Tuesday, July 12, 2011
A reader (thanks, Reena) brought this book, The Skin I'm In: A First Look at Racism by Pat Thomas, to my attention. In an Amazon search, it's the only picture book I found that directly mentions racism as the topic of the book.
"Imagine a world where only people with blue eyes could go to school. Or a world where only people with brown eyes could get a job."
(Double-page illustration of a classroom full of happy, active children - oddly, all with reddish hair, and all white-skinned except three with brown skin - and a brown-skinned, black-haired teacher. Outside, many sad children - with a variety of skin and hair color and racial features, some dressed in ethnic clothing - look through the window. Eyes are drawn with black dots, so no eye color is visible.)
"If we lived in a world like this many people would be treated unfairly. They would miss out on the chance to learn and work and feel good about themselves."
"The way you look is decided by your family background. Sometimes this is called your culture, or race. The most common way race is judged is by the color of your skin." (Illustration of dark-skinned family with curly black hair.)
"Your race tells the history of your family. It is where your ancestors come from and the religion and traditions your family has followed for many years." (Illustration of Jewish family with yarmulkes and menorah.)
"Some believe that people from their race are worth more and should be treated better than people from other races. A person who thinks and acts this way is called a racist. Racists want to stop people of other races from living, working and learning together. Anybody of any skin color can be a racist."
This is a well-meaning book in the First Look series, which includes titles on teasing, honesty, death, disability, and other issues, all written by "psychotherapist and counselor" Pat Thomas. The book brings to minds a statement I once heard Native American author Joseph Bruchac make about the book Brother Eagle, Sister Sky: "Its heart is good but its mind is lost." I've quoted more first lines than usual because I wanted to convey the sense of the text, which I find choppy and sometimes incoherent, and the content, some of which is confusing and at times downright misleading. The biggest problems I see are:
1. There is no clear definition of race. The implication that race includes culture, religion and traditions only complicates a topic that is already confusing to children (and adults).
2. The text defines racism as synonymous with individual acts of racial prejudice. There is no attempt to address in-groups and out-groups, and the reality of racism as a pervasive and systemic societal problem, not just people being mean. Granted, tackling this topic for young children in a developmentally-appropriate manner is very challenging, but many kindergarteners have heard the story of Rosa Parks and been exposed to the idea of laws based on race. If only individual attitudes and behaviors are mentioned, it should be called racial prejudice, not racism.
3. The illustrations, though pleasant and appealing, are sometimes more distracting and confusing than illuminating. For instance, the text, "Have you ever been afraid of somebody that looked different from you?" is accompanied by two children (one brown, one white) looking nervously at an adult clown. In addition, as a friend pointed out (thanks, Kim), all the children's features are drawn identically, different only in skin color, hair style and color, and clothing, which seems an exceptionally odd choice for a book about race.
The book does have some useful language and ideas: that a trusted adult should always be told when a child encounters racist behavior; that "sometimes racist behavior ... can be hidden in the way people treat each other or talk about each other;" that "Most people want the world to be a place where each of us gets the same opportunities to make friends and to learn and grow." A knowledgeable adult could use portions of the book as the springboard for a discussion with young listeners.
But clearly, we need more books that address the topic of racism for young children.
Sunday, July 3, 2011
"Yoh-roh-bun-dul, ahn-nyung-ha-shim-nee-ka." I open many of my school presentations with this photo and a greeting in Korean: "Hello, everyone. This is my picture. When I was seven years old, I moved to Korea. From then I learned two languages and two cultures. This is my eighth birthday."
After I've translated the introduction, I go on to share a little about my childhood: how conspicuous I was as a tall, light-skinned, light-haired, large-nosed, round-eyed American, growing up in South Korea in the 1960s when few foreigners lived in the country. When I went to the market, a crowd of people would gather around me, marveling at how different I looked. It was kind of like being a princess, I tell the children.
This early experience provides an ideal segue for a discussion of difference. "I was treated as if I was special. What do you think I learned about being different? That it was fabulous! It was certainly working well for me. But is this how we always treat people who are different?"
I ask the students how many of them have ever been "the different one" - because of skin color, body size, learning style, language, the only boy, the only girl, and so on. Usually most children in the classroom raise their hands. "How did that feel? What happened to you?" I ask. We talk about being left out, being teased, being called names. I've had this discussion with children as young as first and second grade.
With older children, I then go on to share a simple explanation of Racial Identity Development - how each of us comes to understand race and to think about our own race:
Any racial experience in the lives of older children can be an opportunity to introduce the concept of racial identity development, individually or with a group, with lead-in questions such as:
"As we grow, each one of us gets ideas of who we are by the mirrors that are held up for us, including mirrors about race. You're having this experience right now. If you're one of many, like one of the boys on a soccer team, you don't think much about being a boy. But if you're one of a few, like the only girl on the soccer team, you think about it all the time, because everybody tells you you're a girl, you're different.
"Race is like that, too. In the United States, if you're white, you usually don't notice it because the majority of people are white. But if you're a person of color, you tend to notice it a lot more. Everyone reminds you all the time that you're the different one. So our different experiences of race give us different ideas and different ways of thinking about race.
"When I was young, the mirror of responses of other people to my difference - 'You're American! You're American!' - made me notice that I was white. Do you think that my friend Ok-soon, on my left in the photo, thought much about being Korean? No, because everyone around her had similar hair, skin color, and features. She blended in."
- Do you notice skin color? When do you notice skin color? Why do you think certain skin colors stand out more? (Usually when a person is different from the group.)Racial Identity Development has much to recommend it as an introduction for young people to the topic of racism:
- Do people with majority skin color stand out? Do they think about their skin color much? Why or why not? (When you blend in with the group, your skin color is taken for granted. It's the norm.)
- How do people get treated when they are seen as different?
1. It's a non-threatening approach that doesn't automatically provoke defensiveness.
2. It sets up a level playing field by including everyone in the discussion and the groups that are being examined.
3. It offers a way to get white kids thinking about themselves racially, to counteract the silence and invisibility of race in the white community.
4. It's a natural segue into the concept of socialization, including in-groups and out-groups.
For an in-depth explanation of racial identity development, see Beverly Daniel Tatum's book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?