. The racial biases promoted often stem from the misunderstanding of the information presented about another race hence further encouraging prejudices. As supported by Beck (56), when these prejudicial notions are not challenged, they are reinforced, propagated and normalized. This deters these children from leveraging on the connections established with the characters, hence failing to enhance positive self-understanding and identity.
Literature that perpetuates racism and related prejudices also promotes ostracism and implicates difficulties in establishing normalcy in classrooms for children whose race is targeted or considered discriminated. In schools such as Bayard Taylor Elementary where the student population is predominantly Hispanic, teachers face great difficulty in sourcing literature that promotes positive and cultural presentation of this race for classroom normalcy purposes. This problem is associated with the reality of stereotypes within the contexts, as they tend to portray Latinos as migrant workers, farmers, and criminals, implicating an adverse representation of the students (Beck 120). It is necessary for children from the targeted races to understand that they are equal to the dominant race despite them being labeled as different or exotic in racist literature. This statement is validated by the need to eradicate the notion of otherness, which is promoted by racially biased writing.
In discussing the impact of literature promoting racism on children and its intricacies, it is paramount to appreciate that not all authors promote racial stereotypes. According to Nilson (67), there has been a significant improvement in children’s literature indicating definite improvement on race presentation. The Council of Interracial Books for Children guidelines has provided directives on morally considering the impact of their works on children who are their targeted audience. Basing on the existing compiled lists of acceptable children’s books that positively affect their understanding of diversity and multicultural society, caregivers and educators can ensure positive reinforcement is imparted on learners as the content provided is useful and relatable. Historical texts should be focused on when writing children’s literature. However, most authors avoid exploring this facet, thereby necessitating the need for more resources to educate children on their histories for better development of self-identity and appreciation for diversity in ethnic and racial groupings. It is highly crucial for young learners to develop understanding about their people as this knowledge will ensure they have remarkable and honored individuals to look up to as role models and thus strive to become better.
Diversity and individuality should be promoted in children literature within the schooling and home environment in promoting acceptance of other cultures and races. With the existent adverse concerns where nations are culturally, politically, socially and racially divided, educational institutions are mandated to protect young learners from developing notions that further worsen this predicament. Neglect or ignorance that contributes to the propagation of racism in children literature should be eradicated through promoting the reading of materials which meet the children’s educational needs, and promote cultural and ethnic acceptance as opposed to perpetuating it. It is also imperative to acknowledge that that in writing there is need to match the narration to the audience, despite most authors acting within their right in terms of exploring creative freedom. Children’s literature is expected to match the needs and interests of readers with young minds. Imparting racist notions goes against the dictum of writing.
Ada, Alma F, and F I. Campoy. A Magical Encounter: Latino Children’s Literature in the Classroom. Mariposa Transformative Education Services, 2016.
Ada, Alma F, et al. Authors in the Classroom: A Transformative Education Process. Allyn and Bacon, 2004.
Beck, Scott A. “Children of Migrant Farmworkers in Picture Storybooks: Reality, Romanticism, and Representation.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, vol. 34, no. 2, 2009, pp. 99-137.
Council on Interracial Books for Children. Interracial books for children. Council on Interracial Books for Children, 1966.
Gonzalez, Rosemary, and Theresa Montaño. “Critical analysis of Chicana/o children’s literature: Moving from cultural differences to sociopolitical realities.” Journal of Praxis in Multicultural Education, vol. 3, no. 1, 2008, pp. 1-3.
Harris, Violet J. Using Multiethnic Literature in the K-8 Classroom. Christopher-Gordon, 1997.
Micklos, Junior. “30 years of minorities in children’s books.” Education Digest , vol. 62, no. 1, 1980, pp. 61-64, doi:10.1353/bcc.2006.0549.
Murray, Yvonne I, and José Velázquez. Promoting Reading among Mexican American Children. ppalachia Educational Laboratory, 1999.
Solorzano, D., and T. J. Yosso. “From racial stereotyping and deficit discourse toward a critical race theory in teacher education.” Multicultural Education, vol. 9, no. 1, 2001, pp. 2-8.
Van Ausdale, D., and R. Feagin. “The first R: how children learn race and racism.” Choice Reviews Online, vol. 38, no. 09, 2001, pp. 38-5293-38A-5293, doi:10.5860/choice.38-5293.
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