Sunday Reflections: Thinking Beyond Stereotypes
Earlier this week I came across an interesting, though heartbreaking older post by Debbie Reese regarding her experience being racially profiled. If you are not familiar with Debbie Reese, she runs a blog titled American Indians in Children’s Literature where she examines the various ways that American Indians are depicted in the culture at large, but in particular in children’s literature. Her post reminded me that I wanted to write this post. So here we go.
― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
The other day I sat eating lunch with a friend when she told me a troubling story. She has a friend who is white and married to a black man. Together they have two children, one preteen and one teen. This man, although born in the U.S., was raised abroad in a Catholic boarding school in England. He speaks with a faint but charming British accent. They were recently going to visit one of the teen’s friends in the hospital and they stopped to pick up another young man to take with them. Still with me? Since it would only take a moment, the mother ran quickly into the friend’s house to pick up the young man while the rest of the family waited in the car – the rest of the family being the dad and their two boys. Soon, the police pulled up and began questioning the 3 men: Why were they there? Why were they sitting in the car? Etc.
That’s what life is like for these young men – they are always a suspect simply because of the color of their skin. Here they were sitting outside a home, anxious to go see if their friend in a tragic car accident was going to be okay, and they were suddenly having to defend themselves. A neighbor had called the police because there were some “suspicious persons” in the neighborhood. They were the suspicious someone’s. In case it isn’t clear, they were suspicious because they were not white.
My family often go places and my husband will run in while I sit a moment in the car. For me, every extra spare moment is another moment to read. No one has ever called the police on me. Perhaps in part because I am a woman, but also in part because I have the preferred color of skin. And trust me, being a woman comes with its own set of cultural challenges.
I run a teen volunteer program where we have, on average, around 60 applications on file at a time. One of my best volunteers happens to be a young man who many people would find threatening simply because of the color of his skin. What they don’t know is that he is probably going to be his class valedictorian, and last year during our Summer Reading Program he logged in over 90 volunteer hours. And yet when he walks into a store or down the street, many people will automatically assume the worst of him because the tone of his skin is dark. That makes my heart ache for him.
Last week, Cheerios made the news for a commercial they made. Actually, it wasn’t so much for the commercial, but for people’s reactions to the commercial. You see, in their commercial they presented a multi-racial family; a white mother and a black man. The comments were livid and disturbing. Here we are in 2013 still talking about race and racism.
I had dinner with a publisher recently, who shall remain unnamed, and we discussed the lack of diversity in YA lit. Said publisher recognized that it was an issue but followed up with the statement that every time they tried to publish books with more diversity, they didn’t sell. Would Twilight have been less popular if Bella or Edward, or both, had been black? Or Native American? What if Harry Potter had been Middle Eastern? Side note: It probably doesn’t help that in a lot of fiction with a main character that is not white they are inner city gangs or pregnant teenage girls, which is in itself another stereotype. Where are the Huxtables in our teen lit?
Though to a lesser degree,stereotypes are not just about race and ethnicity. Anne of Green Gables was judged because of the color of her hair. And how many dumb blond jokes have laughed at in your lifetime?
Here is a simple fact: When you see a person, you know NOTHING about them. You don’t know where they have come from. You don’t know where they are going. You don’t know how they think, feel or act. All you know is what they look like, which tells you absolutely nothing.
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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