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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

On "How to Read a Racist Book to Your Kids"

Via Mary Anne, on Facebook, this New York Times piece, about which I want to say a couple of things.

First, I have some sympathy for the author, but also some impatience.

What exactly do you think you are shielding your children from, Stephen? Do you really think they haven't encountered cruelty, greed, and laziness before -- on the playground, say? Do you really think they haven't participated in an order where some have absolute power over others, and often abuse it? What else is children's relationship with grownups?

Sure, you don't want to overwhelm them with your anguish over past horrors. But it is perfectly possible to say "Uderzo drew black people that way because he was confused about black people. The white people in France had taken over a lot of Africa and were trying to convince themselves that they should be allowed to run it, and that made them very confused."

What followup questions are you worried about them having? Questions about whether this is still going on in our world, connections they might make between this denial and dehumanization and the ones that go on all around them -- the "girls can't do that" and "can't you talk English right?" and "retard" and "baby" microagressions that surround them? Questions about whether the authority in the world around them, even your authority over them, is always used for the good, or whether it is covering up crimes that future generations will be horrified at?

Are these actually bad questions for them to have?

I mean, there are two dangers here, I think. One is the danger of overwhelming your kids, burdening them with adult fears and guilt, and that is a real danger, something to be concerned about. I'm not saying you sit down with a three-year-old to watch "Shoah", "The Piano", and "Django Unchained". You don't. But that is not actually because kids can't handle history; that's because kids shouldn't have to handle adult anguish over history. What's required is tact: a mixture of accuracy and restraint. You give the kid the information she needs, honestly, and not more than she can absorb, and in a context that makes sense.

By "context", I'm not talking about a boring lecture on the history of colonialism -- I'm talking about emotional context. A -- perhaps wordless -- emotional context that says -- accurately -- "you are safe here and now, and I love you, and you and I will stand together against the hard things in the world. So even though there are hard things in the world, and dangerous things, and the work of mending the world is not done, you and I can choose to feel safe and confident right now, and to trust ourselves to take the next step."

That's all your kid needs to hear: that you have, not even a plan necessarily, but the courage to face the world, and to be on the side of justice.

Yes, you have to keep yourself from blurting out all the cynical or gallows-humor or despair-filled things your brain wants to say. Yes, you have to step up. But this is not about deception. It is about what is actually the case -- that we are all here, in the present, completely free to ally ourselves with the good -- rather than what feels, deceptively, like it might be the case -- that there's no hope, it's too late, and you're bad anyway by virtue of some accident of birth or past failings (Marche speaks of "white liberal guilt"). Telling the truth is the point, but that requires refusing to listen to the lies (of cynicism and resignation and hopelessness and apathy and it's-not-my-problem) that our minds employ as cushions. You can use your child -- who sees only a gorilla with some pirates, who is sure that you are good -- as a reminder that these are lies.

When your kid skins her knee, do you try to conceal from her the fact that she's bleeding? No, that would be a little crazy, right? Do you freak out and scream "Agh! blood! Oh my god, my poor child, how could this have happened!"? Probably not -- even if you feel like it. Because neither of those is an accurate representation of reality. An accurate representation of reality is: oh, there's definitely a problem here, but we can handle it together. I like being with you and I like facing challenges with you. Now we'll take the next step together.

That pretty much applies equally to skinned knees and genocide.

So that's the first danger -- overwhelm -- and the solution -- sensitivity and context. I think that's the danger Marche is focussed on, to the extent that he forgets the second danger.

The second danger is that you avoid talking about cruelty, oppression, and injustice. But you know what? Your kid is surrounded by these things. Your kid knows the world is full of cruelty, oppression, and injustice. And so if you don't talk about them, if you can't talk about them, then the obvious conclusion, for your kid, is that you either haven't noticed, or are unwilling to name them aloud. Perhaps you are naive or in denial; perhaps they are things which aren't safe to talk about. But in any event, you need to be protected from them.

So it becomes your kid's job to protect you from them. If you say “I don’t know why the pirates have a gorilla” and flip to the next page, you may feel you've dodged a bullet. But that gorilla wears clothes, and talks (in a ridiculous accent), and there's a good chance that on the second or third reading, your kid is going to get a sense that the whole story has not been told about this gorilla.

Your kid is going to notice, sooner or later, that the Man in the Yellow Hat stole Curious George. She's going to realize that Susan gets barred from the New Narnia for her interest in boys and stockings. She's going to notice those islanders bowing to Pippi, and the fact that there are no girls in the Hobbit. And if you are flipping the page each time, your kid is going to get the message: you're a bit too fragile to handle the real world. You don't want to be asked those follow-up questions. And if you can't handle the questions when they are about Narnia and Loompaland, should you be expected to handle them when they're about the playground, the schoolroom, the camp dining hall?

Okay, and the other thing I wanted to say is two brief remarks about the racist caricatures in The Phantom Menace.

The first is that, interestingly, until Marche pointed it out I'd never actually pegged the swarthy hooked-nosed mercantile slaveholder Watto as an evil caricature of a Semite. And sure. He is. But, in a tiny little way, Watto has some arc. He's not just an obstacle to be knocked down by the protagonists, and it's one of the most redeeming moments of that banal movie when he epically stuffs, and mocks, Qi Gong Jin with his telepathic immunity: "What, you think you're some kind of Jedi, waving your hand around like that?" Thinking back on that line, I guess it was always clear to me that Watto had a certain Yiddishkeit about him. But, slaveholding villain that he is, the movie doesn't seem to make a fool of Watto, doesn't dehumanize (detoydarianize?) him in the way Asterix's Nubian pirates or Pippi's islanders are set up to be patsies. Watto has a certain admirable grit, and in at least that one crucial moment, the movie backs him.

And then there's Jar-Jar. Everyone hates Jar-Jar, and I hated him too on that first woeful day when I saw Episode One. His accent is horrible, his pratfalls embarassing, he's there to be the comic humiliated porter, indulgently sneered at by the Jedi sahibs. He's pure minstrelsy.

But when I actually re-watched various Youtube clips of The Phantom Menace with the kids, I found myself counterreading Jar-Jar. Because, accent aside, if you actually look at Jar-Jar's goals and values, he's practically the only sane person in the movie. He's all about gentleness, curiosity, good humor, the willingness to take himself unseriously. His reaction to the constant, unthinking, reactive, predatory violence that dominates equally the Jedi and Sith mindsets -- for all the Jedi's posturing to the contrary -- is unflappable and on point: "How rude."

What would happen, I found myself thinking, if the movie actually backed Jar-Jar, the way it backs Watto, that one time? Because potentially, Jar-Jar is the real Taoist master that Yoda is palely imitating. Not in terms of magic tricks, but in terms of openness to what is, in terms of nonviolent but unpassive engagement, in terms of taking joy in the real.

One of the few moments where Yoda actually has that centered, unpretentious, this-worldly joyfulness is when we first meet him, in Empire, when he rummages in Luke's camp, wrestles with R2 for a flashlight, complains about Luke's military PowerBars and cooks his visitors a good meal; but it turns out, disappointingly, that this was all -- or at least mostly -- an act. From then on, Yoda becomes a dour, serious, monastic dualist, dedicated to a true world of significance beyond the trivial world of mere substance, mere good food and gardening and pleasant surprises and love of friends. He keeps appropriating Lao-Tse's lines, after that, but he's misappropriating them. "Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter" -- it's all downhill from there.

Posted by benrosen at June 20, 2012 02:05 PM | Up to blog

I was thinking about this recently as I read "The Secret Garden." One of the on-going threads in the book is how surprised Mary (the main character) is by how outspoken the servants are in her grandfather's house in Yorkshire compared with the subservient servants she was used to in India.

It seemed to me a bit hard to explain to a child my discomfort with that aspect of the book. It's not outright racist--it's could very well be an accurate portrayal of class relations in early 20th century rural England as compared to rural India. But there's something about the repeated use of this as a touchstone that seems like it is edging towards a view that the English are by nature a more independent, stronger, healthier people.

I suppose your point is that's enough--just discuss the issue.

Posted by: Ethan at June 27, 2012 09:46 PM

Ethan, you're right, but yes, that's a perfect example. "I wonder why her servants in India really didn't stick up for themselves. What do you think? Maybe they were more scared because the English soldiers would be more willing to attack them rather than English servants, or maybe they were thinking the same things but wanted to be more polite about them. The author does seem to make a big deal about how the English trust themselves more. Do you think she was being racist?"

It occurs to me that maybe one other fear people have is that it will mar the magic of wonderful children's books, for our kids, if we frankly discuss their failings. My own experience suggests that this is not a big problem. Noah is, if anything, quicker than I am to skewer Asterix for racism when it occurs (and sexism, for that matter), but he's also hugely enthralled by the books and devours them over and over again. Same with Star Wars -- grasping its Kiplingesque benign condescension to droids and wookies, its girls-can't-have-light-sabres sexism, doesn't seem to have dulled the magic at all. Aviva is enthralled and captivated by Little House on the Prairie even though she has a pretty sophisticated notion of what exactly Pa was trying to pull, out there in Indian Territory.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at July 24, 2012 05:24 AM
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