I Am The Angry Black Woman in My Majority-White Class… And I Love It!

Yes, I do still want everyone to like me. But I also want people to think critically about how race is directly and indirectly presented in our children’s media.

The more I learn in my higher education career, the more I see how racist the world actually is. Seriously, no matter what subject I’ve started (and there are many because I am doing interdisciplinary studies) the more I notice how many ways white supremacy shapes our lives. There are definitive things like the prison industrial complex, but then there are highly abstract concepts like childhood. I always say that if you peel away enough layers, it’s white all the way down. In some places, you barely have to get past the skin before the domination becomes apparent.

You know I talk about this shit all the time. I can’t help it — it’s my entire life and I see it in everything now! Sometimes I wish I could be better at controlling my commentary, but calling things out is my contribution to racial discourse… Sorry to my mostly white friends that I am always hyperaware of when black and brown characters have shittier storylines than the white characters. I’m not sorry for pointing it out, just sorry for talking during the movie.

Children’s book publishing is an exciting new animal because as you know, I am one of three black POC in this class and the only black WOC. My classmates are 20-something, white, beautiful publishing industry hopefuls. My also white professor is a big deal in the world of children’s book publishing, and I think she’s great at her job. How am I not supposed to feel like I don’t belong there? And if I don’t belong in that classroom, I sure as hell won’t be a good fit at a big publishing house!

But I’m not taking children’s book publishing because I want to be an editor. I’m a creative and you all know my dream is to publish a children’s book (or graphic novel!) Learning the business side of book publication is useful for me because I know what I’m up against.

As my old high school English teacher told me after I checked him out at Key Food once when I was 22 — don’t get into publishing! I still don’t know why he gave me this advice. His own failed project? The cut-throat nature? I don’t think he meant that I wouldn’t be successful… although he was white so maybe he KNEW about the racism! Or maybe he doesn’t care about the racism since this was like 8 years ago and I didn’t see many white advocates during my high school and he was just saying publishing sux in general.

In class today I think I said “white-centric” “white-bourgeois-centric” and “representation” so many times that my classmates probably think I hate their privileged little existences. I don’t! I just hate that your tastes are shaped by white supremacy and the publishing industry is racist and exploitative and representation (!!!) involves many more layers than just a protagonist and author.

I criticized our textbooks for citing all white authors and illustrators as the legends of children’s books, with the exception of Langston Hughes, who turned to children’s stories after being banned from publishing because he was found guilty of communism!

There was even a very short bit that mentioned children’s stories were so subversive at one point that none of the main characters were white. BUT THEN DIDN’T LIST ANY WORKS OR AUTHORS? Sounds suspiciously like they meant racist stories like Little Black Sambo.

I told the professor I would LOVE to know some nonwhite children’s book authors. She said we’ll get into some names during our lesson on picture books. Can’t wait!

The assignment due today was a mock reader’s report about Firekeeper’s Daughter. Remember, my favorite homework? It’s already a published work, but we had to pretend we were editors recommending or rejecting it for publication.

Since I did undergrad in English, it’s soooo hard not to involuntarily analyze the content of books, when you’re really supposed to be broadly describing the marketable points of books as an editor. In English, summaries are forbidden. In this class, this project needed a summary and spoilers were okay. I 👏STRUG👏GLED👏. That doesn’t really work as supplementary visual discourse, but you know what I mean.

Of course, everyone recommended the book be published — it’s unique to YA fiction because it features an Ojibwe protagonist written by an Ojibwe author. When is that last time you’ve seen an Ojibwe author on your Language Arts syllabus? The answer is never! Like all Native American tribes, Ojibwe people are highly underrepresented (!!!) as main characters and content creators in media.

My classmates and I did agree on salient points about including a glossary and index in the book to assist readers in understanding the Ojibwe language and cultural practice (I also mentioned there was a lot of science!) The perceptions on why this YA book wasn’t age appropriate or that the tragedies take away from the romance had me SO HEATED!

I will preface this by saying everyone is entitled to opinions and taste. BUUUUT if your tastes are shaped by the “gatekeepers” of children’s literature who perpetuate an idealized white-centric (!!!) model, then you need to ask yourself WHY an indigenous American’s work is marked with tragedy and violence compared to the generally untroubled YA characters you’re used to reading about.

Maybe it’s because the realities for white people and people of color are DIFFERENT. 🤔

White readers are shocked about a town’s meth epidemic? Sexual assault? Broken family dynamics? Racial injustice? They think some of these plot points are not pertinent to the story? They think these things don’t fit into YA?

I DISAGREE! The harsh reality is that all of these events DO fit into YA because they happen to nonwhite young adults ALL. THE. TIME.

You really can’t say you care about representation in children’s literature when you don’t understand that the perspective of the characters will shape a different story than the adorable pranks and filmmaking hobbies of our favorite white YA works.

Of course Daunis experiences nonstop injustices. To be a woman of color is to be threatened by injustice EVERY DAY. I can only imagine what specifics hells indigenous women must endure… Oh wait, the answers are right there in the book we just read!

If you think this isn’t age appropriate, it’s probably because you’re white, you read white-centric (!!!) literature, and your understanding of the world comes from an idealistic white standard in which you don’t live in constant fear just by existing.

Guess what? This book is so tragic because being nonwhite means tragedy is always lurking around the corner in one form or another.

Guess what else? Good representative YA fiction will probably be like this, too! That’s diversity. That’s representation. It’s not just publishing brown people’s stories. It’s choosing to accept the bad parts they share because those are the realities that shape their identity. Not censoring because they make white people uncomfortable.

Get uncomfortable! We are uncomfortable every day. Be with us, don’t convince others that bad things should be removed because they absolutely happen to young adults and those young adults might feel better having a character who looks like them. Who has seen what they’ve seen. Who has felt what they’ve felt!

ALSO: We had to pick comparable titles for Firekeeper’s Daughter and many of the students mentioned that there weren’t any Native American YA novels like this EXCEPT ONE who pointed out that she didn’t understand why everyone keeps saying that because there IS a book called Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend written by a Native American author that has similar themes. I’ve never heard of it before.

I thought: You’ve found just one book from 2014 that is similar to our reading. The fact that there is only one is evidence enough that these stories are underrepresented. Then I wondered if the author was from the same tribe and nope. So the closest book she could find was a native American woman author… But not even from the same state/tribe. Another example of underrepresentation.

If I found comp titles for John Green books (sorry John Green, I love you and I need to use you as an example) I could pick about 8 million in the YA canon and none of my comparable descriptions would have to do with the main character being white. It would probably be about the plot or quirky characters or adorable teen romances.

I really don’t agree that one other published work by a Native American author argues to the point of these stories “existing.” You can break it down by tribe, but really you don’t even have to. “Close enough” is racist, too.

Not learning how to pronounce Ojibwe before teaching the class you assigned an Ojibwe book to is also racist-adjacent, imo. I mean, you assigned the book many weeks ago and read it and we’re all talking about it. I can understand mispronouncing things you’ve only ever read BUUUUT you’re the professor. Show me you care about the work you’re giving us. Show us you care enough about another culture to try and say the name correctly. Idk.

I was so angry before but now I’m wiped bc I’ve been typing this forever. I hope everything I said makes sense by the end.

I’m glad that I’m speaking up and I hope people start thinking critically about what they mean when they say they want to see more represention in children’s literature. Always remember that it’s probably not going to be enough to make up for all the social disadvantage and danger.

I mean, I’m saying all this woke shit and then I think to myself: it’s not like the publishing houses will suddenly be full of diverse employees working with poc, LGBT, disabled creators just bc I reminded everyone about it. That’s the way the world works and I’m sure my white peers feel oh so sad about the unfairness of the world as they advance in their careers and buy more lovely white-centric (!!!) children’s books at their white-owner publishing houses written by white authors and drawn by white illustrators and white art directors and checked by white copy editors and printed and bound by white printers and sold to white distributors to sell to………every kind of child for some reason?

Not sorry white peers: I like you just fine, but I can’t feel bad about calling this shit out cause at the end of the day, y’all always win!

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