I am writing from a place of personal and professional discomfort. For the past ten years I have built a multicultural collection of library materials to serve the population at my primarily African American and Hispanic middle school in a fairly large urban environment. I have strived to curate diverse books that are inclusive and represent all types of characters. Personally, I identify myself as a fairly liberal-minded librarian and I strongly believe in upholding the ideals of information freedom. However, I recently have been chastised for offering black and brown students books with white characters depicted on the covers.
It is my understanding and belief that books should provide windows to look through to see other people, mirrors to see a reflection of oneself, and sliding glass doors that allow one to walk through to experience different worlds. I have also spent time reading up on Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop who coined the term "windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors." With all that, I am still made to feel uncomfortable providing an African American student a book that depicts a white character on the cover. Is that racist? If students only see themselves reflected in a story, how will they develop empathy for all types of people?
Uncomfortably Looking Through the Sliding Glass Door
I truly believe reading helps young people develop empathy. Solely reading books with characters that look like you, act like you, live like you, and think like you diminishes the powers that books have. Books help people understand how others feel, how to identify what a person is thinking, and understand emotions others are experiencing. These are life skills that are challenging to develop without exposure to an array of experiences. Books provide those experiences, allowing children to think, acknowledge, understand, and share the feelings of others. Books allow children to escape their heads and look through the eyes of their peers, friends, and even the adults around them. Books teach gratitude and empower young minds to aspire and dream beyond their worlds. ALL children need to be exposed to a variety of characters and stories.
You may not be promoting racist behavior by recommending a book with a white protagonist but you may need to adjust your professional practices for the times we live in. Some of those chastising you are probably thinking of the preponderance of white characters in children's literature and are, like you, concerned about offering students a variety of rich, literary experiences. Don't dwell on your critic's words or become full of self-doubt. Instead, with your shared goal in mind, take this as an opportunity for self-reflection.
There are multiple facets to this issue. We need to think beyond just black and white. It is an issue of all colors of the rainbow and all attributes of the world. It is an issue that extends to the top of the publishing food chain and reaches into societal norms. Too many children have too much trouble finding those all-important mirrors. We need to critically examine our collections and our practice. We are at the beginning of challenging the ideals that have been a standard for too long. #WeNeedDiverseBooks, #OwnVoices, The Open Book Blog, Lee and Low Diversity Survey, and Reading While White are just scratching the surface. We need more people to ask provocative questions, think deeply about the answers, and have uncomfortable conversations to change the world.
Here are some provocative questions you might stop to ask yourself about your practice as you reflect:
- What biases do I personally bring to the school library collection?
- How can the culturally reflective practices of the school library impact culturally responsive pedagogy in the classroom?
- How can the school library educate all students about diversity?
Librarians have a challenge in front of them. We are living in a time when hate is being encouraged by the leader of the free world and that is a difficult reality to swallow. Now is the time to stand by our ideals, encourage publishers to produce authentic literature, uphold information freedom, and motivate kids to take a step through those sliding glass doors.
Stand by your professional ideals. Know your collection and your students. Be critical. Build a collection that is a diverse representation of your population, while also providing lots of windows and a plethora of sliding glass doors. You can also throw in some magic flying carpets, surfboards, spring boards, diving boards, pogo sticks, parachutes, and a trampoline. Books are all those things for readers and more.