Archive for the ‘On Our Minds’ Category

Good White People and Ghosts

Posted: October 11, 2017 in On Our Minds

 Reading While White thankfully hosted me as a guest blogger for this post. I’m grateful for the space to share this and truly hope I can be of service.  For those of you who haven’t read Reading While White, please spend some time on the blog for great info.

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With the horrors of Amerikkkan White entitlement showing more of itself in Charlottesville this past August, I received this email from Center for Popular Action, which I quote in part:

“White supremacy (…) is a reflection of centuries-long oppressive structures that permeate every aspect of our government, financial systems, cultural norms, and society at large. It’s a system in which Black and Brown bodies are continually devalued, marginalized, and criminalized, and those that perpetrate violence on people of color are protected, promoted, and honored.”

This paragraph gave me pause. When I read “those that perpetuate violence on people of color are protected, promoted and honored” I immediately thought of a recent experience I had that illustrates this–and NOT by the Alt-Right plowing cars into people, or Sheriff Arpaio, but by well-intentioned White librarians and a venerated graphic novelist.

I attended an event about Diversity in Graphic novels in May. Jack Baur and Amanda Jacobs Foust, whom I highly respect, gave a great presentation about a history of comics that illuminated much. You can see the presentation here and find more useful information on this site.

However, I wondered why Raina Telgemeier, a White writer, whose book Ghosts has been shown to be inaccurate and an act of cultural misappropriation was on this panel about diversity.

Let’s be clear:  by being on the panel, this White person was being promoted and honored.

I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that this was not going to go well.

And, it did not.

As a White person, I have had many experiences of my privilege in the realm of showing up to a public forum without adequate preparation because I am used to being believed, listened to, honored, promoted and protected. Donald Trump exhibits an extreme version of this where he believes everything he says is important and true and he can say it just because of who he is. I have talked on and on about something I actually knew nothing about, all the while thinking I was making a valuable point.  White people don’t have to prepare or analyze, or take time to understand people’s point of view because what we think fits into cultural norms, and…..truly, underneath it all, we’ve bought into the belief that we know what we are talking about, that our conversation and voice is important because we are good, we mean well, we are a part of the solution, and… we aren’t racist.

The analysis that follows is both personal and not personal to Raina Telgemeier (RT) and the moderators (JB and AJF). They are good people, fantastic librarians and a terrific author/illustrator.  It is personal only in that they have a responsibility, as all of us White people do, to uncover, unearth and deal with the legacy we have been born into.

Here is a video of the panel. Beginning at 41.07, you can see exactly how it went down.

At 41.07 in the video, a question is asked to RT.

From 41.35 onward RT deflects, devalues and marginalizes what people of color and First/Native Nations have been saying to her about her book while displaying all the classic signs of White fragility. AJF and JB support and protect her.

What is absolutely horrifying to me about this interchange is:

  1. RT did not and was not able to provide a clear summary and context of the criticisms leveled against her book and break down her responsibilityin perpetuating the devaluation and marginalization of people of color and First/Native Nations. She actually turned to the person of color who asked the question to provide the context.
  1. RT devolved into her “right” to write a book because “some of my best friends are _______.” She focuses on her validity to write a book about Mexican Americans, in part because she married into a Latin American family. “I didn’t think I was borrowing, I thought I was experiencing something on a personal level and sharing stories”  (43.01). RT does not show a clear understanding of what people of color and First/Native Nations have been saying about cultural appropriation.  She says that she has been thinking deeply about this, but whatever thinking she has done was not apparent or shared in any meaningful way. Here’s just one article (the basic 101 version) that outlines some issues about cultural appropriation.
  1. RT’s comments devolved into personal issues that deflected from the very real issue of the genocide her book glosses over and normalizes. At 43.14 there is a clear example of White fragility and deflecting from the issues raised by people of color and First/Native Nations: “I’m not allowed to talk about going through a divorce right now, but it’s really difficult,” she says with tears. Somehow RT is now the victim – “not allowed to talk” and has extenuating circumstances – difficult divorce – that explains away/detracts from addressing the question. This is what often happens when White people are confronted about racism and it’s what people of color have brought up time and again. This was a complete deflection from the racism in the book Ghosts, the question at hand and what the panel was supposed to be about.
  1. At 43.28 the moderators AJF and JB jump in to “take care” of and protect RT from her personal issues that she is using to distract from addressing the real issues of the problems of her book.
  1. At 43.33 elaborate and nonsensical arguments are used to protect RT.AJF uses the bizarre argument that why we need more diversity overall is because “when there are these unique stories presented they are highly criticized because there are no other voices telling these stories” and that “it’s really easy when there is one example of it to be picked apart because it can’t be everything to everyone.” I know AJF didn’t mean that we need more diversity so that White people don’t get criticized, but that is actually what she said!
  1. Accurate context is not provided by the moderators thereby perpetuating White point of view as normal. At 44.15, AJF says the book deals “a lot with California Missions” and “the things that we are taught about California Missions and the things that we are not taught about California Missions is huge.” The moderators should have been prepared–i.e. thought through carefully why they included RT on a panel about diversity, be prepared to provide a context of the feedback given by people of color and First/Native Nations and to unequivocally denounce what was written/illustrated in Ghoststhat glosses over and thus perpetuates genocide and violence.

For example, they could have credited Debbie Reese, who has already been so kind to inform those that didn’t already know that California Missions were the sites of massive genocide of First/Native Nations peoples.  See her analysis here to understand how Ghosts whitewashes the brutal history of the missions. The moderators and the author could have highlighted and distilled what Debbie Reese and others say in order to educate the audience as to the issues, thus honoring, promoting and valuing the voices of people of color and First/Native Nations.

7. White supremacy is used as an excuse for non-accountability. It seems that AJF’s point was that due to White supremacy we can’t be held accountable to the ways in which we have bought in, been misinformed, etc. If that’s the case, how have people of color and First/Native Nations been informed? Yes, due to White supremacy we are taught a whitewashed version of history but that doesn’t excuse us for perpetuating what we have been taught, for being so vague in our answers and not taking the platform that is given to educate, unequivocally, those in the audience that still may be unaware. Instead these three White people did not take the platform they had to do this.

The book was not criticized “because there were ghosts at the Missions” as AJF  says, but 1. because the Missions setting was portrayed in a benign and thus false way and 2. as  Yuyi Morales points out (in the comments section): Day of the Dead is not about ghosts but about the souls of the departed. These things could have been clearly articulated by any of the White people.

  1. White supremacy is blamed and also used as an excuse for not taking personal responsibility. At 45.00 RT sorta takes ownership: “It (What is It? This needs to be clearly said!) was an oversight and I have to take responsibility for that.” However, within 7 seconds, at 45.07 she clearly does not take responsibility by saying “but it was not something flagged by a single reader, and I had several of them.” This comment highlights privilege (“I had readers”) as an excuse to justify personal innocence. She seems to be saying that not ALL these White people and other readers could be wrong! Uh, yeah. They could be and are.
  1. White supremacy is blamed for victimizing us all. Non-acknowledgement of inherent bias/racism is used to justify not doing adequate research. At 50:50 RT says she did a ton of research and wishes that books and information would have been available to her. This is an example of a mistaken, passive and dangerous belief that we are all victims of White supremacy. Let’s be clear: RT is benefiting from, not victimized by, White supremacy throughout this entire debacle.

At 44:39 AJF says that “I don’t know of an editor that would have that kind of experience to question what we were taught.” First of all, this is a completely arrogant statement, second of all, it’s not true, and third of all, that’s not an excuse, reason or explanation: all of us need to learn how to question what we were taught and how we perpetuate the myth of White supremacy. In addition, it’s NOT up to people of color and First/Native Nations to do this work, but it IS up to us White people.

A simple Google search of “california missions racism” pulls up all one needed to know. On my browser this is included in the second entry: “Missions were little more than concentration camps where California’s Indians were beaten, whipped, maimed, burned, tortured and virtually exterminated by the friars.” Elias Castillo.

As to the possibility that the Scholastic editorial team did not question, fact check, google or utilize their resources to either hire a person of color or First/Native Nations to write this book or fact check a book by a White author about people of color — that is also their responsibility that doesn’t diminish RT’s responsibility.

This “oversight” might have occurred because it might not have occurred to any of these White people that they could be unqualified or racist and that it’s their responsibility to question the status quo.

  1. 46.42 Continued elaborate justifications by the moderators take more time and deflect from the purpose of the panel. Both AJF and JB appear to hold the book in such high esteem for the fact that it is taking on “this topic” (meaning Day of the Dead? Missions? Biracial kids?). All of these topics have been shown to be problematic! Why is this not acknowledged and instead explained away? JB’s perspective that “this could be the ONLY book that kids in Kansas read about this topic” means that somehow this justifies the writing of it and completely undermines, devalues, and Whitesplains away what people of color and First/Native Nations have been saying about the book.

Just to be clear – the criticism isn’t that RT is White and therefore shouldn’t have written the story. No, the problem is that she used (culturally appropriated) Latinx characters and culture that she didn’t accurately represent, and she erased a genocide. Please see Nic Stone’s terrific article about the dangers of “helping” marginalized people be more visible.

  1. The people of color on the panel had just a few moments to introduce some good points and places of exploration. These were not picked up by the moderators and built upon, instead the conversation was ended. For examples: at 49.34 Mariko Tamaki clearly acknowledges her process of understanding how she might be inadvertently racist and outlines a very simple way to make an apology. This is not heard or followed up on. At 51.35 more from Mariko that’s not expanded upon. At 53.57 Thi Bui gets a few moments at the very end, when she speaks about telling stories from marginalized perspectives and listening to feedback. This is where JB ends the discussion. There were many opportunities on the panel (and before!) for RT, AJF and JB to hear what people of color and First/Native Nations were saying. Instead, the attention and time was used to support and protect RT’s personal defended stance.
  1. This entire exchange took from 41:01 – 54:51–almost 15 minutes of time. This panel was supposed to be about Diversity in Graphic Novels and was derailed by a bunch of White BS.

Dare I say that all of this individual lack of ownership of the problem by White people adds up to collective systemic oppression? What I’m shining a light on here is a perfect example of a group of good, well-intentioned White people — publishers, author, “readers”, editors, moderators, etc–acting together to assert their point of view, meanwhile devaluing and marginalizing the point of view of people of color and First Native/Nations.

Let’s be clear: promoting, honoring and protecting White people who have been educated but haven’t owned their inadvertent racist mistakes = violence against people of color and First/Native Nations. It’s not complicated. It’s plain and simple.

The solidification of “White is right” violence continues with what looks like the all White judging panel for the Eisner Awards selecting Ghosts to win Best Publication for Kids (ages 9-12).

It is our responsibility as White people to:

  • Assume, own and understand that we, as White people, by definition and experience, are racist, regardless of whether we are consciously bigoted.
  • Realize it’s a lifelong process to understand all the ways that we are positioned in power, and consciously or unconsciously perpetuate this racist system.
  • Take the time to analyze cultural norms and prepare so as to be aware and inclusive
  • Question the status quo
  • Expose, attend to, and acknowledge–when appropriate–all the ways that we are racist, inadvertent or not
  • Be VERY clear how we benefit from and perpetuate White supremacy
  • Provide clear examples and information to other White people about how we benefit and perpetuate racism and White supremacy.
  • Take action to point out and dismantle the system that we are benefiting and profiting from
  • Listen to, find the validity of and reach a deep understanding of people of color’s and First Native/Nation feedback–especially those we don’t understand or seem contrary to our views
  • Move through our shame and excuses (didn’t know, didn’t mean to, but- blah, blah, blah)
  • Come to a clear acknowledgement of feedback
  • Incorporate this information into our conversation
  • Take action to rectify the problem, especially at personal expense. This means taking action that is not easy, convenient or lucrative, but is doing the right thing to make amends and reparations.
  • Not expect people of color and First/Native Nations to shoulder the burden of analysis, feedback, context of how we have bought into and perpetuate White supremacy.
  • Google “racism” + keywords

If indeed, if RT, AJF and JB want to take responsibility, the response could have been/can be any number of things such as:

  • Use the platform of the panel on Graphic Novel diversity and Eisner award to inform about the many problems of the book
  • Acknowledge the people of color and First Native/Nations that brought the racism to light
  • Not accept the award or the position on the panel but refer a person of color or First/Native Nations to participate and highlight
  • Have a forum to extend deeper the racism brought to light
  • Give back all proceeds of the book to small presses that are highlightingpeople of color and native people such as Blood Orange Press, or one of the presses listed here.
  • Stop the press run of Ghosts and refuse to make money by perpetuating ignorance and inaccuracies that ultimately harm us all and that are off of the backs of people of color and First/Native Nations.
  • Issue an apology
  • Keep the video that is linked in this piece up on the web. In this way other White people who want to see what covert yet solidified racism looks like can.

Unconsciousness or good intentions doesn’t excuse behavior or make it less racist and violent. Illuminating and eradicating racism takes vigilant work that can only come about if it’s understood that we are inadvertently and covertly racist and that we will inevitably expose this. We then need to learn to own this racism, learn from our mistakes, speak out, refuse to participate with the status quo and take positive action for a more equitable and just world. Only when personal responsibility is taken can oppressive systems be dismantled.

Amy Cheney is currently the District Library Manager of Oakland Unified School District after working for many years on the behalf of incarcerated children. All views expressed are her own, and do not reflect those of her employer.

 

 

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3 comments:

Debbie Reese said…

Thank you for this account!

As I write, I’m in Norman OK at the 25th gathering of RETURNING THE GIFT, a conference of Native writers, first held in 1992.

First: Walking amidst Native writers and an almost entirely Native group of attendees is such an affirming experience.

Second: We are here–in the present–because our ancestors fought like hell against things like missions. Generation after generation that followed our ancestors has had to fight like hell against the Raina’s of the world who don’t understand what we endured–and endure–today.

Third: GHOSTS is in most of the presentations I do–no matter what the audience. For the ignorant, what Telgemeier does in her book is White fun. For those who know, it is a kick in the gut that disrupts the goodness of a day, or that says (again) that we have so much to do so that Native kids can go through a school day with materials that affirm their presence.

Fourth: I’ll add this to my list of items about GHOSTS.

And now–getting more coffee as I think ahead to another day of Returning the Gift.

October 10, 2017 at 6:08 AMbooktoss.blog said…

Thank you for your patience. Your analysis of the panel is terrific, well thought out and, I hope, moves White readers and writers to better understand what mis-and under-represented people expect. Like Debbie Reese I talk about the racist erasure, cultural appropriation and ableist message of the book. Hearing her excuse, deny, dodge, and generally “White fragility” her way out of taking any responsibility was difficult to watch.

And, I think your point that the Whiteness sucked the joy and recognition out of the room for the LGBTQ and POC authors.

I’d like to push back a bit on one aspect of this article … #5 reads “At 43.33 elaborate and nonsensical arguments are used to protect RT. AJF uses the bizarre argument that why we need more diversity overall is because “when there are these unique stories presented they are highly criticized because there are no other voices telling these stories” and that “it’s really easy when there is one example of it to be picked apart because it can’t be everything to everyone.” I know AJF didn’t mean that we need more diversity so that White people don’t get criticized, but that is actually what she said!”

So, you are letting your friend (AJF) off the hook for SAYING, out loud, this racist statement … because ??? Keep in mind, I think you are absolutely right, she did say white people need more diverse books so white people won’t get picked on by the mean Native and POC critics. I think that is exactly what she meant because that is what she said.

Lastly, I’d like to see links to reviews on the other graphic novels that really did deserve to be there. That would be one way to decenter Ghosts.

Here is mine on Thi Bui’s beautiful memoir The Best We Could Do

https://wordpress.com/post/booktoss.blog/54879

October 10, 2017 at 8:45 AMYuyi Morales said…

Amy, I am specially appreciating what you listed as how white people can take responsibility. I am taking those and adding all kinds of privileges to those suggestions, and seeing how I can do things better by looking from the privilege point I get by my gender orientation, class, abilities, etc.
Last week I attended a powerful presentation of a project of women working together to heal the atrocities and violence on indigenous women in Guatemala during the so called civil war. Amandine Fulchirone, who was one of the researches and the presenter that evening, explained how her role as a non-indigenous woman was, in all rights, questioned by the other women involved. Amandine explained that one of the main principles during the project was to reject the stigma of taboo conversations. Among the participant everything could be discussed and questioned, everything from the motives of the researches to their own personal stories and who was sponsoring the investigation and why. It made me think what would happen if here in children’s literature, we could also hold a principle of taboo conversation where we could be strengthen by our willingness to talk, to question, to respond, and to be respected for such an openness more than by our insistence to defend ourselves and or work.
In the meantime, as we prepare for the upcoming celebration for the Day of the Death, I hope that we can add to the conversation with alternative readings to Ghosts. Here is one tittle I offer with some of the most accurate information about the celebration: Funny Bones, By Duncan Tonatiuh
And, as I believe the moderators are referring to my posting in RWW last year, in which I talked about how the Day of the Dead experience was misrepresented in Ghosts, I am adding here the link to what I had to say at the time: https://readingwhilewhite.blogspot.mx/2016/11/day-of-dead-ghosts-and-work-we-do-as.html

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Oakland Unified School District’s Bret Harte Middle School Library circulated 298 books during the entire 2015-2016 school year. In 2016-2017 Bret Harte’s total circulation: 3,875.frickbefore.jpg

Frick Impact Academy began the 2016-2017 school year with 174 books checked out and circulated, and ended the year with 2,219 books circulated.

Both schools were closed the year before, for approximately 10 years.

What brings about this dramatic change that will surely influence student’s reading? 1. Great staff – thank you to Librarian Lolade Gbadebo at Frick and Library Technicians Maggie Rogers and Nida Khalil at Bret Harte, 2. Great books on the shelves, 3. “Weeding

frickcafe.jpg

 out” old tired and not great books from the shelves. Frick began the school year with a total of 5,878 books on the shelves and ended the year with a total of 4,946 books. That means 2,349 books were weeded and 1,417 new books were added!

Photos are of Frick – semi-before (before, before the library was filled with junk! ) and

AFTER!

please insure that all school libraries are not used for:
(1) punishment sites for tardy & other students,
(2) student/psychologist or student/counselor 1on1 meeting sessions,
(3) eating, snacks, drinks

and that school libraries are used for:
(1) individual work/study sessions,
(2) completion of homework/papers,
(3) low talking small group work/study sessions,
(4) allows students to print out assignments using printers that are in working condition,

(5) have books that are on the shelves and not in boxes

(6) are open before school starts, and after school ends – for student use to complete homework/papers/etc.

(7) have copies of all school textbooks available for use by students, especially at the beginning of school

Equity thanks to MK

Posted: May 11, 2017 in On Our Minds

This is the first time in the two years that I’ve been employed by Oakland Unified School District that I’ve been able to provide equal access. It’s the first time that I sent ALL high schools and middle schools the same opportunity:

  • A giveaway book for all students
  • A book teens are going to LOVE
  • An AWESOME book (not overstock, not something someone is trying to get rid of)21914livewire3.jpg

It’s Buck, by MK Asante.

Thank you MK (and Random House and donor) who made it possible for 10,000 or more kids in the Bay Area to get to read this book over the summer. For providing equity. It’s a super good feeling to not have to pick and choose and try to come up with some kind of formula to piece meal out something to deserving kids. It feels so liberating, so right to be able to send out to all schools and have principals aware of and experience the benefit of the library and the National and other connections we can bring.

It’s sadly a strange feeling, this liberation from constraint of scarcity. I guess this is what Marx was talking about?

Readers may remember that Buck won the top 10 In the Margins award and was one of my personal favorites –  as is MK.

As many of you know, my last day at the Juvenile Hall was in 2015. Yes, I miss the beloved children, AND… I’ve been lucky in my work to be on a school campus and to see kids I’ve known, give them a hug and hear about books they’ve read and what they’ve been doing.

I’ve taken a little break…. from reading, blogging and the rest, as I’ve been laying the groundwork at Oakland Unified School District to open libraries. More about that later. In the meantime I’ve been thinking about where I’ve been and where I’m going….

I’m passionate about opening up kids’ worlds through literacy and libraries. Throughout my career, I’ve worked with preschool to adult learners, often in communities where people actively hated or feared reading. I’ve attempted to establish relevant libraries all over Alameda County and create lifelong readers as a result.

During the years I worked with adult learners I consistently asked them what they identified as the root cause of their reading challenges. Every single person shared a story of a traumatic experience around books and reading. These negative experiences had one thing in common: they were at school.

National research continues to show that school libraries have a positive impact on student success, however California has occupied last place in every national metric that measures the health of school libraries. In 2014-15 California school districts employed only one teacher librarian for every 7,400 students, when the national average was one teacher librarian for every 1,100 students. California ranks 50th in terms of overall literacy development.

Over 50% of the children in the Alameda County Juvenile Hall are from Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) schools, where only 40 of the 88 schools have a school library, some with parttime staff. These youth in Juvenile Hall have difficulty navigating the public library system in terms of library cards, fines and access to relevant materials. What is the answer?

While at the Juvenile Hall I received many calls from teachers whose students had been released from Juvenile Hall and reentered their classroom as readers. I can honestly say that the culture of reading at the Hall was 99% positive when I left.  The library was a safe havens for exploration and a space for critical literacy.

Collection development is….well, everything. If the collection isn’t relevant, or if there are extraneous books on the shelves that aren’t relevant, or are dingy, or messed up, reading doesn’t happen, the culture doesn’t change. I did not accept donations,  or if I did it had to live up to my picky and high standards. I did not put a book on the shelf that someone might read. I only put books on the shelves that kids or a kid were reading or had read. The collection was so good that kids who were incarcerated for 2-3 and more years still found books on the shelves that they wanted to read. One of my greatest joys was a kid who had been there for 2 years or so and came to the library on fire, taking a stack of 10 books that he had never seen or wasn’t ready for before and now was. I know my students found books that reflected and enlivened their lives and that enabled their excitement about reading, sometimes for the first time in their lives. Meeting and having a dialogue with famous, not famous and local authors helped them to feel connected to the world of books and reading.

In answer to these calls from teachers, I was drawn to work as the District Librarian in the Oakland Unified School District. (I was also headhunted, and I have to say I appreciated that experience). I’m hoping I can have an impact on students before kids get incarcerated. In this way I can serve more students, those from K to 12. Utilizing the model  created at the Juvenile Hall, The Juvenile Justice Literacy Project ensures that teachers, librarians and families will have the information on how to develop relevant library collections for all ages, how to make them available and accessible on a daily basis, thus assisting all students to validate their lives and the lives of their families in the pages of a book.

Keep in touch, I’m working on it!

I haven’t been blogging lately as the nature of this blog is changing. To what? I am not sure, although today I am compelled to write.

Today I did my first act of successful witnessing.

Two black women  had been pulled over by the police.

I pulled up beside them, unrolled my window and asked if they wanted a witness. The driver said yes. I parked my car (illegally) and got out of the car with my cell phone. I kept a “respectful” distance away from the police and also from the women in the car.

The woman in the passenger seat looked to me as if she was having a  traumatized response. She was having difficulty breathing and was shaking uncontrollably.  I moved a little bit closer, slowly –  (after all, I am white, and I could be triggering her as well) and asked if they needed anything. The driver said “water” and reached out some money to me. I did not take the money. I went and got the water and gave to the woman. The driver said to me: “with all that is going on, we just don’t know, we just don’t know” inbetween trying to assist the passenger with breathing and calming. She said to me, “we will feel better when the cop leaves.” I moved away from their car.

The cop asked, “can I speak to you for a moment.” I moved towards him so that he would not come towards the women. He said, “she appears to be having a panic attack.” I said, “Absolutely. Are you done? I  think it would assist if you were able to leave.” He got in his car and left.

The driver then asked the passenger if she wanted to get out. I opened the door and held out my hand to help her to get out of the car, which was really difficult given how scared she was. She said, “hold me, hold me” and I reached out to hug her but realized within two seconds that she was not able to relax with me. By that time the driver was there and was able to hold her and calm her down. The driver also talked with me a lot about their fear, and I listened.

The passenger calmed down. Not totally, but enough that she was able to stop shaking. Her eyes were red. Her skin was clammy. I say these things because that was how it was when I left. I asked if they needed anything else in the moment or if there was anything else I could do for them.

In case people don’t know or understand I want to break down the privilege part: 1. I was able to witness. 2. I was able to be calm around the cop because I personally have not had negative experiences with cops. 3. I was treated with respect from the cop. 4. I was able to leave and feel as if I were making a difference and that my day was richer for the experience. 5. I was not harassed or penalized in any way for parking illegally. 6. There may be even more I am not yet aware of how much privilege I had in this interaction. These 6 points are not given, are never if rarely the experience of my friends that are people of color in their interactions with the police. This is white privilege.

If a white person had been a driver and needed help would they have had their wits about them enough to offer money for what was needed? The fact that this woman offered me money in the midst of what must have been her own fear and trauma, the fear and trauma of her loved one, and the legacy of trauma she and her people have experienced from those in “authority”  not to mention the  basic hassle and frustration of being pulled over and given a ticket shows her amazing skill and resilience in the face of a huge amount of stress.  White people do not have this stress and trauma. This is privilege.

Great interview. 

RAWing with Paul Langan answering the five questions of doom

  1. Tell me how you got started writing, in particular writing for teens. Why did you focus on writing books with an urban setting featuring youth of color?

I wrote my first short story in 6th grade. It was almost Halloween, and my reading teacher challenged our class to write a scary story. The winning story would be selected by the class and receive a $5 prize. I was a new kid in the school, and I wrote my story about the thing that scared me the most—a classmate who spent much of his time shoving me in the hallways and threatening me on the playground. In my story, he met a glorious end at the hands of a horde of bully-hungry zombies. He got attention, which he liked, but I got that $5 prize and discovered a new tool to deal with difficulties in my world: writing.

Many moons later, I worked for Townsend Press as a coordinator for a summer reading program for Philadelphia 8th graders. My goal was to get kids reading. To do that, we created a reading contest. Kids would select a book straight off teacher recommendation lists and bestseller charts. They’d read it and call our toll-free reading hotline where I’d confirm they finished the book. Prizes, including cash, were awarded based on the number of pages each student read.

We had fun that summer, but I discovered our students, mostly African American teens, seemed uninterested in the titles teachers recommended. Instead, they gravitated toward novels set in cities, featuring protagonists that looked like them (a rarity in the YA world in the late 1990’s). In retrospect, we should not have been surprised that they preferred books that spoke to their experiences. But at the time, this idea was revolutionary. The kids schooled us. The lesson was simple: if we want young adults to pay attention to books, we need to give them books that pay attention to them. That idea sparked the Bluford Series.

2.      Bluford is popular for lot s of reasons, but in particular often with kids who can’t or won’t read other books. In your opinion, what are the elements of a successful book for reluctant teen readers?  

Confession. I’ve never liked the term reluctant reader.  I’ve seen many with this label become avid readers—once they get the right book. Why don’t they have it? One culprit is reluctant publishers. For too long, mainstream publishers refused to acknowledge or embrace young readers of color. This is well documented by greater minds than me, and it is changing (finally). But traditional publishing still seems reluctant to address the issue of access. Listing a hardback book for $19.99 online or in a suburban bookstore is evidence of the problem. In crowded neighborhoods in Philly, Chicago, or Detroit, for example, bookstores are rare. Municipal libraries are underfunded. School libraries are being shuttered. Money for books and eBooks is limited. As a result, many teens don’t get to experience exciting YA books. Is it fair to call them reluctant readers? I don’t think so.

And sometimes we actually teach them to be reluctant. Kids without access to books tend to have reading experiences confined to what’s taught in school. Often these books are far removed from students’ interests, and they come with baggage: quizzes, writing assignments, worksheets, book reports, etc. These tasks make reading a punishable activity. For strong readers, this work can be dull. For struggling readers (more often boys), this work can leave them discouraged or frustrated. Years of this in school can destroy enthusiasm for reading. It may even lead students to conclude books have nothing to offer—or to give up on reading altogether.

The Bluford Series was crafted to change this. Bluford stories attempt to reintroduce reading to teens who have, for whatever reason, abandoned books. Each novel is set in bustling inner-city Bluford High School, a place one reader called “Hogwarts in the ’hood.” Each story begins with a situation that has emotional hooks that resonate for young adults: the desire to connect and be accepted, the longing for love and respect, the pain of loss or rejection, the feeling of being misunderstood by family or friends, the sting of betrayal and rivalry, the difficulty of being young and confused and uncertain, the magical intensity of growing up. These sparks burn bright in young adults.

In addition, the books are short (less than 200 pages), giving teens who may think they dislike reading a chance to finish a book. Many write to me saying Bluford novels are the first they’ve ever voluntarily completed. Some describe feeling as if something was wrong with them because, for the first time in their lives, they stayed up all night reading. A few have even said they thought they were ill because their hearts raced and they forgot about dinner while reading!

To produce this reaction, Bluford novels move quickly and include lots of action and suspense, starting on page one if possible. They also, I hope, pack an emotional punch, leaving readers with something to think and, perhaps, talk about.  This combination allows the books to compete with smart phones, social networking, and video games for teens’ attention—not an easy task. It might also convince them to give books a second chance. That was the intent from day one.

3.      Tell me a little bit about the deal with Scholastic coming out with the Bluford books with different covers, and in one case, a different title.  What, if any other changes, did you need to make to make the Scholasticable? (is that a word?)

I like the word! I may have to borrow it. Yes, Scholastic approached us years ago and expressed interest in distributing the Bluford Series. Townsend Press, my employer, is a small educational publisher. We lack the reach, expertise, and distribution muscle of Scholastic and were delighted they felt our novels were potentially Scholasticable.

We agreed to terms in which both Townsend and Scholastic could distribute the books. Their marketing team felt that photograph-based covers made more business sense. They also requested that we change the title of one of our books—The Gun—for fear some bookstore chains may refuse to carry it. To appease them, I renamed that book Payback, an alternate title I had all along.

4.      Okay, the big question:  so I reluctantly read a blog review of Outburst in my The Alternative series. This book tells the story of an African American teenage girl coming out of detention and going into a foster home.  The review began with “Jones, who is white …” and I wished I would have stopped reading there. Have you faced this being a white male writing stories for and about kids of color?  Most everybody seems to be onboard with we need diverse books, but not if those books are not written by people of color.  What are our thoughts on this issue?

Ah, yes. The Big Question—worthy of more than a few paragraphs!

I’ve been around the block for a while now. Early on, I visited schools where readers—teens and adults—didn’t know I was white until my pasty face appeared in the front office. I heard readers exclaim, “Oh my God, he’s white,” more than a few times. I have also heard my books described as “ghetto novels,” a racially charged term with positive and negative meanings. Still others have suggested I’ve “neglected” or even discriminated against white readers by not featuring white protagonists. Others are angry that I’ve written such books, arguing that I have no right to do so.

Race is our cultural third rail, and it is woven right into our national DNA, whether we want to admit it or not.  We are all impacted, and we all play a part. If you choose to avoid the issue or look away, you’re playing a part too, a passive one.

Most writers, myself included, are not passive. If we were, we wouldn’t choose this path. When you decide to write, you make a commitment to be true to what you are creating. That means doing your homework and research, mining your experience, and delving through your own creative process to tell the Truth. Your readers deserve all you can give (and sometimes more). So do your characters. If you get it wrong, both will abandon you.

For Bluford, I chose to set events in a city school, similar to the schools students in our summer program attended.  For believability and realism, I made this fictional high school mirror the population in those schools. As a result, few students at Bluford High are white. That’s reality! Unlike most YA books, especially in 2001 when Bluford appeared, nonwhite characters are not relegated to the sidelines. They are not minor players or token characters. Instead, they are the centerpiece, the heroes and foils, parents and children, principals and janitors, bullies and targets, veterans and neighbors, police officers and thugs in every story. Sometimes they are many of these things at once. Like all of us, they are complex and multi-layered with their own histories, secrets, and mysteries. They are also, I hope, full of contradictions, flaws, talents, fears, hopes, beauty and ugliness—traits that are authentically human. Real.

I get letters all the time. My favorites are those that say, “I know you’re white, but it’s okay because you totally get it.”  I treasure these because as a writer and fellow human being, Iwant to get it. It is the prime directive.

Of course, there are some things as a white man I will never fully understand. While I have many experiences which inform my work, my white skin makes my American experience different than that of my characters and many of my readers. This is complex territory too big to fully address here, but as a white writer, I must account for it, examine what it means, own up to it, and always remember it. This is our cultural backdrop, but it is not an excuse to avoid or ignore readers of color. That approach has been standard practice for far too long, and we see where it leads. Let’s change it. I think all writers should join in this effort. All readers matter.

Regardless of background or history, writers share a single challenge: to breathe art and Truth into their work. Readers get to decide whether we are successful. It’s that simple. To paraphrase the Bard, the story is the thing.

Does the story hold up? Does the writer get it? Does the art resonate? If yes, there’s nothing more to say. I aim for yes.

5.      What are you working out now?  In addition to writing Bluford books, what else do you do for Townsend Press?

We’re a small independent educational publisher, but we have a big reach. We produce materials—novels, leveled books for emerging readers, reading/writing texts for schools and colleges—that engage students and help teachers teach. The Bluford Series is just one part of that. We also sponsor various programs to assist schools with limited budgets. As an editor at Townsend Press, I have many responsibilities outside the Bluford Series. Lately I’ve spent much time working to digitize our offerings. But I am happy to say I’ll be returning to the Bluford Series full-time next year, and a new Bluford book, in the works for some time now, will be out this fall. We’ll post details about it soon on Bluford’s Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/Bluford.Series

Programming: AR – Rapper

Posted: May 13, 2015 in On Our Minds

Arthur Renowitzky is the executive director and founder
of Life Goes On Foundation (LGO) a nonpolitical/nonprofit organization working in the Bay
Area to help bring an end to gun violence amongst youth. Arthur founded LGO in 2007
after he was shot point blank in the chest outside of a San Francisco night club by an
unknown assailant, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. The shooter took $20
dollars from Arthur and a $15 tin chain. The shooter was never found. Arthur forgives his
shooter and wishes for no revenge.
After the shooting, Arthur was rushed to the hospital and believes the first responders are
the reason he is alive today.   After a 23-day battle in a medically induced coma, Arthur
woke on Christmas Eve-day to learn he would never walk again. That news drove Arthur’s
mind in a direction he never imagined – not, my life is over, but “I can’t let this happen to
another kid like me”
Establishing his “line in the sand” against gun violence, Arthur knew the best route was
to found his non-profit, LGO, and aggressively hit the streets spreading his message of
peace and the real reality of gun violence, through special events and public speaking.

Listen to this terrific  presentation about why we need diverse books, in case you don’t already know, or want to feel validated and reinspired:

hhttp://www.eventscribe.com/2015/ALA-Midwinter/assets/audio-flash/171186/launcher.asp?AssetID=43021

“When I said I was bored my mom told me to go read a book but I didn’t because I thought books were boring. In school I didn’t’ really read, I just skimmed the words. But since I’ve been here (Alameda County Juvenile Hall), for four months, I’ve read a good 6 books: Letter to an Incarcerated Brother (Hill Harper), Sister Souljah, Straight Out of East Oakland (Rev. Harry Williams), Buck (MK Asante), an autobiography of Tupac Shakur. I’ve even been reading the dictionary! It’s the most I’ve every read – I never finished a book before. The books give me education and space to be somewhere else. They’ve opened my mind and  opened my vocabulary!”  – Brendon S.