Fall 2015 • Children and Libraries 3
I
m white. But I didnt start describing myself that way
until adulthood. In fact, I doggedly avoided it. In high
school, I once crossed out “white” and wrote “half Jewish
on a standardized test. I knew I was white, but I also knew that
it was not good to name whiteness. Black history, we could talk
about, in Social Studies (during certain units). Latino cultures
were celebrated (or, at least, acknowledged) in my Spanish
classes. But the whiteness that served as the foundation for the
other 99 percent of my life was taboo. Nobody ever said as a
white girl, I think . . .” or “white people like us . . .” in my (totally
white) circles.
It took me a long time and a lot of education to figure out that
whiteness is taboo in large part because naming whiteness
makes race—and therefore racism—something that includes
and affects everyone. If white people decline to acknowledge or
discuss whiteness, racism stays other peoples problem. If I am
white, I’m suddenly part of the equation.
But I am part of the equation. Because I am white, I have access
to what Peggy McIntosh calls the “invisible knapsack” of white
privilege,
1
and one of those is that I see my culture reflected
everywhere; in the United States, I am standard,” I am norm.
And I’ve never lacked for books in which characters look, speak,
and act like me.
The now-familiar statistics kept by the Cooperative Childrens
Book Center (CCBC) confirm the truth that white culture is
extremely prominent and well-represented in the world of
childrens literature. Though there was a jump in the number of
books by and about people of color in 2014, the percentage is
still small (14 percent)
2
and does not reflect the US population,
which is 37 percent nonwhite,
3
or 50.3 percent—a majority—
when youre talking about nonwhite children in US public
schools (by contrast, 82 percent of public school teachers are
white).
4
Clearly, white culture still dominates in childrens
literature, despite a population of children that is becoming
rapidly less white.
Why should white people care (beyond a desire to assuage
vague feelings of guilt) about something like the We Need
Diverse Books organization (for which I am a librarian)? Why do
white people, like me, need diverse books? Because “white” has
its own culture and cultural beats, and those are too often con-
sidered universal” or conflated with American.White people
have not graduated into some advanced form of humanity in
which color does not matter, and being white does not render
us raceless. We are all racial. And white people, like me, have
access to privileges that are uniquely afforded to us because of
our whiteness. White privilege shows itself in our government,
our banks, our housing, our health care, our schools, and yes,
our libraries.
I should mention here that while they are linked, white privi-
lege is different from economic privilege. It is true that most
On Being White
A Raw, Honest Conversation
ALLIE JANE BRUCE
Allie Jane Bruce is Children’s Librarian at
Bank Street College in New York City, a
Librarian for We Need Diverse Books, and a
member of the 2016 Newbery Committee.
4 Fall 2015 • Children and Libraries
On Being White
of the wealth in the United States is, and historically has been,
in the hands of white people,
5
but it is also true that white
people are the largest group of recipients of the Supplemental
Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or what used to be called
food stamps”).
6
We do ourselves a disservice if we try to paint
the situation simply as white people have more money.We
also do ourselves a disservice if we take the opposite approach
and constantly dismiss the correspondence between race and
wealth with “but really, arent you talking about class?” White
privilege is tied to, but not the same as, access to wealth. And
white privilege as distinct from economic privilege can be hard
to pin down.
Just as it is essential to name whiteness to render privilege vis-
ible, it is equally important to specifically name the privileges
afforded by whiteness. Here, then, is a starter list (inspired by
McIntoshs “Invisible Knapsack”) of the privileges afforded by
whiteness in libraries and the world of childrens literature.
Privileges Afforded to Me, a White Librarian and Reader
I have a wide variety of books from all genres to choose from
in which characters look and speak like me.
When browsing in most libraries or bookstores, I can be
pretty sure I will see white people who look like me featured
on book covers without having to search for them.
When I go to library conferences, publisher previews, or
other events aimed at readers and librarians, I walk into a
room in which most people look and speak like me.
Those who work in publishing often share my cultural back-
ground and understand my cultural beats, which is condu-
cive to forming friendships, which in turn makes it easier
for me to request and access resources such as class sets of
galleys or visits from authors.
When I visit other libraries, the librarians I meet often look
and speak like me, which makes it easier for us to form part-
nerships and share resources.
When invited to speak on panels or at events, I am not asked
to speak on behalf of all white people or offer the white
perspective.
When I bring up issues of racial justice, I am generally
praised and lauded as an ally” and “changemaker” by chil-
drens literature colleagues. I am rarely, if ever, dismissed as
someone who is complaining, attention-seeking, or cant let
go of the past.
I can bring up issues of racial inequity in my work without
fear of being demoted or fired.
Should I ever wish to publish a book I’ve written, I can be
fairly certain that my race will either play a neutral or posi-
tive role in determining whether an editor reads my draft or
decides to work with me.
Privileges Afforded to the White Children I Teach
My whiteness will be either a neutral or positive factor in
whether white children view the library as a place where they
can relax and feel at home.
White children can enter my library knowing that decisions
about which books to buy and what materials to teach have
been determined by people who share their racial history
and background, and that those books and materials testify
to the existence of, and do not contain dehumanizing stereo-
types of, their race.
When white children read historical fiction or nonfiction as
part of a class assignment, they need not worry that people
in the book who look like them will be enslaved or subser-
vient to people in the book who look like their nonwhite
classmates.
White children can be confident that their race will not work
against the appearance of their ability to be responsible with
books they check out.
If white children are asked to account for overdue or lost
books, they can be sure they have not been singled out
because of their race.
White children can return books late without having that
lateness reflect on their race.
When a white child asks me to recommend a book, she does
not have to worry that I will assume she wants a book about
“issues” that relate to her race.
White children do not have to teach me about the holidays
they celebrate in order to enlist my help in finding books
about those holidays.
If a white child is labeled a “reluctant” or struggling” reader,
she and her family need not worry that such a label will be
attributed to poor parenting, poverty, or the lower intelli-
gence of her race.
The now-familiar statistics kept by
the Cooperative Children’s Book
Center (CCBC) confirm the truth that
white culture is extremely prominent
and well-represented in the world of
children’s literature.
Fall 2015 • Children and Libraries 5
On Being White
Even if a white child is not in the racial majority at her
school, it is likely that the majority of her teachers are white.
She can therefore be fairly certain that she will have teach-
ers who look like her, and who understand and preserve her
cultural norms and beats.
7
So what can we white people do? The following is, once again,
a starter list.
Nine Suggestions for White People Seeking to
Counter Racism
1. Attend a training. It is hard to lead conversations about
race in the classroom; often well-intentioned white people
do the most harm to childrens psyches. Do not assume that
you can do this without training and practice. I highly rec-
ommend the Peoples Institutes Undoing Racism workshop
(pisab.org), Border Crossers’ trainings (bordercrossers.org),
and SEED trainings (nationalseedproject.org). You may be
able to obtain funds from your school or library system to
attend; if you play your cards right, you may be able to advo-
cate for staff-wide trainings.
2. Practice saying “I’m white. It’s harder than it should be,
but it’s important. If we fail to acknowledge whiteness,
white privilege becomes invisible. Try dropping it in dur-
ing a read-aloud, e.g., “So, most of Anna Hibiscus’ family is
black, and her mother is white, like me.” Say it matter-of-
factly; it’s an observation.
3. Dont ask your friends of color to teach you everything.
Take responsibility for your own education. See numbers 1,
6, and 7 for places to begin that education.
4. Recognize when you’re having a racist thought, and dont
brush it off. It is impossible to exist in our current society
without having internalized notions of racial superiority
and inferiority. Studies have shown that white people are
less moved by the pain of black people than by the pain of
white people, that teachers are more likely to respond to
queries from students they believe are white males, that
white people are likely to see black children as older and less
innocent than white children, and that the lighter a persons
skin, the more likely white people are to view them as intel-
ligent, competent, trustworthy, and reliable.
8
5. Try not to dodge talking about racism and whiteness in the
United States today. It is so tempting, and easy, to turn a
conversation about racism into a conversation about some-
thing—anything, anywhere—else. There are a lot of “isms”
in the world, and all are important—but many are easier
to talk about than racism. Similarly, when we do talk about
race as it currently stands in the United States, it is tempting
to talk about anything other than whiteness. Have conver-
sations about whiteness, and when you do, dont escape
into talking about how people of color experience racism;
speak from your own racial experiences.
6. Read books. Read articles. Watch videos. A starter list:
What White Children Need to Know About Race by Ali
Michael and Eleanora Bartoli, available via www.nais.org
Race: The Power of an Illusion (pbs.org/race)
“White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account
of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in
Womens Studies” by Peggy McIntosh
9
The Whiteness Project (whitenessproject.org)
Waking Up White by Debbie Irving (Elephant Room Press,
2014, 288p)
White Like Me by Tim Wise (Soft Skull Press, 2008; reis-
sued, 2011, 208p)
7. Mix up your news sources. Try foregoing your regular
newspaper for a month, and read The Root (theroot.com)
instead. Add in Colorlines (colorlines.com), Latina Lista
(latinalista.com), Indian Country Today (indiancountryto-
daymedianetwork.com), Hyphen magazine (hyphenmaga-
zine.com), and The Aerogram (theaerogram.com).
8. Do a headcount the next time youre at a lunch, dinner, pre-
view, conference, meeting, whatever. Notice who has been
invited “inside” and who hasnt.
9. Educate children. There are many ways to go about this,
but children deserve to learn about racial justice and white
privilege in developmentally appropriate but overt ways.
I coteach a unit in which sixth graders explore different
aspects of identity using book covers as a starting point
(bankstreet.edu/library/about/book-cover-project).
A panel of diverse authors at the 2015 ALA Midwinter Meeting in
Chicago.
6 Fall 2015 • Children and Libraries
On Being White
Peggy McIntosh asks white people to get truly distressed,
even outraged, about unearned race advantage and conferred
dominance.
10
I have found this charge supremely difficult
because everything in our white-dominated society is designed
to make us oblivious to white privilege. Doing the things
listed above helps me maintain my outrage and my drive to
effect change.
“I wasnt always comfortable with naming my whiteness so
openly, and I once thought good or bad intentions alone deter-
mined racism,” says author Miranda Paul, vice president of
outreach for We Need Diverse Books. “Saying I was colorblind’
was really an excuse to avoid uncomfortable conversations and
face reality. But I need to get past the feelings of guilt, taboo, or
sensitivity and acknowledge my privileges. This discussion isnt
about excluding people or pointing a finger—its about children
and their future. The kids we serve are forming their personali-
ties and sense of self-worth, as well as their ideas about each
other. The books we recommend or read to them, the authors
we introduce them to, and the way we talk about diversity, all
have a profound influence.
Please tweet other suggestions for what white people in the
world of childrens literature can do to counter racism to
#WhitenessInKidLit. If you dont have a Twitter account, e-mail
your suggestions to me at alliejanebruce@diversebooks.org.
&
References
1. Peggy McIntosh, White Privilege and Male Privilege: A
Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences
Through Work in Womens Studies,Working Paper, Center
for Research on Women, Wellesley College no. 189 (1988).
2. “Childrens Books by and about People of Color published
in the United States.”Statistics gathered by the Cooperative
Childrens Book Center, School of Education, University of
Wisconsin-Madison, accessed May 15, 2015, https://ccbc
.education.wisc.edu/books/pcstats.asp.
3. “U.S. Census Bureau Projections Show a Slower Growing,
Older, More Diverse Nation a Half Century from Now.
United States Census Bureau, U.S. Department of
Commerce, accessed May 15, 2015, www.census.gov/
newsroom/releases/archives/population/cb12-243.html.
4. Lesli A. Maxwell, “U.S. School Enrollment Hits Majority-
Minority Milestone.Education Week (August 19, 2014),
accessed May 15, 2015, www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014
/08/20/01demographics.h34.html.
5. Lisa A. Keister, “Race, Family Structure, and Wealth: The
Effect of Childhood Family on Adult Asset Ownership,”
Sociological Perspectives 47, no. 2 (2004).
6. United States Department of Agriculture, Food and
Nutrition Service, Office of Policy Support, Characteristics
of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Households:
Fiscal Year 2012 (2014).
7. Maxwell, “U.S. School Enrollment Hits Majority-Minority
Milestone.
8. Kati Holloway, “10 Ways White People Are More Racist
Than They Realize,” Salon (March 4 2015), accessed May
15, 2015, www.salon.com/2015/03/04/10_ways_white_
people_are_more_racist_than_they_realize_partner.
9. McIntosh, “White Privilege and Male Privilege.
10. Ibid.
Clearly, white culture still dominates
in children’s literature, despite
a population of children that is
becoming rapidly less white.