Home Uncut Interviews Ashia’s Uncut Interview with the Massachusetts Reading Association’s Equity, Inclusion & Diversity Committee

Ashia’s Uncut Interview with the Massachusetts Reading Association’s Equity, Inclusion & Diversity Committee

via Ashia

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The finished interview is now open to the public, and it’s right here

Ashia’s Uncut Interview

1. Where did your inspiration for the website come from?

I grew up in the Boston area in the 80’s and 90’s, a multiracial daughter of an immigrant, a single child of a disabled single mother who worked back-breaking hours as a hairdresser. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I also grew up as an autistic child surrounded by people who either didn’t know about, or completely misunderstood autism.
Growing up, my teachers focused melting-pot multiculturalism and heavily promoted the idea of colorblind theology (Just ignore racial inequity and racism will go away!) and assimilation (if you want respect, act more like a boy!). I was told kids like me could grow up to become anything, even president of the US – but the long row of presidential portraits on the school halls told a much whiter, wealthier, and more masculine story.
As you can guess – I never saw a kid who looked like me in a book. Those characters who did reflect a single aspect of my identity were loaded with stereotypes and stigma. By the majority – these messages are still in circulation.
“She’s not like the other girls”(1) told me the only way to succeed as a girl was to separate myself from my femininity. “All Chinese people eat worms”(2) told me I had to cling to my whiteness to survive. Autistic characters proving their worth by providing savant skills for allistic entertainment told me I couldn’t possibly be Autistic. Stories of “poor, but clean,” those noble and helpless victims living in poverty (or those depicted as lazy Welfare Queens) told me that to ask for help and risk the stigma of poverty would be social suicide.
As for multiracial kids, kids raised by single parents, and third-culture kids who had to straddle the line raised in between two cultures – we simply didn’t exist.
And we never existed at the intersection of these identities.
Like many new parents, I saw my first child as a blank slate. A paper doll where I could project all of the things I never had. I dug for reflections of his identity as valid, normal, and spectacular. I devoured books – hundreds each week, searching for the best books that would reflect him. Unsatisfied, I cut pasted over pronouns in books like Jimmy Zangwow (featuring over a thousand characters, only one of which was a woman! She’s pictured from the neck down, sporting an apron, washing dishes). I changed male trucks to female and nonbinary. I reimagined animal moms and dads as loving same-sex parents. I taped over toxic text over ‘The Giving Tree’ to create a cautionary tale. I performed on-the-fly mental gymnastics with every bedtime story, inserting honor for our people, and those people who my son might grow to be, inserting and diversity where there was none.
But over time, something budged. You look long enough, and hard enough, and you’ll find your people, your stories. ‘Where Oliver Fits,’ ‘Red: A Crayon’s Story,’ and ‘Not Quite Narwhal’ is proof of that. (5)
That child is seven years old now, and I’ve learned how foolish I was in those early years. He’s a real human, self-motivated with his own internal whims and personality, not a paper doll. Not me, in do-over. He needs books that I never needed – about healthy masculinity and gender fluidity. About what it means to be perceived as White while retaining our Asian roots. About growing up comfortable while still impacted by generational trauma. About celebrating his Indigenous heritage without appropriating a culture he’s alien to. About what it means to use privilege and power to stand up against systemic oppression, to use our power to lift up and pass the mic to those whose oppression we benefit from.
Turns out – there were others also looking long and far. We found each other. And we built Books For Littles together with the shared history of being told our stories aren’t worth telling. That was something healing. Over time, we discovered healing isn’t enough. It’s about time for us to take that power and push it forward. That’s why we’ve expanded past searching for books into a shared mission – igniting the next generation of kind and courageous leaders. It’s grown into a larger organization – Raising Luminaries. Mostly centered on kidlit as a tool. But not always.
I could spend some time digging into my archives, but briefly, I’ve written articles about these issues before:
(1) See: Any book about a woman by Brad Meltzer. Or 95% of the books featured in the Mighty Girl website
(2) See: The Boy Who Spoke Chinese. Or really any book written by a white author about Asian folks that features food.
(3) See: Babysitters Club. That one about the autistic musical savant
(4) See: One Thousand Dresses. Or anything by Eve Bunting
(5) The Misfits collection on our website addresses this

2. Tell us more about your site? What is your intended audience for your website?

The resources we create are designed for parents and educators of kids ages 0-7. Adults tasked with stewarding the next generation before implicit bias sinks its teeth in too deep. Adults who also grew up in a stew of colonization, White supremacy, toxic masculinity, discrimination against people with mental health conditions, disability, non-white immigrants, and so on. All the -isms. Adults like me, who grew up thinking it was normal to have more white, male, wealthy, abled presidents, CEOs named ‘John’ than all the non-men, Indigenous, disabled, and leaders of color added together.
So the thing is – we have some dismantling of our own to do. That’s the kick that makes this work hard. We can’t just teach our kids ‘racism is bad.’ We can’t just pick up a list of books, tick them off like a checklist, and call it social justice education. We’ve got to understand our own bias and assumptions, the ways we subtly feed into the kyriarchy, the ways we’ve made ourselves comfortable, even those of us who are multiply marginalized ourselves.
And then we’ve got to tell our stories, and the stories of those who have been silenced, to our kids. So they can smash all that kyriarchy nonsense and build a stronger, more inclusive society.

3. Could you tell us more about reviewing books?

I might be too close to it, or just too Autistic, to understand why most folks can’t do what I do. So let’s focus on the actions.
A. Listen to challenges and obstacles people are facing.
Example: There are trans dads out there who carry their children in pregnancy. They have to deal with all kinds of erasive, micro & macro-aggressive, transphobic nonsense from the public at large, on top of just – making a baby is hard! Being a parent is hard! There aren’t many pregnancy books for men to help a guy out! I can’t help with that, way outside my wheelhouse. BUT – I can help with that obstacle of wondering – will my kids see themselves and our family reflected as real, valid, and healthy? We all need for these dads and their children to know we love and celebrate and accept them.
B. Research the crap out of this. Again, it’s not my wheelhouse. I hose down #OwnVoices nonfiction, long boring articles on critical social theory, and organizations who we can boost long after my kids are in bed into the wee hours of the morning. For things that are outside my wheelhouse, it’s vitally important that I set my assumptions aside and listen and believe to first voices of people with lived experience (and pay and credit them for it.)
Example: Listen and believe trans dads. Which sounds not hard (and it’s not hard) but yet – so few people do it.
C. READ ALL THE CHILDREN’S BOOKS. My family scooped up a home in a neighborhood waaay outside our means (thanks, 2008 housing crisis!) which gives us access to one of the best libraries in the country (the Newton Free Library, REPRESENT) and the libraries within the Minuteman network in the greater Boston area. Which means there are very, very few children’s books I can’t get my hands on. I go on to request, screen, and test out every single book even tangentially related to the topic at hand, often processing hundreds of books for a single project. 98% of them are hot garbage. 1% are out of print or rare books that I can’t boost because they just no longer exist.
My kids are guinea pigs, and all the best books are tested through them for engagement. I can’t abide unethical book critics who recommend books without actually testing to see if kids like them. Boring books breed resentment, which spills over into bias. Bland, poorly-written books are dangerous.
D. Create accessible, free resources so everyone can find them
That other 1% of AMAZING books though – those are world changing. I tell the world about them. They change lives.
Books that makes you feel seen. Stories that tell you – someone who has never felt like ‘enough,’ that you are good, and whole, and great and we need you to be exactly who you are.
Books that skip past your fragility and shame so you can see the humanity in the person you were raised to believe was inferior, to make ‘them’ into ‘us’
Books that make standing still in the face of injustice unbearable so you must take action for change.
It’s important that we keep this work accessible – for those single-parent families living below the poverty line, they can use our resources, along with access to a local library. These are the folks I strive to provide for. If I’m lucky, the ones who can afford $5 chip in to support my work on Patreon.
(It’s a terrible business model for my family’s budget, but great for humanity and that next seven generations.)
E. Teach folks who to read critically
Oh, I also tell the world a little bit about the problematic books, too. What makes them garbage is a great exercise in critical reading. In unpacking problematic tropes in media, particularly the overlooked category of early children’s literature, we can see how white supremacy, all those -isms and such, sneak into our brains and infect us with the idea that this is normal. Oppression is a lot like the parasitic toxoplasmosis (which makes mice love and approach cats.,.to be eaten). Systemic inequality tricks us into thinking this is the only way, the best way, to move forward and live together.
It’s not. We can be much, much kinder to each other.
Oh on the trans dad theme – my search for those has come up empty. Those books celebrating these kickass dads don’t exist. So I’ve joined up with Little Feminist Book Club (that’s an affiliate link, because they are great about supporting my work), and now we’re making one tiny step forward, as an upcoming board book will feature a pregnant trans dad, in all of his handsome glory.
We won’t stop there. I’m not going to rest until everyone is included, in the same full volume and force as white boys and rabbits.

4. Where would you like to take this site in the future, in an ideal world?

In 2020, we’re focusing on the intersection of deconstruction, decolonizing, transformative justice, and anti-capitalism in a world obsessed with technology and false urgency. Which are all big words that I’m using to impress people, but boil down to – lots of experiments with saying “NOPE” to the things we feel we should do, or have to do, to maintain a social contract and remain a supported member of human society.
And uhh…how it relates to raising small children, with picture books to break it down into simple terms that even exhausted parents and overworked educators can tackle.
I’ll be working in collaboration with a set of teams who will experiment with new ways to educate kids and their adults. One of our pilot teams, the Student Ignition Society, is led by our Dean of Rebellious Educators, April Brown. We’re focusing on family & educator-friendly Solidarity Toolkits with reading guides, template advocacy letters, and basic 101 breakdowns of urgent social issues, such as the imprisonment of immigrant children at the Mexico-US border (http://bit.ly/SISImmigrantSolidarityToolkit) and engagement to teach unwitting educators to stop celebrating a genocidal monster who enslaved and murdered children every October. (bit.ly/SISIndigenousPeoplesDayToolkit).
This is just the beginning hints of what it looks like when stewards of the next generation gather together in collective action.

5. Anything else you might want to share about the work you are doing now?

Probably, but it’d take too long. I create a lot of stuff. Instead, I always like to end with a call to action:

Listen to and boost #OwnVoices advocates, authors, and publishers. Give credit to people who put emotional labor into educating you – even if (especially if) they didn’t have the privileges it takes to get fancy credentials and an alphabet soup of letters after their names. If the free education they provide to you helps you do your job, pay them. Hire them. Instead of co-opting their work as your own, encourage your colleagues to support them as well.

Paternalism of supremacy tells us that folks with lived experience are amateurs, and we don’t know what’s good for us. It’s often folks who consider themselves ‘experts’ who do us the most harm in stigmatizing us. It’s those who love us – the White parents and educators of children of color, the non-disabled parents of disabled children, who silence us and boost their voices at the expense of our human dignity, and safety.
That #OwnVoices tag, for instance. That’s a buzzword in the literacy world now. It’s a term coined by Corrine Duyvis, an Autistic woman and YA author. The Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors terminology that floats through every library was coined by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, and later, the Indigenous Curtain by Dr. Debbie Reese, both women who do have alphabet soup credentials – but they are Black & Nambé Pueblo (respectively) women whose name and messages are often twisted in the mouths of those who claim to be her allies.
You know, I spent years re-inventing that wheel before I found their work. Long after I created the BFL Validating/ Destigmatizing/ Normalizing/ Problematic procedure for evaluating stories, after years of seeing random references to ‘mirrors’ without a reference to Dr. Bishop. Seeing calls for decolonizing kidlit before hearing the name of Dr. Reese. Coulda saved me some time if all these internet scholars and education blogs would give them some credit.

In a society where multiply marginalized educators struggle to be heard and believed (because of perceived incompetence due to our gender, disability, or what have you), using the products of our intellectual labor and expertise while simultaneously promoting books that denigrate our identities is a gross, silent, and pervasive violence.

Our work is out there, on the internet, free and accessible to all. You no longer have an excuse for ignorance.
Ashia Ray
Arch Custodian of Book Nerdery
Raising Luminaries (www.raisingluminaries.com)

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