Voices in Education

You Have an Anti-Racist Book List - Now What?

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I have many fond memories of time spent with my three youngest grandchildren. But one moment stands out as particularly memorable. It was the day I read them the book, Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation, by Duncan Tonatiuh.

Separate is Never Equal is a wonderful, uniquely illustrated picture book about the first Supreme Court school desegregation case involving the Mendez family. It tells the story of the struggle of Mexican Americans to gain the right to attend public schools.

As I started the reading, the room was quiet. But when I reached the section of the book when the darker children (who also have black hair) are told they cannot attend the local public school, my grandchildren started to make comments. “That is not cool,”, my oldest granddaughter said when the administrator told the children they could not register.

The comments kept coming: “That’s rude,” or “That’s not nice,” were just a few. When I finished the book, my grandchildren agreed the school was acting unfairly. They were happy the family won the lawsuit and pleased no more children would be barred from attending school.

What came after the book reading is even more important.

“Do you believe there are people around today who still think like the people at the school?”, I asked them. My oldest granddaughter answered immediately, “Yep!” My grandson agreed. My five-year-old granddaughter was not so sure. “No,” she said. She immediately looked as though she had said something wrong. After that, we talked more about their answers, about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and about discrimination.

For me, those conversations are easy. My grandchildren know how much I love picture books and know-how open I am to have conversations about race and discrimination. If you’ve been given a list of books about discrimination or race but are not so comfortable about discussing them, my first words of advice are to get comfortable first.

That may seem easier said than done but it does involve some simple practice and preparation. Here are some tips from my experience:

  1. Teaching about diversity, cultural differences, and racism.
    You may have a great list of books, but If you are not prepared to talk about racism, don’t read books about racism. Start instead with books that are more benign, ones that illustrate diversity, cultural difference, etc. and begin with conversations about those. Then gradually move into more challenging texts.
  2. Practice
    Actually practice reading and talking about the books, first on your own, and then with another adult. Discuss how you felt and get feedback on your body language, etc.
  3. Prepare to ask and answer questions about differences.
    Keep in mind that children learn at a very young age to not talk about race, so they may be hesitant to mention differences. If that’s the case, help them understand that noticing is a good thing. Also, plan the questions you will ask, think about the kinds of questions they will ask, and try to anticipate statements they will make.

When you are comfortable and ready, find ways to go beyond the reading. Here are some examples:

Provide a prelude.
Talk about the topic before the reading. Using the example of the book, Separate is Never Equal, that would mean talking about segregation and integration. Big words for young children but ones they can begin to understand. Use examples that are easy for them: “Imagine you couldn’t use the block area because your eyes are grey, and everyone believes people with grey eyes are mean.” Because everyone else can use the block area, you are separated and segregated. When we get rid of unfair rules like that example, everyone can use the block area so that it’s open – which means it can be ‘integrated’ with people of every eye color.

Create a related and age appropriate activity.
If you have the time in your schedule, do pre-work with your students to help them fully understand the terminology. For example, to help students understand segregation and integration, consider creating an activity in which students can draw or write what the words mean to them. Give them some guidance but be flexible. For example, give them the option of making a drawing about either word and be open to how they talk about the picture and what the word(s) mean to them.

Do your research.
Be prepared by doing your own research beforehand so that a) you can confidently talk about the topic, b) you become better prepared for potential questions, and c) you can pull together more resources to make the lesson rich and engaging. For example, if you’re reading a book like Separate is Never Equal, you can include other books on segregation such as The Story Of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles, illustrated by George Ford, or Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney. By introducing multiple stories, you are helping children understand how much work is required to create change in the world as well as how many different kinds of people were involved in those struggles.

Be intentional about dialogue.
Remember, this should be a conversation. As you talk about the story, the illustrations and the characters, be sure to frequently invite children to share their thoughts, questions, and ideas.

Link to contemporary issues.
Help students think and talk about inequities that still exist. Using age appropriate language and resources, have conversations with children about current events, being mindful not to introduce subjects that may be too scary or inappropriate based on ages.

Highlight resistance and help to personalize.
As you read through and discuss the story, take time to focus on positive outcomes and the strength and courage of the people who made change possible. Make a point of focusing on who resisted and how, so that children see that ordinary people can help make the world a better place. If the book you’re reading is not about a particular civil or human rights struggle, but instead presents a story about slavery or the Jim Crow era, talk about the movements that changed the conditions portrayed in the text. One example is White Water by Michael S. Bandy and Eric Stein, illustrated by Shadra Strickland, the story of an African American boy who uses the whites only water fountain during the Jim Crow era.

Create an open space for dialogue.
Encourage children to notice things they may find unfair or unjust and inspire them to use their words to point those things out. For teachers, in particular, expand on that idea by involving children in making their classroom/learning environment more equitable. Most importantly, make your learning space (or home) a place where conversations about equity are the norm, where all thoughts and ideas are welcome, and everyone’s voice is heard. Picture books are one of the easiest tools you can use to continue the conversation.

Without getting comfortable and being more prepared, you can in turn, cause more harm to your students. So I encourage all of you to get comfortable getting uncomfortable. 

Dr. Aisha White

Dr. Aisha White Ph.D., Director, The P.R.I.D.E. Program

Aisha White is a mother of 2 and grandmother of 4. She was born and raised in Pittsburgh where she grew up in the housing projects in the Hill District. She earned her bachelor's degree in media communications (minoring in Africana studies), master's in library science, and PhD in library and information science, all at the University of Pittsburgh. Her doctoral research explored the information needs of women in Muncy Prison, the largest women’s prison in Pennsylvania. She has held coordinator and director positions at early education organizations: Beginning with Books, The Heartwood Institute, and Family Communications, Inc., -now Fred Rogers Productions- where she currently serves as a consultant to the Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood animated children’s television show. Since the late 1970s, she has been engaged in arts and social activism efforts including: the Pittsburgh by-district city council campaign, anti-apartheid and antiwar organizing, the Harambee II Black Arts Festival, and Africana human rights film efforts. She has also been involved in racial awareness work for more than 10 years and currently directs the P.R.I.D.E. Program (positive racial identity development in early education) at the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development.

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