Mirror, Mirror: a glimpse at race in children’s books
We talk a lot about gender representation in the media on this blog, so I wanted to share an article by The Mary Sue about racial representation in children’s books. Despite the growing presence of non-white and mixed race people in America, they make up only 8% of the characters in children’s books. Far from improving, it seems children’s book authors and publishers have taken two steps back from their first, sometimes awkward attempts at widening their racial and cultural perspectives back in the 80s and 90s.
This is a huge problem. Children all across America are hearing loud and clear that their stories are not worth telling, much like Grace of the Amazing Grace books felt when families like hers were nowhere to be seen in a sea of fictional nuclear families. In addition, white children are not being exposed to or encouraged to identify with anyone or anything outside of their own experience.
I grew up on Pleasant Company’s once great American Girl Dolls. These dolls and their stories allowed me to glimpse times, struggles, and people I otherwise may not have been exposed to. Yet now the company has downplayed these excellent educational tools in favor of bland modern dolls, all of which seem to be upper middle class white girls with far tamer stories than the comparatively radical books I read as a child.
Similarly, 90s childhood staple Hey Arnold featured the first fictional interracial family I remember being aware of. It was played as completely normal and never addressed as anything out of the ordinary (save for pointing out the principal’s own ignorance when he asks Phoebe where’s she’s from). It is extremely sad to me that over a decade later, families like Phoebe’s are still few and far between. It has long irked me that interracial couples and mixed race people are so rare in books, television, and movies and its something I have become more aware of in recent years.
My boyfriend of nearly five years is of mixed heritage, whereas I am a Kryptonian codex of all things pasty. Should we someday have kids, I would want them to be able to see themselves and others in their peer group as a normal and accepted part of our culture, literature, and entertainment industry, not some magical, elusive unicorn of social progress.
Yet even things that are leaps and bounds ahead of the rest fall short, like Terra Nova. Terra Nova had prominent interracial couples and more mixed race people than just about any other show I can think of. (Also, the main characters were the Shannons and the writers had a love affair with carnos, how could I say no?) Yet it became increasingly awkward as the interracial couples were always a white man with a non-white or mixed race woman, implying that any other combination is not acceptable (or at least isn’t as acceptable).
Then the adorable cheerios commercial came along and the subsequent internet freak-out made me feel deeply naive and depressed about humanity. It’s 2013, can’t a statistically likely family eat their heart healthy cereal in peace?
Books are mirrors of our world. They tell us what is normal, what is important, and what is accepted. Our insistence on whitewashing and sticking to the status quo is telling countless children that they are not important or simply do not exist. Thus, I call upon all writers and illustrators to follow the advice of the grandmother in Amazing Grace: write the stories you wish you could find.