There has been a lot of tweets lately about #OwnVoices and who is writing diversity in children’s books after a controversial TedTalk by Nora Raleigh Baskin. I found this article by The Good Men Project that puts everything into perspective.
In this post:
- I will lay out why racism is the foundation for #OwnVoices controversy about who has the right to write about POC/marginalized groups
- Let’s examine the state of #OwnVoices in children’s book publishing using Lee and Low’s research
- Let’s watch Nora Raleigh Baskin’s video
- Debbie Reese reacts to Nora Raleigh Baskin’s video
- Laurie Halse Anderson defends Debbie Reese
- David Bowles responds to the numbers of Latinx children’s and YA books published
Let’s get started talking about race and racism in children’s book publishing.
Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism
The Good Men Project’s article is White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism. Dr. Robin DiAngelo explains why white people implode when talking about race:
“While individual whites may be against racism, they still benefit from the distribution of resources controlled by their group. Yes, an individual person of color can sit at the tables of power, but the overwhelming majority of decision-makers will be white. Yes, white people can have problems and face barriers, but systematic racism won’t be one of them.
This systemic and institutional control allows those of us who are white in North America to live in a social environment that protects and insulates us from race-based stress. We have organized society to reproduce and reinforce our racial interests and perspectives. Further, we are centered in all matters deemed normal, universal, benign, neutral and good. Thus, we move through a wholly racialized world with an unracialized identity (e.g. white people can represent all of humanity, people of color can only represent their racial selves).
Whites are taught to see themselves as individuals, rather than as part of a racial group. Individualism enables us to deny that racism is structured into the fabric of society. This erases our history and hides the way in which wealth has accumulated over generations and benefits us, as a group, today. It also allows us to distance ourselves from the history and actions of our group. Thus we get very irate when we are “accused” of racism, because as individuals, we are “different” from other white people and expect to be seen as such; we find intolerable any suggestion that our behavior or perspectives are typical of our group as a whole.
Challenges to this identity become highly stressful and even intolerable. The following are examples of the kinds of challenges that trigger racial stress for white people:
- Suggesting that a white person’s viewpoint comes from a racialized frame of reference (challenge to objectivity);
- People of color talking directly about their own racial perspectives (challenge to white taboos on talking openly about race);
- People of color choosing not to protect the racial feelings of white people in regards to race (challenge to white racial expectations and need/entitlement to racial comfort);
- People of color not being willing to tell their stories or answer questions about their racial experiences (challenge to the expectation that people of color will serve us);
- A fellow white not providing agreement with one’s racial perspective (challenge to white solidarity);
- Receiving feedback that one’s behavior had a racist impact (challenge to white racial innocence);
- Suggesting that group membership is significant (challenge to individualism);
- An acknowledgment that access is unequal between racial groups (challenge to meritocracy);
- Being presented with a person of color in a position of leadership (challenge to white authority);
- Being presented with information about other racial groups through, for example, movies in which people of color drive the action but are not in stereotypical roles, or multicultural education (challenge to white centrality).
Not often encountering these challenges, we withdraw, defend, cry, argue, minimize, ignore, and in other ways push back to regain our racial position and equilibrium.” Read the entire article here.
7% of Children’s Books Published in 2017 Are #OwnVoices
“Even as the number of diverse books increases substantially, the number of books written by people of color still has not kept pace. Not much has changed since last year when Black, Latinx, and Native authors combined wrote just 6% of new children’s books published. This year  the number is only 7%.“The Diversity Gap from Lee and Low Blog
“Like last year and many of the years before, the majority of books (diverse or not) are still written by white authors. We wrote about this phenomenon back in 2015, and the numbers haven’t changed much since then.
There still seems to be a particular resistance to allowing African American creators to tell their own stories. It could also be the lack of opportunities and/or access given to African American authors as KT Horning noted last year. According to detailed CCBC statistics, only 29% of books about African/African American people were by Black authors/illustrators. Also, only 34% of books about Latinx folks were written/illustrated by Latinx people whereas last year the percentage was 61%.
Other #ownvoices books by other cultural groups aren’t much better; 39% of books about Asian Pacific/Asian Pacific Americans were created by Asian Pacific creators; 53% of books with Native content/characters were written/illustrated by Native creators.”
Nora Raleigh Baskin Thinks White People Should be allowed to Write Diversity Stories and Get Them Published
Nora Raleigh Baskin’s TedTalk: Artists Mustn’t Fear the Social Media Call-Out Culture
“If this [#OwnVoices] comes at the expense of my work being published, then that’s how it needs to be.”
–> Only 7% of Children’s Books Published in 2017 Are #OwnVoices.
“… saddened by the message that there is a limited number of spaces at the table, and the only way for one story to be told is for another to be silent.”
–> Only 29% of books about African/African American people were by Black authors/illustrators which means 71% of Africa/African American stories were told by white people. Also, only 34% of books about Latinx folks were written/illustrated by Latinx people whereas last year the percentage was 61%. Again 66% of the stories about Latinx people were told by white people.
White people are telling diversity stories and getting them published. This comes at the expense of #OwnVoices.
A Schneider Award Does Not Mean You Get It Right
Note that Rules by Cynthia Lord won a Newbery Honor and the Schneider Award, yet this book is not aging well. Disabilities in KidLit has issues with this book:
“This is a book written by an author who has an autistic child, but is not autistic herself, and admits that the inspiration for writing the book was her non-autistic daughter.”
“Catherine’s role in Jason’s independence made me slightly uneasy, especially as she remained uncomfortable around him throughout. Although not intentionally, Catherine comes across almost as Jason’s “savior.” Prior to Catherine, Jason had no interest in independent mobility, and didn’t have the same vocabulary available to him. Because of this, Jason’s purpose is more to develop Catherine’s character than to be his own independent self.
The other part that made Rules so difficult to read as an autistic wheelchair user was watching Jason become more independent, more developed as his own character, seeing him humanized, and watching how none of that happened to David. It made me think of how many times my other friends in chairs have said awful things about autistic people.
I can understand why this book is so popular, as it fits into a lot of the stereotypes of autistics, and it goes along with the common practice of shifting focus away from actual autistic people to those around us.
But this book hurt to read. I worked really hard to get through it because I wanted to be able to say something about it, but in the end I just wanted to cry really hard for all the Davids out there. And the Jasons.”
Debbie Reese Responds to Nora Raleigh Baskin’s TedTalk
“Early in the novel there is a reference to reading the Little House books, and then at several points as friends Julia and Eliza pretend to be characters from the past, they imagine sneaking through the mountains to avoid being captured or scalped by “Indians.” Sorry, I didn’t keep track of page numbers. It’s stunning to me that an author of this caliber and her editor/publisher, etc think this is appropriate in 2011.
Some will argue that Baskin is giving readers an accurate portrayal of her characters. Some might say that they see themselves in Baskin’s twelve-year-old protagonists, Julia and Eliza. Are you someone who, at age 12, pretended you were Laura, afraid of being scalped?”
Here’s an excerpt from Debbie’s post:
“You White Writers seem to think you and your work are at risk, and so, you do these Ted talks, and laments on social media, and articles, etc…. And your buddies and like-minded folks gather round and talk about how brave you are.
Frankly, I’m embarrassed for you. And frustrated, too. Your cycles of this… bullshit are why we keep having these problems of misrepresentation! Instead of telling each other ‘DON’T SCREW THIS UP’ you tell each other “you meant well” and so… there we go again.
The never-ending cycle of misrepresentation and the harm it does to children AND to other writers is on YOU, Nora Raleigh Baskin, and YOU, Deborah Wiles, and YOU, Kathryn Lasky and… I could name a few more, but the point is…
Rather than doing TED talks about how art and expression, own the fact that you can do BOTH. You can do art, and express yourself, and do it well! Do right by ALL your readers. Do right for ALL children.
And as for calling us vitriolic or fervent —- Have you no grasp of history? What would you have said to women who burned their bras?! Who raised their voices? Who put pen to paper to fight for their rights? To vote?! Really, Nora, would you scold them, too?
By the way, I see you over on Facebook, talking about how you are taking a “beating” on Twitter. People are holding you accountable for your Ted talk. Should they not?”
The online conversations about Baskin’s talk are an illustrative example of how White people in children’s publishing define social media culture, and its norms, in ways that both uphold our own dominance, and enact active racist aggression against BIPOC people in the field.
Laurie Halse Anderson Defends Debbie Reese
@debreese shared the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s “A Closer Look at 2017 Latinx #OwnVoices Books.” I want to talk about these findings a bit, so strap in. Ya saben. Be forewarned of potential bilingual cursing arising from raza indignation. 1/