Harmful Stereotypes in Children's Literature
As I perused the shelves in the library, I ran across a book entitled the History of Everyday Life. It looked like a great book – it detailed the evolution of every day conveniences such as plumbing, clothes and dish washing and food production. As I quickly flipped through the book, I noticed a disturbing but, sadly, common theme. Despite having a nice picture of brown people on the cover, the only picture of brown people inside of the book was of enslaved Africans.
The most annoying thing about the picture was that nothing on the page where it sat discussed anything about American slavery. Indeed, the page discussed how, in the old days, women had to wash clothes by hand along with all the other chores they had to get done by hand over the course of the day. There was no illustrative purpose for showing enslaved people doing laundry because the page also contained pictures of women doing laundry by hand.
I find this sort of subtle, subliminal messaging about black people extremely offensive. Especially in literature where the target audience is young children.
I could get on my soap box about Black representation in media and popular literature. I could go on about how most depictions of Black people are negative – we are either enslaved, criminals or uber- urban, lacking a grasp of basic sentence structure, grammar and pronunciation. If we are not those things, we must be athletes. But I will save that discussion for another day.
What I will point out is that while the author could only include a picture of enslaved Black people, she was able to find lots of pictures of Caucasians – being industrious, spending time with family, wearing luxurious clothes.
This book is the very thing that perpetuates racial stereotypes. Its insidious representation of Black people as contrasted with Caucasians is harmful to children of all races. It causes non-Black children to see Black people as only former slaves. And it leads to low self-esteem in Black children because they, too, see themselves as only having originated from slavery and all the horrible history associated with it.
Images in media have such a profound effect on how we interact with the world and how we relate to other people. When a non-Black child sees these kinds of images of Black people, I wonder how we are all supposed to move beyond racism and find our common bond. How are they supposed to figure out that, while our culture may be different, we actually have a lot in common?
From a Black child’s perspective, how do these pictures affect their self-image, their ability to see themselves in a different context…a different setting? How can they begin to see themselves as part of the larger society – with successful jobs and families – when they are constantly reminded that some of their ancestors were enslaved?
I have to admit that it gets old having to pre-screen books and other media to make sure that the images conform with how we would like our kids to see themselves. I guess you could call that “parenting,” but it really gets my goat to have to censor out a perfectly good, informative book because the author was, at best, too close minded to include more appropriate pictures.
If you are reading this post and you are not Black, I want to make sure that you understand that this issue is also your issue. In order for all our children to have a better future, we’ve got to move beyond the tired narrative of Black people as slaves, victims of Jim Crow and criminals. And we can start by choosing literature that is inclusive and that depicts brown kids as just kids – the main character, neighbors, friends – doing stuff that kids do.
Let’s all reject books that depict brown kids in the traditional ways and choose more contemporary, inclusive and real world portrayals of life.