What I say about a children’s book when all the characters are White
Among our children’s books, we have a dozen or so of my childhood favorites that my mom saved. One such classic is “Too Many Mittens” by Florence and Louis Slobodkin, published in 1958. This story is about twin boys who live in a small town in Michigan in the 1950’s. Every character in the book is White.
When I first introduced this book to my daughter, I would comment now and again: “It’s interesting that all the people in this book have pale skin that we call White. This doesn’t look like where we live, in Brooklyn, where there are people with all different shades of skin.”
This comment was my attempt at “seeing” Whiteness and at challenging White as the norm. At first, my daughter didn’t say anything in response…but a couple of months ago, at two-and-a-half, she started asking about the pink circles on the characters’ cheeks.
“Why pink?” she asked.
“Well,” I explained, “when it gets really cold out, your cheeks can become pink. And the paler a person’s skin color is, the brighter the color pink looks. So it’s really easy to see on White people’s cheeks.”
“My cheeks pink?” she asked in response.
“Not right now,” I explained. “But if we are outside for a long time and it’s really cold out, they would get a little pink.”
“One day…” my daughter declared, reassuring herself about the promise of the future.
“When you were born, your cheeks were very pink!” I added and my daughter immediately found our photo album and a picture of her newborn pink cheeks.
“Why?” she asked, pointing to her cheeks.
“Because when babies are born, you can see all the blood circulating through their bodies—and the blood can make their skin look pink.”
“When I was a baby… pink cheeks,” she confirmed.
“Yes,” I agreed.
The scholar Tim Wise writes:
“The virtual invisibility that whiteness affords those of us who have it is like psychological money in the bank, the proceeds of which we cash in every day while others are in a state of perpetual overdraft. Yet, it’s not enough to see these things, or think about them, or come to appreciate what whiteness means. Though important, this kind of enlightenment is no end in itself. Rather, it is what we do with the knowledge and understanding that matters. If we recognize our privileges yet fail to challenge them, what good is our insight? If we intuit discrimination yet fail to speak against it, what have we done to rectify the injustice?”
I choose to see Whiteness and help my daughter see Whiteness—so that she does not think of Whiteness as the neutral, invisible norm. This is a first step in challenging White privilege.
For more information on White invisibility, please visit The Critical Media Project.
Sachi Feris is a blogger at Raising Race Conscious Children, an online a resource to support adults who are trying to talk about race with young children. Sachi also co-facilitates interactive workshops/webinars and small group workshop series on how to talk about race with young children. Sachi currently teaches Spanish to Kindergarten and 1st grade at an independent school in Brooklyn.