Guest Post by Shannon Wright: Road Dog, Auntie and Social Justice Warrior
My most recent great find at Target was a pack of mermaid stickers in which the mermaids had white, light brown, and dark brown skin. My niece Sophia, who is six, lives and breathes mermaids (along with fairies, unicorns and other magical flora and fauna), and as she cheerfully stuck them all over her car seat and any other available surface as we drove to the beach, I noticed that she gravitated to the ones that, like her, had light brown skin.
Representation matters. We know that that is true for children of color: they need to see themselves reflected in the books they read, the shows they watch and the world they live in so that they may imagine a place for themselves in it. But lately, I have been thinking just as much about the importance of representation for white kids.
My nephew, Wyatt, is 19 months old. He is a fearless, joyful little boy with crazy-professor blond hair and a snub nose. When he was born, I gave him the Eloise and Madeline books, because the conventional wisdom in publishing is that girls will read books about boys, but boys will not read books about girls. (This surely accounts for why Harry is the protagonist of the Harry Potter series when Hermione is clearly the hero.) I wanted him from the beginning to be immersed in stories of strong, sassy girls and to view the world through their eyes, to know their stories to be worthy of telling. Soon books on Hillary Rodham Clinton and Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined Madeline and Eloise on the shelf. But when I tried to find books featuring children of color, I found to my dismay that not much has changed in the 20 years since I was searching for books featuring brown kids to give to the kids who lived at the homeless shelter where I worked. (Y’all, stop donating Little House on the Prairie sets to shelters. Every shelter has like six sets. Also, Pa is a terrible human being.)
Most of us understand why it is important for children of color to have books that reflect their reality back to them. We understand that they need to see kids who have their hair and their skin color doing all the kid things so that they do not think white children have a monopoly on adventure or that white children’s stories are the only ones worth telling. But now that I have a white nephew, I am acutely aware of how much representation matters for white kids too.
White kids need to see kids who DON’T look like them doing regular kid stuff. They need to see them getting a dog and fighting with their little brother and going to the beach. They need to see them as the heroes of their own stories, not as sidekicks in white stories. Yes, we need stories about celebrating Chinese New Year and Dia de los Muertos, stories that evoke the richness of the cultures that comprise our society. But we also need stories that remind us of our common grounds, that tell white children that children of color are also kids who are nervous on the first day of school, who resent being bossed around by an older sister, who play soccer and love to paint and imagine who they will be when they grow up. We need to give white children the chance to develop empathy, the same way we require girls to do when they read books about boys, and the way we require children of color to do when we give them books with white protagonists.
Ideally, white kids would learn this by growing up surrounded by a diverse community. But that is not most white kids’ reality. Wyatt lives in New York, an extremely diverse but intensely segregated city. He is extremely affluent, and the only child of doting parents and grandparents. My sister and I often talk about how to prevent him from becoming a “rapey lacrosse player”–our shorthand for the type of entitled white male who takes what he wants because he’s never been required to center anyone else; the narrative has always made him the star. And books are one way we do this, because books are a way we immerse ourselves in other realities. We enter into the inner life of a character who may not initially seem to have much in common with us, but with whom we have to learn to empathize. Whether we are hoping desperately that Anna Karenina will find a happy ending in 19th-century Russia (spoiler alert: she does not) or experiencing first love through Janie’s eyes in an insular black community in rural Florida in Their Eyes Were Watching God, we step into another person’s experience and live vicariously through them.
We know now that fiction readers are more empathetic and emotionally intelligent than non-readers, because they regularly practice this art of entering into someone else’s reality. The ability to do this is essential to the larger causes of justice and righteousness. But they are important for smaller reasons as well. Wyatt needs to develop empathy not only because of the damage he may wreak if he does not, but because life is so much richer and more textured when we are not always the center of the story. Empathy makes life broader and deeper and richer, more interesting and more complex, more heartbreaking and more joyful. I want that for every child I love, just as I want it for myself.