White Privilege and Diversity
by Rita Goldner
During my recent weekend in Los Angeles for the LA Times Festival of Books, I had the opportunity to meet and talk at length with Valerie Foster, one of the eight other authors with whom I shared expenses for the booth. Valerie wrote a book of conversations with Holocaust survivor Helen Handler, titled The Risk of Sorrow. (I’ve since purchased it, and it just arrived in today’s mail. I’m eagerly anticipating jumping in.) Valerie and I share the same ethnic background, i.e. Irish Catholic women, living in the suburbs and experiencing “white privilege.” I was intrigued, therefore, when she explained that her approach to the Holocaust was from her position while meeting and establishing a relationship with Helen Handler. Valerie told me that she initially felt she would have nothing in common with Ms. Handler, but they developed a warm friendship and realized that they had everything in common, through their shared humanity. The book, I was told, in contrast to many Holocaust stories, would have a special impact and importance for non-Jewish people.
Our conversation was particularly relevant for me because I coincidently happen to be illustrating a picture book for another author, an award winner who has a unique perspective on the grandeur of diversity. I had talked to him that same weekend about his young protagonist, a white girl who starts with a narrow focus, oblivious to the differences in people, and gradually awakens to the beauty of the full spectrum. I’ll elaborate about this new project in future posts, but for today, my interest was piqued by the separate discussions with Valerie and with my author/collaborator. The common thread is that both books have a viewpoint of white privilege.
In researching white privilege, especially as it pertains to children’s literature, I learned that many professionals today think that since skin color is just a product of happenstance; books about diversity and/or containing diverse characters should come from all authors, not just members of the marginalized groups.
The need for these stories is crucial. More than 50 percent of U.S. children younger than 5 are children of color. But the number of kids’ books published in 2015 featuring people of color was only 14 percent. These statistics come from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin.
There is now only one major publisher in the U.S. specializing in multicultural books, Lee and Low Books. Jason Low, who runs the company, says:
The publishing industry is not keeping pace with what the world really looks like and how it’s changing demographically. I think the last year has shown us what can happen when someone in a leadership role dismisses large cross-sections of Americans based on ethnicity, gender, and religious beliefs. I believe that if Donald Trump [had] read diverse books while growing up, he would not be the same person he is today.
My curiosity to research the occurrence of white authors writing diversity stories was fueled by my aforementioned discussions this past weekend. I learned that some have “white guilt” from observing racism historically and presently, even if they haven’t been personally involved. They may shy away from diversity in their writing because they’ve been told that the stories are best written by authors from marginalized groups. I’m hoping that in my new project, the story of the awakening of a member of the white bread segment of society is just as deserving of telling.
Judith Katz, who wrote White Awareness: Handbook for Anti-Racism Training, is concerned that white guilt diverts the spotlight from the important issues of racism onto unproductive apologies and defense mechanisms. She stresses that recognizing your privilege isn’t an indictment, and it shouldn’t carry blame. The point is that benefits exist without the recipient having asked for them.
The recipe for changing the status quo and actually making a difference starts with awareness of our differences – and the humanity that binds us together.
My takeaway from all of my online reading is that authors of children’s books are in a powerful position to effect change. It starts with providing young readers from undervalued groups of society an opportunity to identify with our characters and situations, and an opportunity for readers from advantaged groups to learn about equality,
Diverse books are for all kids, not just children of color.
Rita Goldner is the author and illustrator of the children’s picture book, Orangutan: A Day in the Rainforest Canopy. Rita has also written and illustrated two eBooks, Jackson’s History Adventure and Jackson’s Aviation Adventure, in the Jackson’s Adventure series. For orangutan facts and images and to purchase the book (also available as an ebook), visit OrangutanDay.com. Or by the Kindle version here. Rita’s newest book, Making Marks on the World: A Storybook for Left- and Right-Handed Coloring, is available for purchase here. To view additional illustrations and other books in progress, visit Rita’s website. Contact Rita here. Follow Rita on Facebook.