How Do We Read Books Embedded With Racism?

Jan 31, 2016

Last week, a conversation on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday, about reading books with difficult material surrounding race and gender to your children, sparked a lot of criticism.

NPR's Rachel Martin spoke with editor Jeremy Adam Smith about the controversy over A Birthday Cake For George Washington, a children's book that portrays a slave chef and his daughter preparing the desert for the president.

He's the author of a piece called "How To Really Read Racist Books To Your Kids."

The conversation prompted many people to respond to the article in multiple places online, so we're revisiting the piece and incorporating some of your comments.

This week, we speak with Andrew Grant Thomas, a father of two who's the founder of EmbraceRace, an online discussion community for parenting.

Here's What Some Of You Said

Commenter Kathleen Jimenez wrote:

"Rachel,

With all due respect to your good work, your white privilege was showing this morning. No parent of color has the privilege of flipping past the pages about racism when reading to their children. Yes, even to a three year old. You passed up an opportunity to give your little one a lesson in compassion and empathy. Racism is not grown up material; it's life material. Your son chose the book, as a parent you can walk through it with him. From all your reporting at NPR it is evident you are a brave reporter. Hope you'll be an even braver mom..."

The website "Teaching For Change" wrote, in part (you can read their entire critique at the link):

"The statement that racist children's books allows families the opportunity to dialogue about racism assumes that the audience is white. After all, what parent of color or Native American parent has the luxury of choice to wait for a children's book to talk about race and racism with their children?"

"Teaching For Change" also noted a piece by NPR's Eyder Peralta on the same topic, but called it "an excellent segment."

Commenter Jhonna Amelia Turner wrote:

Huh. This discussion is clearly a representation of white privilege and the realities of many in-the-kitchen, liberal dinner party discussions about race, without a single person of color in the room. It's just that this time it was broadcasted. Reading about race, discussing it among friends, and feeling "ambushed by...racial imagery" does not equate to empathy. To understand the damage and seriousness of introducing books of racial misrepresentation, you have to know that the effect could be horrific and extremely tragic — especially at such a young age. For instance, my six-year old niece (who's black) for years wanted all her dolls to white. But not white just, blond hair with blue eyes ... white. The reason being was that my six-year old niece didn't understand that she was beautiful and amazing. She rejected any dolls that looked like her. In attempt to remedy this problem, I went straight to many bookstores to only find...nothing. Nothing that had to do with positive images of little girls of color (and color, I mean any other color besides white). Tragic, right.

This conversation is from two people who would probably consider themselves to be racially in tuned, but from reading/hearing, there are clear gaps of racial empathy. My question or thought is, how do you encourage others (clearly they're talking about white people, right?) to have this conversation with their children about race in books, if they are not equipped to do so? It's like having a loaded gun with an awful aim. The damage could be worse.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Last week on the show, we had a difficult conversation about reading books with tough material surrounding race and gender to your kids. We had been talking about the controversy surrounding a book called "A Birthday Cake For George Washington," a children's book that had been pulled from shelves by the publisher because it was seen as sanitizing slavery. And the conversation we had with writer Jeremy Adam Smith was an outgrowth of that topic. How do you handle material that your kids read that doesn't portray race or gender in the context you'd like? How young is too young? We got a lot of criticism for the segment. And it's clear it's a topic many of you wanted us to revisit. And we did that with Andrew Grant-Thomas. He's the founder of a parenting website called EmbraceRace and also the dad of two little girls. He told us that what's really important when it comes to conversations about race is that you take the long view.

ANDREW GRANT-THOMAS: It seems to me what's most important is to have a routine conversation - right? - not to have every possible instance of engagement on these issues be so fraught, so freighted, that, you know, it seems like a disaster or a phenomenal triumph to get it right or get it wrong.

MARTIN: A group called Teaching For Change is a nonprofit that aims to teach social justice in the classroom. They were very upset by our segment, and I'll quote from one of their letters. "While critical literacy is an important skill, parents do not need to purchase a racist children's book for a teaching opportunity. Racism exists all around us every day. Parents can and do have conversations with children about who's featured and who is missing or misrepresented in TV commercials, the Oscars, children's cartoons, toy stores, cereal boxes, the U.S. Senate and much more. In fact, it's hard to find a place that does not provide parents and children the opportunity to examine stereotyping and visibility and unfairness."

And I should say, for the sake of accuracy, that's not what we said or what we were suggesting in our segment. Obviously, no one should purchase a racist book. We're talking about books that older generations had grown up with and were perhaps revisiting with their kids.

GRANT-THOMAS: That's right. So Teaching For Change is a wonderful organization doing super-important work. And any criticism that they make in this space should be taken very seriously. And I think it's fantastic that you're doing that. I agree with Teaching For Change - and I'm sure Jeremy would, too - that there are lots of opportunities to talk about race, racial injustice and all the forms of injustice, without starting with the most difficult examples, right? So if you are teaching your 3-year-old or 4-year-old to swim, you wouldn't throw her into the deep end of the pool, right? If you're teaching her to ski, you wouldn't take her to, you know, the top of the expert slope. If you're teaching about anti-Semitism - right? - you probably wouldn't draw on a picture book that showed gas chambers, right? Now, again, as you say, it's not that we're doing this. But the point is - it's not that Jeremy Adam Smith is suggesting we do this. There are lots of books, like "Tintin," you know, like "Little House In The Big Woods," that you know, have a lot of meaning for parents. And parents want to share that experience, you know, that book that brought them joy when they were children, with their own children. But it does raise - I think Teaching For Change does raise this really important issue about, how do you pick your spots? Where do we draw the line between what's an appropriate teaching tool for a 3 or 4 or 5-year-old child and what's not? You know, as I said before, I mean, a lot of parents I think overestimate their children's sophistication. They overestimate perhaps their own interpretive skills. If you find yourself in sort of over your head, at least in the moment, I think it's OK to let that opportunity go.

MARTIN: So is there practical advice you can give? I mean, you spend a lot of time thinking about how to empower parents, how to make them brave with concrete steps, especially when it comes to this very sacred ritual, parent taking time and bonding with your child over literature and books.

GRANT-THOMAS: My basic approach - and really, this may sound like a dodge. It's not. I actually think it's the appropriate way to go - you know, is really not to decide for someone else - right? - what the appropriate course is in their case. One thing that I know Teaching For Change, one concern they had about what Jeremy Adam Smith had to say is he didn't acknowledge - and here, I certainly agree. And again, I imagine Jeremy would, too. He didn't acknowledge that different families, different kids, bring different stakes to reading about race and ethnicity - right? - or reading about racial discrimination, reading about our racial past. And what that means is that the conversation has to be different. The risk of reward of, you know, engaging your child is different depending on the racial identity of the child. You know, the African-American child who opens "A Birthday Cake For George Washington," is differently situated than the white child who does that because one is more likely to identify with the slave or slaves in the book and the other with the slave owners in the book - the slaveholders in the book. So, you know, our approach with EmbraceRace is let's give people a space to wrap their minds around their own experience with race. And let's give them a chance to talk about that. Let's inform that with, you know, all the resources, all the information, all the expertise that we can muster that are relevant to that. You know, that makes a big difference.

MARTIN: Andrew Grant-Thomas is the founder of the parenting website EmbraceRace. Thank you so much for talking with us about this, Andrew.

GRANT-THOMAS: Rachel, I really appreciate the opportunity. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.