Transparency about the lack of racial diversity in children’s books
I am a White educator of third grade students in Brookline, Massachusetts. I teach in public school within a very wealthy and somewhat diverse population. Our minority enrollment is 41% (mostly Asian, and only 3% Black). I am also the mother to a one-year-old boy.
This summer, three other colleagues and I participated in Raising Race Conscious Children’s interactive webinar. This experience inspired us to begin to talk explicitly about race in our classrooms. Our first goal is that we would name race in our read alouds at least once a week.
On the first day of school, I read Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems to my class.
“My goal this year is to be more open about naming skin color and differences that people have because I want to make sure that you have the vocabulary in which to talk about these difficult topics,” I shared.
I noticed that they eyes of my students of color lit up, but they also looked skeptical. My White students looked accepting of this pronouncement.
I closed the read aloud with a question: “Have you ever noticed whether the books you read have a lot of characters of color (or not)?”
It was interesting to hear my White students say that they think that books do a good job of representing diverse characters. My students of color at this time did not say anything. I did not add to the conversation and I ended the conversation at this point.
Before Columbus Day, or I would rather call it Indigenous People’s Day, I read Encounter by Jane Yolen to my class. I asked my class about what they knew about Columbus. They responded with what you would expect students to know about Columbus; he was the person who founded America and he proved the world was round, etc.
Then I asked them, “What do you know about the Taino?”
One student knew that they were the native people who Columbus met. I then told the class, “This book is written from the point of view of the Taino. Do you remember on the first day of school when I asked you if the books you read have a lot of characters of color? I want to ask you the same question again.”
My class needed some clarification and I asked them if they thought the books they read have people who look like them in it. My students of color emphatically said, “No.”
A student who is Taiwanese shared, “I never see a book that has characters that represent me.”
Another student who is White and Chinese agreed, “I have never seen a character like me.”
My White students shared, “Yes, we always see characters that represent us.”
It was eye opening to my students. My White students seemed surprised by what my students of color were sharing. I then wrapped up our conversation saying that history and books often overlook certain groups of people and that this year we will be learning about many points of view.
I have noticed that, as a result of this initial conversation, my class is having many more observations and conversations about skin color this year. As a next step, we will be meeting with our kindergarten partners to have conversations about race and skin color across grade levels. We will be using literature to help facilitate these conversations. Stay tuned!
Sarah Halter Hahesy is a long time educator who is committed to having honest and frank conversations in the classroom. Sarah is mom to a one-year old child.