Saturday, December 05, 2015

Dear Philip Nel: Some Questions about WAS THE CAT IN THE HAT BLACK: THE HIDDEN RACISM OF CHILDREN'S LITERATURE AND WHY WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS

Editor's note on Dec 8 2015: Perry Nodelman's comment and Philip Nel's response are now in the body of the original post. 


December 5, 2015

Dear Phil,

I read your post about your new book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black: The Hidden Racism of Children's Literature, and Why We Need Diverse Books. On one hand, I want to say congratulations, because I know that people buy/read/teach your books, and as such, books that look at racism in children's literature are important.

On the other hand, as an activist scholar from a marginalized population, my thoughts and emotions since reading your post include me uttering "WTF." As I write that last sentence, I imagine a lot of my colleagues in children's literature rolling their eyes--not at you--but at me. The truth is, though, that my WTF won't hurt your career. You're a white male, tenured, at a Research I school. You have all the cred in the world. You also have many books published--books that have been very well received.

But.

I have some questions. I could raise them in an email and thereby have a private conversation with you, but, those private conversations tend to be helpful to those who already have power, so I've chosen to do this publicly.

In your blog post, you said that
"The book is about different manifestations of structural racism in the world of children's books: the subtle persistence of racial caricature, how anti-racist revisionism sustains racist ideas, invisibility as a form of racism, whitewashing young adult book covers, and institutional discrimination within the publishing industry." 

Let's start with structural racism.

You know We Need Diverse Books is trademarked, right? And you know that the organization itself is a grass roots effort comprised largely of people of color who object to the ways that structural racism consistently rewards white, and specifically white males, for the work they do--over the work of people of marginalized communities, right? Are you in conversation with anyone at WNDB about your book, and/or have you had conversations with anyone there about using that phrase in the title of your book?

I hope so, because if not, you might be rendering them invisible and thereby contributing to "invisibility as a form of racism."

Let's look at that invisibility you reference, next. In your post, you offer
"a hearty thanks to those who have read and commented here, answered my questions, offered feedback when I've presented portions of this work, or educated me via your books and articles. I've learned so much from all of you. (Hint: Look for your names in the book's Acknowledgements!) I couldn't have done it without you. Thank you."
Given your status, it seems to me that you could have done more than list people in the Acknowledgements. This is a huge presumption on my part, but my guess is that I am one of the people who may get listed in your Acknowledgments. Maybe I am, and maybe I'm not, but either way, your hearty thank you--though you mean well--will not be received in the way you might think it would be. There is a robust conversation online about people in privileged spaces being informed by the work of people of color--and using that work with little to no acknowledgement. Being listed in an Acknowledgement is not what people want to see.

Do you quote from Twitter, Tumbr, and various blogs, and do you cite the individuals? I hope so! In a way, this ask is similar to my asking about your use of the We Need Diverse Books phrase. By that, I mean that it is hard to say when a bit of information or knowledge ought to be attributed to a specific person. With social media, the voices we read are much more diverse than they've ever been before. It can mean that ideas and points of view seep into our own heads and shape our thinking and then become our thinking, and then it seems unnecessary to cite a specific person who was instrumental in ones own thinking! But it IS necessary. The community of people participating in conversations about children's books is larger than it has ever been before--thanks to social media--but scholars should not replicate injustices of the past wherein white males profit through the work of those who they and their ancestors, overtly and subtly, oppressed and oppress.

Actually--I think people could fairly wonder about the project itself. It could have been an edited volume, with you using your stature as a means to lift the names and work being done by people who aren't white males.

Course, in wondering that, I make some assumptions that you and I see things from a similar vantage point! Our conversations on your blog suggest that isn't necessarily the case. But you also said in your blog post, that some of those posts (where we conversed via the comments) contain "admittedly flawed" thinking, so maybe you're in a different space today than you were then and could, therefore, lift those voices.

You said that your book is:
"attempting to do for children's books what The New Jim Crow does for the justice system." 
We do need to get more people to think about racism in children's literature, and there's a lot of people who have been doing that for a very long time. You say that it is a "tall order" to do for children's literature what Michelle Alexander's book does for the justice system.

But.

You're inadvertently placing yourself on the same plane as a Black scholar like Michelle Alexander? I'm stuck right there. Stuck without words to capture what that feels like to me. A huge problem in children's literature is white saviors sweeping in to help or rescue characters of marginalized populations. And here you are, doing that very thing. Did you realize what that would feel like to people of color? Did you imagine any of us, reading those words, as you wrote them? Did you imagine us as your audience?

You say that you'll also look at institutional discrimination within the publishing industry. Seems to me that gives you space to write about institutional discrimination within the academy, too. I'm guessing you've read the various articles online about the experiences of people of color in the academy. We both know how white our field of study is, so it seems that your book might address barriers we face, as scholars. Does it?

My sense from that line in your post about flawed thinking in earlier posts suggests to me that you're in a more reflective space than you've been in the past, but the things you said also suggest that the flawed thinking is still there. We care so very much about children's books, and the work we do. In that care, we are often blind to what we say and how we say it. Maybe it is the flow of a new project that inadvertently blinded you to the way your words in that post read? Indeed, there are likely things I've said in this letter that are similarly blind and I hope that people will note them in comments.

All that said, I look forward to your book but hope that it is a bit more... reflective of your own privilege than your blog post about the book is.

Debbie

__________

Perry Nodelman's (Nodelman is amongst the key scholars in children's literature) comment, submitted on Dec 5, 2015 at 1:21 PM:

You raise important concerns here, Debby--ones that are constantly on my mind these days as I continue to think about and write about children's literature. I recently became painfully aware of my own unconscious expression of white privilege as I looked through old articles I was considering uploading to Academia.edu, and came upon one on Scott O'Dell's Sing Down the Moon which was published in Horn Book in 1984. It's full of praise for a novel about the “Long Walk” of 1863, in which American soldiers forced the entire Navajo nation to relocate after destroying their villages and crops. Among other things, I say in this essay that I admire O'Dell's choice of not providing his young Navaho narrator with a name for much of the book--a choice which I saw in 1984 as universalizing her and making her a sympathetic and believable character, and which I now see as a commentary on the deprivation of her personhood that in fact confirms and reinforces that deprivation. I also celebrate O'Dell's depiction of the Navajo stoicism and refusal to express anger at what is happening to them--another confirmation of a hoary stereotype.

Worst of all, it become apparent to me as I read through this old essay that I simply took it as an absolute truth that no one who was Navajo or even remotely like a Navajo would ever be part of the audience of the book: "Sing Down the Moon is about people unlike ourselves," I conclude, clearly and unconsciously assuming that all the readers of this book would all be white like me. I am wrestling now with whether or not I should upload this essay as evidence of how ignorant I was and much I've learned about these matters in the last three decades--much of it from you, Debby. Uploading it would have to potential to be very embarrassing; not doing so would misrepresent who I once was. I’m tending to choose to upload it.

At any rate, I find these issues of unconscious racism--my own and that of other white people, especially other white men--deeply troubling. I don't want to have to remain silent about the racism that I find so troublesome, but I'm also aware of the troubling aspects of my choosing to speak about what so troubles me. My own solution to this dilemma is to forefront in anything I write about these topics my awareness of the potentially poisonous aspects of my speaking about them—to acknowledge my white male privilege and to attempt to become aware of how it might be distorting how I see things and read texts before and during and after my readings of those texts. I want to acknowledge and accept the possibility that I might yet once more be seriously embarrassing myself, in the faith that even if I do, my doing so will help to further a cause I profoundly believe in by confirming the blindness of my privilege. And I would hope that any discussion of these matters by other white men like me would be equally aware of and forthright about the minefield they enter in writing about race, equally open to exploring the possibility of their blindnesses, and equally unwilling to assume a kind of authority that unconsciously replicates the very kinds of unconscious repression they want to argue against.

_________

Philip Nel's response, submitted on December 7, 2015 at 3:35 PM:

Dear Debbie,

Thanks for your critique of my unpublished manuscript. Here are some responses to your queries.

Yes, I cite We Need Diverse Books in the manuscript, and in the conclusion (a manifesto for anti-racist children’s literature) recommend WNDB as a resource. My hope is that citing WNDB several times in the manuscript, and in the title, will draw attention to the excellent work they do. I did not know that the phrase is copyrighted. Prompted by your query, I have sought their permission to use it in the subtitle and, if they prefer it not be in the subtitle, will remove it. (The original subtitle was "Structures of Racism in Children's Literature." I changed that after being told that it was too academic. I thought the current subtitle more clearly expressed the idea to a general audience.)

As is the case in all of my scholarship, this book builds on a lot of research, all of which I cite. I’ve learned from books, scholarly articles, blog posts, tweets, journalism, conference papers, and more. There are children's literature scholars, critical race theorists, children's & YA literature authors, theorists of affect, among many others. Then, in the Acknowledgments, I name people who have been especially helpful. But I haven't finished compiling the Acknowledgments yet, and I didn't want to publish an incomplete Acknowledgments on the blog — so, that's why I left that part of the blog post deliberately vague.

Michelle Alexander's work is amazing. The New Jim Crow should be required reading for every citizen. Even approaching her level of brilliance would be a tall order. So, if the blog post implied that I'm in her league as a writer or scholar, that's not my intent. I aspire to her level of work, which — to be frank — is how I approach all book projects. I want to write something better than I'm capable of, and so I look to other, better scholars as my role models. There are several such models for Was the Cat in the Hat Black? Alexander's The New Jim Crow is one. Robin Bernstein's Racial Innocence is another.

I do address my Whiteness in the book, yes. Indeed, I've been deeply concerned about how my subject position (straight White male) may impair my thinking about racism. I wrote a little about that here: http://www.philnel.com/2015/04/04/painofracism/

In conclusion, I think that the book will address your concerns. I’d be glad to send you a copy when it comes out.

Thanks for writing.

Best regards,

Phil

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

In this blog post you seem to identify as a person of color:

Did you realize what that would feel like to people of color? Did you imagine any of us, reading those words, as you wrote them? Did you imagine us as your audience?

Yet one of the headings on your homepage states "We are not POC."

Which is it?

Debbie Reese said...

Did you read the "We are not POC" page?

Please do. Your question prompted me to add an update to that page.

Perry Nodelman said...

You raise important concerns here, Debby--ones that are constantly on my mind these days as I continue to think about and write about children's literature. I recently became painfully aware of my own unconscious expression of white privilege as I looked through old articles I was considering uploading to Academia.edu, and came upon one on Scott O'Dell's Sing Down the Moon which was published in Horn Book in 1984. It's full of praise for a novel about the “Long Walk” of 1863, in which American soldiers forced the entire Navajo nation to relocate after destroying their villages and crops. Among other things, I say in this essay that I admire O'Dell's choice of not providing his young Navaho narrator with a name for much of the book--a choice which I saw in 1984 as universalizing her and making her a sympathetic and believable character, and which I now see as a commentary on the deprivation of her personhood that in fact confirms and reinforces that deprivation. I also celebrate O'Dell's depiction of the Navajo stoicism and refusal to express anger at what is happening to them--another confirmation of a hoary stereotype.
Worst of all, it become apparent to me as I read through this old essay that I simply took it as an absolute truth that no one who was Navajo or even remotely like a Navajo would ever be part of the audience of the book: "Sing Down the Moon is about people unlike ourselves," I conclude, clearly and unconsciously assuming that all the readers of this book would all be white like me. I am wrestling now with whether or not I should upload this essay as evidence of how ignorant I was and much I've learned about these matters in the last three decades--much of it from you, Debby. Uploading it would have to potential to be very embarrassing; not doing so would misrepresent who I once was. I’m tending to choose to upload it.
At any rate, I find these issues of unconscious racism--my own and that of other white people, especially other white men--deeply troubling. I don't want to have to remain silent about the racism that I find so troublesome, but I'm also aware of the troubling aspects of my choosing to speak about what so troubles me. My own solution to this dilemma is to forefront in anything I write about these topics my awareness of the potentially poisonous aspects of my speaking about them—to acknowledge my white male privilege and to attempt to become aware of how it might be distorting how I see things and read texts before and during and after my readings of those texts. I want to acknowledge and accept the possibility that I might yet once more be seriously embarrassing myself, in the faith that even if I do, my doing so will help to further a cause I profoundly believe in by confirming the blindness of my privilege. And I would hope that any discussion of these matters by other white men like me would be equally aware of and forthright about the minefield they enter in writing about race, equally open to exploring the possibility of their blindnesses, and equally unwilling to assume a kind of authority that unconsciously replicates the very kinds of unconscious repression they want to argue against.

Anonymous said...

It's all very well to acknowledge our white privilege, but it's far more important to point to all the people, like Debbie, who have written on these issues for decades. We need to not just point to them but centre what they have to say, NOT what we whites have to say.

Justine Larbalestier

Debbie Reese said...

Perry,

I think it was in the late 1990s when you and I met in person. By then we knew of each other by way of our participation in conversations on child_lit. Time blurs specifics but if I remember correctly, your visit to the campus of the University of Illinois (at the invitation of Betsy Hearne, I think), where you saw first hand the many ways that UIUC's racist mascot manifested itself, impacted your thinking. Time and again I wrote about the context for my work in children's literature -- pointing to UIUC's mascot.

I admired you then--and taught your Pleasures of Children's Literature--when I taught children's literature. And I admired your later writings, where you revisited some of your earlier writings. I could look some of this up to confirm, but I think it is in HOME that you wrote about revisiting a children's book about a First Nations story about masks.

I haven't read the one you reference above, the one about O'Dell's book and the questions you have about it now. There's powerful learning in what you disclose--learning that I hope others will model, me included. We grow, as scholars. We revisit, rethink, and are better when we are able to do that.

I certainly don't want to be accused of silencing you--or Phil, either. There are people out there who are critical of me for saying anything at all about books like A Fine Dessert. That whole "stay in your lane" line of thinking is a sure way to stop growth and understanding. We have so much work to do that will require all of us pushing as hard as we can in as many ways as we can.

Justine,

Thank you for your comment, too! For those who don't know, Justine's novel, Liar was--if I recall correctly (again wondering about my memory)--at the heart of very terse discussions about whitewashed covers. In his post, Phil said his book is also going to look at whitewashed covers. I wonder if your writings about it will be cited in his book?

Everyone,

Perry and Justine are on Twitter. I interact with them there. Some months ago, Perry and I were sharing illustrations of various editions of Peter Pan. I read Justine's blog and hope others will, too. We are a large community of people, with ever-growing intersections across disciplines and writing, too. Twenty years ago, I don't think I'd ever imagine that I'd have in-depth conversations with writers like Justine. As such, I'm a huge user of social media and think it can do so much for all of us and the community of readers we are, and the one we work for: children. Take a look at Justine's blog post on October 20. Titled "On Writing POC When You Are White," you can find it here: http://justinelarbalestier.com/blog/2015/10/20/on-writing-poc-when-you-are-white/.

--Debbie


Anonymous said...

Interesting comments. Like Debbie, I have not yet had the opportunity to read this book, which makes it difficult for me to express an opinion. While I understand the concern about a white male writing this book, I'm conflicted.

Do we want voices of Native Peoples and other oppressed groups to be heard? Certainly. Is it helpful to criticize white persons of good will who attempt to illuminate the subject by writing or speaking about these issues? Perhaps not. It appears that the white people of good will who are concerned about racism in children's literature are allies in seeking to educate about the deficiencies and problems in children's literature.

If there is a work by an indigenous person or other member of an oppressed group on the subject which covers the same concerns in the same depth and as competently (and there well may be), then certainly it should be selected over the work of the white male. It comes directly from the source without being filtered through a white and/or male voice.

But, I worry about discouraging white people from being involved in the discussion. It is necessary for white people to change their hearts and minds and institutions in order to create change. Dismissing good faith efforts because of flaws may not help to accomplish this.

And he didn't say he was equal to Michelle Alexander. He said the book was an attempt to tackle the world of children's literature in a similar way.

Philip Nel said...

Dear Debbie,

Thanks for your critique of my unpublished manuscript. Here are some responses to your queries.

Yes, I cite We Need Diverse Books in the manuscript, and in the conclusion (a manifesto for anti-racist children’s literature) recommend WNDB as a resource. My hope is that citing WNDB several times in the manuscript, and in the title, will draw attention to the excellent work they do. I did not know that the phrase is copyrighted. Prompted by your query, I have sought their permission to use it in the subtitle and, if they prefer it not be in the subtitle, will remove it. (The original subtitle was "Structures of Racism in Children's Literature." I changed that after being told that it was too academic. I thought the current subtitle more clearly expressed the idea to a general audience.)

As is the case in all of my scholarship, this book builds on a lot of research, all of which I cite. I’ve learned from books, scholarly articles, blog posts, tweets, journalism, conference papers, and more. There are children's literature scholars, critical race theorists, children's & YA literature authors, theorists of affect, among many others. Then, in the Acknowledgments, I name people who have been especially helpful. But I haven't finished compiling the Acknowledgments yet, and I didn't want to publish an incomplete Acknowledgments on the blog — so, that's why I left that part of the blog post deliberately vague.

Michelle Alexander's work is amazing. The New Jim Crow should be required reading for every citizen. Even approaching her level of brilliance would be a tall order. So, if the blog post implied that I'm in her league as a writer or scholar, that's not my intent. I aspire to her level of work, which — to be frank — is how I approach all book projects. I want to write something better than I'm capable of, and so I look to other, better scholars as my role models. There are several such models for Was the Cat in the Hat Black? Alexander's The New Jim Crow is one. Robin Bernstein's Racial Innocence is another.

I do address my Whiteness in the book, yes. Indeed, I've been deeply concerned about how my subject position (straight White male) may impair my thinking about racism. I wrote a little about that here: http://www.philnel.com/2015/04/04/painofracism/

In conclusion, I think that the book will address your concerns. I’d be glad to send you a copy when it comes out.

Thanks for writing.

Best regards,



Phil

Stacy Whitman said...

Argh. Must have hit publish while trying to edit, sorry. Tried to add: given that a million tweets about it used the phrase. However, that's just noting a small detail that I thought you'd want to be aware of, not to take away from the rest of your message.