Children’s literature produced in the Americas is mainly racist, gendered, and complicit with white settler colonialism and its imaginaries
I became a mother 7 years ago in Seattle, Washington. As most children now born in the United States, my daughter is not white. She has a Black Jamaican father whose parents immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s, and she has me as her mother –a first generation immigrant from Honduras who is of Indigenous and Chinese heritage, with Spanish being the language I speak at home, and English being my (and my daughter’s) second language.
As a lover of literature (I actually have a PhD in the field), I started looking for children’s books to read to my daughter the second I found out I was pregnant. My experience at the children’s book section of any of the libraries I visited, however (and I visited many), was one of guaranteed frustration. Every single time I stood in those isles attempting to choose the books I would take home, I had difficulties finding books that: 1) did not center white children and their lived experiences; 2) centered children of color and their lived experiences; 3) did not promote stereotypical gender roles; 4) broke away from Eurocentric imaginaries allowing for ways of knowing and existing in our world outside of Eurocentrism; 5) empowered children of color, and; 6) moved away from shallow celebrations of diversity, and instead, interrupted white supremacy –the governing social, economic, and political system in which we exist whether we are aware of it, or not; whether we agree with it, or not.
Without exception, as I stood there looking at the book options to read with my daughter, the following thoughts would run through my mind: “Ok, not this one. Way white.” / “Definitely not this one. Yet another white, “innocent,” good-natured princess main character, absolving the system of European royalties from colonialism, mass genocide of Indigenous peoples, slavery, classism, problematical gender-roles. So, no.”/ “Oh heck no! This one reduces brown culture to nothing more than a piñata party on a 5 de mayo attended by happy people who eat tacos, and the tacos don’t even look like real tacos!” / “Oh dear, no. More princess main characters.” / “Oh good! Finally, a brown girl as main character! But wait, she’s in a kitchen. We’ll have to pass.” / “Oh my. This one has whiteness all over: white main character little boy (or girl) has a best friend who is Black (or Brown) and white character learns about the best friend’s culture by taking a trip with them to some far away exotic land filled with palm trees and coconuts (or tipis) –I’ll skip as well thank you, for emphasizing that children of color are not from the U.S. but from some far away land!” And so on, and so on.
Of course, I did end up taking books home every time; mostly books with animal characters, science books, and some number books. The entire public library experience, however, was unsatisfying and deep down, infuriating. I knew, as a scholar of U.S. Ethnic Studies and race, that children’s literature is just another space for racism, white settler colonialism, and heteronormative patriarchy to express and reproduce itself, and well.
And if the English book options were limited for us, children’s books in Spanish were even harder to find. Equally problematic for all of the above reasons, but with even less options, reading to my daughter worth-while books in the language we speak at home has become an odyssey that involves me having to purchase and fly books from some small Press far, far away. Or it involves me using my library privileges as a university professor in order to get our hands on books that empower her –a young Afro-Central American Indigenous girl with Chinese heritage, born in the U.S.– in all the right ways.
Fed up of my library experiences as a mother, I started writing the books I wanted my daughter to read. These are books that educate, motivate, and empower her through engaging examinations of children’s real lived experiences in the Americas. These books dismantle white-supremacist imaginaries. Writing these books has since become the most important thing I can ever do with whatever time I have left on this planet. No other writing, in my view, can ever come close in importance. No academic publication (and I have published extensively within academia) has ever felt more imperative, or vital, than writing for my daughter and children in the Americas.
Books socialize children. What they read, or don’t read, the images they see, or don’t see, shape the way they see themselves in this world. And I want my daughter to know that her experiences, and those of her community, are valid, worthy experiences; that her life, and life itself, is of unapologetic importance; that she can consume, live, and enjoy stories freed from racialized and gendered constructs of what it is to be Black and Indigenous 520 plus years after the project of white settler colonialism began in the Americas; that she has the power to read, imagine, and create another world, or –if she so prefers–, that she is fully capable of recreating this one.
We have a long way to go. Literally thousands of library books shelves need to be restocked. Writing children’s books, for me, however, is more than the power to change the library experience for parents and their children of color. Writing children’s books is about taking the power to activate the de-colonial imaginary and the power to empower her and her peers, from early in the foundational years of their lives.
I have taught Ethnic Studies at the college level in the U.S. for over ten years: most students still don’t know their country’s history and come in to the college classroom believing in American exceptionalism
Less than a year into teaching Ethnic Studies at the college level, I came to the realization that my main job as a college educator would not be teaching, but rather undoing racist, exclusionary frameworks of thought that had, throughout my students’ k-12 experience, shaped their world-view by way of mythicized ideas of what the United States is; that my main task as professor of Ethnic Studies was going to be helping my students unlearn their conditioning into white supremacy as a dominant framework for thinking about, and existing in, this world.
The fairy tale where the United States emerges as a country “built by immigrants (and for immigrants),” a country “founded on democratic ideals,” and among the other certified fictions, the notion that “the United States took care of the problem of racism with the Civil Rights Bill in the 1960s,” is so ingrained in students by the time they get to their first year of college, that undoing these narratives becomes the main task of first semesters. Also impressed in first-year college students is their lack of knowledge about U.S. Foreign Policy in the Americas and abroad, an unawareness that heavily contributes to their belief in American exceptionalism. It is not until their first encounter with Ethnic Studies, for example, that most students become aware of the intricate connections between U.S. funded wars in Latin America, and the continued influx of refugees and immigrants from those very same regions into the United States, a pressing issue affecting the lives of millions of people on both sides of the border today.
The problem, however, is not students. As children, and later on adolescents and young adults, students have very little, if any, say in their curricular options. And as the corpus of Ethnic Studies scholarship and research has demonstrated over the last 50 years, the mandated, officialized U.S. K-12 curriculum continues to exclude, silence, and negate the very fact of racism as a governing economic, social, and epistemological structure in our society. For us to truly contest racism in our society –for racism is a systemic, structural problem–, the K-12 curriculum needs to be re-evaluated and taught through de-colonial frameworks.
There are a million examples of how white supremacy is deeply rooted in the United States’ K-12 curriculum (and all westernized spaces of learning), but I will merely point to an obvious one. Why, for example, is it that most college students come to learn about the American Holocaust –that is, the European decimation of over 100 million indigenous peoples in the Americas from 1492 to 1592- until they get to an Ethnic Studies classroom in college? And that is if in case these students actually choose Ethnic Studies as an elective because the field is still not a requirement in U.S. universities, albeit the few exceptions. Why does the examination of colonization and its consequences in the Americas –heteropatriarchy, racism, land-tenure systems, capitalism– continue being an elective, in college, and not a field that is incorporated into the required curriculum, or within the curriculum, earlier on? Why do the majority of college students come to learn, for the first time in their lives, that race is an absolute invention, a lie, that it is nothing more than a concept created by straight white males 528 years ago to help themselves dominate over entire world-wide populations, until they (hopefully) take an Ethnic Studies course in college?
The answer, we know, is white supremacy’s invisible yet systemic ways of operating within even the most “humanistic” of institutions, education.
The concept of race, and the long-enduring supremacy of whiteness, are foundational conversations we mustn’t be afraid of engaging children in. “Well, don’t you think 5-year-olds are too young to talk about race?” is a question my white college students often ask at the beginning of each semester. To which I always respond with a question, “Well, how does it make you feel to learn all this until now, in college?” And I go on to remind them that Black parents always have to have this conversation with their children, Indigenous children live it, and most immigrant, refugee children today know it. To occupy this world unknowing of how race is a foundational, commanding structure of life, is a privilege afforded only to white children and their parents. Children of color cannot go about their daily life unknowing of this fact. Despite race being a social construct, the very real consequences of the concept of race are felt by children of color, both physically and mentally, on a daily basis.
The above question always yields productive –though often painful– reflection for white students who realize they feel “cheated” for not having known about the deep impacts of white settler colonialism and race much earlier. They feel “lied to.” They also feel “shame,” or “guilt” –feelings that any one of us Ethnic Studies educators will always urge our students to transform and channel into productive and active reflection about their own whiteness (and its history), in hopes that this reflection moves them towards adopting anti-racism as a way of life. “Shame” and “guilt,” after all, are a positive start to the process, because students are now at least one step above historical amnesia and its accompanying indifference. Shame and guilt should always only be a gateway towards transformative change. As for students of color, openly having these conversations in college, validates their presence not only within the confines of the United States, but within the very exclusionary and racialized space of the university –a place we know was not designed for them. White by design, universities continue to reduce the experience of people of color to the minimal space of an optional elective. Nonetheless, it is in those spaces where students of color are feeling that their experience and history, gets seen for the first time.
White student resentment for having been lied to throughout their elementary and high-school curriculum, and the feeling of invisibility students of color experience throughout the same time, could be avoided. Indeed, Ethnic Studies provides solutions for this. We have, however, a long way to go getting Ethnic Studies to become a requirement in U.S. public schools (and universities). Teaching material, textbooks, and literature, too, although existent, are still heavily lacking –as my experience in libraries shows. We must continue producing these.
I have seen how college students’ approaches to present day issues shift dramatically when they are able to examine these from the perspective of the enduring omissions and silences of the officialized origin story of the United States. That story does not begin in 1776, as the consensual foundational narrative of the U.S. goes, but rather in 1492; in the very act of genocide, enslavement, long-enduring U.S. family separations, land theft and white settler occupation of the Americas. Knowing and being aware of these negated histories and experiences, only better prepares us for solving present-day problems. Say for example, issues in immigration, health gaps, the law, borders, land-tenure, environment emergencies, wealth disparities in society, the educational system, and so on. Upon learning and examining the United States’ historical omissions, students’ questions are different, and so are their thought processes and tools for getting to the solutions.
Thus, my time in the Ethnic Studies college classroom has urged me to focus my writing energies on creating children’s books that do not negate, brush off, or invalidate race and white settler colonialism. My time in the Ethnic Studies college classroom has urged me to create children’s books that smash white supremacy, educate all children, expose real-lived experiences, and empower children of color.
Simply put, the fairy tales that children continue to have to read in their foundational years of schooling in the U.S., must be once and for all, with our pen-dust, crushed and forever vanished.
There are more children’s books featuring animals, than there are books with children of color in them (in 2020)
Latest research on children’s books shows that there are more children’s books featuring animals, than there are books with children of color in them. This comes as no surprise to us parents of color visitors of libraries. Equally problematic, as noted before, is the manner in which children of color are represented when they actually do appear. And yes, you guessed right, white people are still writing a large number of the books where children of color are included or (mis)represented. And representation, as we all know, is always about power. Who gets to represent? Who gets represented, written, and spoken about? What experiences get omitted in these representations, and who and what gets to occupy the space of that omission?
When a native child, for example, mostly reads books centering the experiences of straight white people (the norm in children’s literature), the message is clear: white people are more important than I am; my experiences are not worthy enough; I am not valuable enough to appear in a book, or to write one. For any white child visiting any public library, the message is also clear: I am the center of the universe; everything revolves around me and my experiences; I am clearly important.
Native children and their experiences, are par-excellence, the quintessential historical targets of the practice of white omission and white misrepresentation in children’s literature. Omitting them from print renders them inexistent –dead in the eyes of white and non-indigenous children of color– as if genocide had never ended. Writing Native children through the stereotypes of white supremacy, renders Native children governable, incapable of telling their own stories, absolutely powerless and voiceless.
The research from the last two decades shows that white supremacy, as a sense, and as a lens through which we view our world, appears to develop in children as early as preschool. None of us are exempt from it. Both white children and children of color in the United States –and everywhere in the world where white settler colonialism and Eurocentrism established roots– are conditioned into white supremacy from very early on in our lives.
Until we can normalize white children understanding and openly discussing their inherited privilege with their parents and peers, until white children can have access to non-fairy-taled narratives of the lived experiences of children of color, and until children of color can see themselves represented, affirmed, and validated as valuable, worthy, powerful beings in a society that can recognize itself for what it is –a product of deeply-seated white supremacist structures– then, and only then, will we see meaningful change in our society. We can pretend to hold hands all day long if we want, and even include terms like “diversity” and “inclusion” in the mission statements of libraries, educational institutions, and even publishing houses. But real transformative change will only come when the “illusion of inclusion,” as Dr. Rudy Acuña so well terms the institutional hypocrisy surrounding the discourse on “diversity,” is accompanied by a systemic revision of the officialized material and theoretical frameworks used in the public-school system, as well as a radical shift in the existing cultures of visual and textual productions targeting children.
White people, too, need to stop writing about the experiences of children of color and instead focus on examining, or re-imagining, their own. Publishing conglomerates need also disrupt their historical exclusion of voices of color, and deliberately open up their avenues for more of our voices to become known and read. But more importantly, us writers of color need to get even more creative inventing and supporting our own publishing spaces, for our stories to be finally told.
Long past are the days where you and I had to wait for the white man to publish our stories. The technology now exists for us to publish, distribute, and support them on our own.
I know I will most likely not get to see dramatic shifts in the existing cultures of children’s literary production while on this planet. But I also know I will not die without an attempt –by way of my pen– of altering white supremacy as a norm in such world.
To smash the border one word at a time
If all my 24 years of experiencing the United States as an immigrant woman of color, examining and researching race, and teaching Ethnic Studies to mostly white privileged young adults at Liberal Arts universities have taught me one thing, it is that the actual physical border dividing the United States from its southern neighbors, is minute in comparison to the mental borders that keep us from wanting to smash it.
These borders of the mind are deadlier, for they not only allow for such a wall to exist on stolen land between people and their one opportunity at survival, these mental borders also make it impossible to imagine life without walls and the xenophobic policies, history, and economy that hold them up. These mental borders disallow us from questioning the very nature of borders –ones we know, in the case of the Americas, were built for the purposes of safe-guarding territories divided up by white settler colonialists throughout the continent. Thus, these physical walls are a reminder of our own walls. Mental borders are what keep us tied to the normalization of intersectional oppressions –as experienced by humans and MamaEarth–, blindfolded and incapable of seeing our deeply-rooted interconnectedness in this life. “In lak’ech,” remind the ancestral Mayan wisdoms; you are the other I, I am you, or; I am another you, as you are another me. Borders –both physical and mental– divide our oneness.
As things stand, children’s books, and their avenues of production and dissemination, are filled with borders. White supremacy is its guiding operating one, cutting through and impacting the very core of how children experience the world during their most formative years of life, shaping their very capacity to reimagine it.
I suppose I’d say, I write children’s books because these settled mental borders must come down. I write children’s books as a profound act of border-smashing love, one word at a time.
Smashing White Supremacy –and its Borders–
One Word at a Time: A Manifesto on Why I Write
By Dr. Siu
Photo by Dr. Siu | Her daughter and migrant refugee children play at the U.S/Mexico border, 2018
Dr. Oriel María Siu is the author of the children’s book series Rebeldita la Alegre/ Rebeldita the Fearless. From San Pedro Sula, Honduras, in 1997, Dr. Siu had to leave her homeland for Los Angeles, California. She has since dedicated herself to the creation of cultural and academic spaces for Ethic Studies, helping to establish the first Central American Studies Program at California State University, Northridge in 1999, and founding the Latina/o Studies program at the University of Puget Sound in 2012. Dr. Siu holds a Masters in Latin American Literatures from UC Berkeley, and a Doctoral Degree in Central American Cultural Productions from the University of California, Los Angeles.