Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Danger of a White Story

I was born in 1980 in Lake Forest, Illinois to wonderful parents. My dad is Irish and Welsh and my mom is Guatemalan. Growing up, I spent time with both sides of my family, spoke in English and Spanish, painted with my Gramma and played cards with my Mamita. I loved both sides of my family and they loved me.

But the town I grew up in didn’t reflect me or my family as a whole.

I grew up in a town where the population was 98.6% white. People around me lived in mansions, drove shiny, new cars, and wore expensive clothes but I didn’t. Books were the one place where I felt like enough. I could walk into the library and check out as many books as I wanted and they were the same books the other kids were reading. The library leveled the playing field for me. At the same time, It was years and years before the We Need Diverse Books campaign so I read books by Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, and Roald Dahl. I didn’t see my Latinx heritage represented in books I read.

I talked about my story and how books saved me on the Wild Cozy Truth podcast with Renee Powers this week. I'm so thankful for all the books I had access to growing up. But even though connecting with books helped me to become who I am today, they still contributed to a fractured identity for me.

This is the danger of a white story.

I hope by now everyone has seen Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Ted Talk The Danger of a Single Story. If you haven't, please go watch it. I've blogged about it before and how we have to be conscious of how harmful it can be to assume things. Chimamanda points out that it’s too easy to assume things about a large group of people from just one experience or story with one person.

I grew up with a white story all around me. In the community I lived in, in the books I read, in the media I consumed. It’s not shock that I ended up not identifying with my Latina side. It wasn’t until We Need Diverse Books that I started to unravel years and years of being ashamed of being Latina. I spent a month blogging about this very topic. It was a really hard month as I faced things I wasn’t proud of and forced myself to be introspective.

There’s a danger in a white story.

I’m not alone. I’ve heard of students who deny their Latinx identity and attempt to disassociate with their ethnicity. I’ve had a student tell me she wished she had a white girl’s name like mine. I’ve seen my own son raise his hands in excitement that his skin is lighter than his brother’s when we talked about the injustices people might face because of their skin color.

This danger of a white story is why we need to continue to work for diversity in books and other media. We have come along way since the 80’s when I grew up but we still have work to do.

Chad Everett wrote a piece called There Is No Diverse Book where he talks about how we have to examine our use of the word "diverse". He points out that no one book can be diverse. The very definition of diversity implies that there have to be a variety in a range of different things. One book might have a diverse cast of characters. A group of books might represent people from different ethnicities. But the word diverse does not mean non-white.

Chad shares how readers can move along a continuum in terms of what they read. He cites Dr. Rudine Sims-Bishops’ work on the importance of access to books that are Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding glass doors (I mention her work in the podcast but failed to cite her and I apologize for this.). He also points out that while a reader can move along the continuum, it’s important to read widely on those points on the continuum. Reading one book with characters of a certain race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ability, etc., is not enough. That’s the danger of a single story.

Chad also explains, "The word diverse as it is currently used centers heteronormative whiteness as the default." There are a lot of reasons for why whiteness is the default that I don’t have to outline here. It’s imperative that we - as readers, educators, parents, humans - reflect on what we consider the default as we grow the representation of diversity in books and in the books we share with others.

It’s the danger of a white story.

I know all too well what it feels like to live in a white story, to exist thinking that white is the norm. I still struggle with not feeling like enough. I wonder why I’m not included. I question whether my voice matters. And not only that, I find myself dealing with these thoughts in different spaces. I don’t feel like I fit in anywhere.

We have to stop defaulting to white as the norm. Each reader deserves to see themselves in the books they read and they deserve the opportunity to read widely beyond themselves.

In this video interview with Dr. Rudine Sims-Bishop, specifically when she talks about cultural authenticity, she shares ideas for how to look critically at texts we read and share. I urge you to take some time to think about the books you are reading and other media you are consuming and look for diversity in the range of texts you read.

Be aware of the danger of a white story. 

1 comment:

  1. Books are no doubt the best companion and they never let you waste your time. Unless you use the knowledge you learnt from those books.


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