[Image description: Illustration from ‘Not Quite Snow White’ by Ashley Franklin and Ebony Glenn. A white child whispers into the ear of an East-Asian child as they look at Tameika, a Black girl. Tameika looks uncomfortable.]
In part 1 of this series on anti-racism for kids, we unpacked colorblind fallacies and discussed how refusing to acknowledge racial diversity further stigmatizes kids of color. With this collection, we teach kids why we must be mindful of social power in anti-racism work.
Bold and *marked titles are written or illustrated by #OwnVoices makers of color.
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Teaching Kids To Recognize Racial Power Inequity
Anti-Racism For Beginners 102: Understanding Social Power In Racial Discrimination
How to Use Kids Books To De-Center Whiteness
“My daughter is Asian American growing up in a super white city, and the microaggressions are beginning to wear on her” Anonymous reader from the Books For Littles Facebook Group.
Reverse racism isn’t a thing. Stop trying to make reverse racism a thing.
Racism, like all -isms, only exists within a hierarchy of social power.
We overlook how social power plays into systemic discrimination because when we have power, we breathe it like air. It’s completely invisible. Only the folks who don’t have the same power we do – those who struggle to breathe – can help us to recognize it by telling their stories.
Training our kids to see invisible power structures requires we recognize it in our daily lives.
Racism is not just discrimination between races. But that’s really hard to mentally grasp, so here, let’s try this…
(CONTENT WARNING FOR CHILD ABUSE)
If my five year old punches me in the stomach, I’m allowed to get upset.
Disrespectful! Unacceptable disobedience! How dare!
Even if I’m physically hurt, I’m still the one with control in this relationship. This flurry of tiny fists does not make me feel threatened or unsafe. I’m not afraid my 5-year-old will destroy my life. I’m not in any danger.
In our society, we adults have not just physical power over children – but also social power. All things being equal, a five-year old who shares the same privileges and social status as me can’t do me much harm.
Now reverse it. Let’s imagine I let loose and punch that kid 5-year-old right in their adorable little face.
Because of my size, I can physically overwhelm them and steal any sense of autonomous safety and control without their consent. (That loss of control – that’s the stuff complex trauma is made of, by the way.) Even when we equalize physical power in this situation, I’ve got more options. As teens, my kids will outweigh and overshadow me – but I still hold the authority.
But there’s also the impact of what happens when someone with power over you hurts you. I don’t just have personal authority over my kids. I have the privileges that come with adulthood. People trust my word over a child’s. I have connections, cash, and know how to work the system in a way a 5-year-old survivor of violence does not.
Long after their wounds have healed, this encounter will reverberate as an ongoing potential threat so long as I maintain power over them.
How we use intimidation to maintain power.
From the moment I hit my child – they will live with the understanding that I could use my larger physical mass, my social ties, and all the tools within my reach to hurt them. Whether they know it consciously or not, they must live with caution – knowing that I have the power to destroy them on a whim.
And yet – we don’t call an adult’s violence or disobedience toward a child ‘disrespectful.’ We call it discipline.
The punishments we meter to kids are manufactured consequences designed to maintain our societal norms. Adults controlling children through intimidation upholds our social structure. Which is why corporal punishment is still socially acceptable, particularly among families who believe there should be a social hierarchy.
Even though I don’t hit my kids, I am raising my kids in a culture of adult supremacy. I benefit from it at a cost to them – their freedom, and their sense of safety.
So when I raise my voice, and my kids flinch, telling them ‘I’m one of the good non-hitting parents’ dismisses a valid fear they have every right to feel. Telling them that they are ‘blowing things out of proportion‘ implies that I don’t recognize my power over them.
Refusing to acknowledge my power makes me even more dangerous because I’m oblivious to my power and how it impacts them.
Aaaand now that I’m writing this all out. I’m realizing I’ve never explicitly explained this to my kids. So I’m going to talk to them about it tonight.
See? We can all afford to do a little better. Like my light-skinned privilege, I didn’t create this power inequity and I don’t want it. But I still benefit from it and it’s my job to recognize when I’m doing it and empower my kids to protect themselves when I stumble into it.
Childism is not racism, but both share roots in paternalism
I’m using this physical example of child abuse to illustrate a tool we use to dismiss and ignore oppressed groups – paternalism. Paternalism is the idea that those with less power (people who are oppressed) are incapable of identifying what harms them, and those in power (oppressors) know best for those they’re abusing.
Adults of color, disabled adults, and so on for all grown-ups who hold less social power – we are not children.
Paternalism also gives us a false belief that equivocating two different oppressed groups to gain a foothold for one of them, is okay. It’s not okay. It’s fundamentally problematic to do what I did above.
Go back and read it again, noticing the subtle way I normalized whiteness/adults as the default, equivocating people of color as children. As the author of this article, this is an abuse of my power and authority and feeds into the thing we’re claiming to fight.
See how that works?
Equivocating two marginalized groups to empower group A disempowers group B. This perpetuates a pattern of behavior that reinforces a supremacist mindset, and makes group A easier to pulled down in the long run.
(That’s why our fights for equality need to be intersectional!)
Equivalencies reinforce oppression for folks who hold both of those identities. Which we know from…them explaining it to us. But unfortunately, we often don’t listen to multiply-marginalized folks – because we see them as multiply-incompetent! This is one way we use our paternalistic view towards oppressed groups to defang and dismiss calls for equity.
As a small Autistic Asian feminine person, I’m perceived as less competent than my tall white male partner. When I tell people the things they do are problematic, or even that they are hurting me relating to my race, gender, or disability – I’m brushed aside. When my partner says the exact same things – people believe him.
My ‘stop‘ to a white man using yellow face is dismissed because I’m some hysterical nagging lady. My partner’s ‘stop‘ is a command , a truth, to be considered and believed.
Centering voices of color is an act of civil disobedience
The trouble is, as intelligent and kind as my partner is – my partner cannot ever fully feel the impact of these -isms. His accomplice work will always lack the nuance and details I can provide as a disabled person of color with lived experience.
When folks in power look for ways to fight racism – we tend to look towards authority (a position that has been traditionally entrenched with whiteness for hundreds of years) for advice.
So long as we center white voices in anti-racism work, we’re just perpetuating racism.
White supremacy culture views disobedience toward authority as a negative violation that threatens to unravel civilization. In our authoritarian society, it’s acceptable for folks with entrenched power to do unfair things to maintain power. We justify this because it keeps people who matter safe and comfortable. The question is – who matters?
The idea that some humans can and should have power over others to preserve their safety and comfort – that those with less power should obey and suffer, is integral to supremacy.
This is the corruption of power. This is the mandate of heaven. This is westward expansion. This is purity culture. This is the culture of conquest. This is respectability politics. But this is not a universal human belief. White supremacy is not human nature, it’s just the one we’ve grown accustomed to due to white supremacy and colonialism.
Disobedience can be healthy – even necessary for a healthy human society. Disobedience is a check on broken systems and wide social gaps in power. Obedience and disobedience must be practiced side-by-side for a healthy human community. That’s why disobedience is the antidote to corruption in so many stories of faith and justice.
What if disobedience was seen for what it is – a symptom of a system that is not working for everyone? If you value inclusion and believe powerful people are responsible for protecting the weak – maybe noodle on that.
Teach your kids to speak up against abuse of power – including their own
Given that we’re unaware of our power and the ways others can perceive us as threatening – dealing with other humans can end up so terribly confusing. Because of this, we have to be mindful of it, and wield our power gently.
If we have no clue how systemic racism works within a social power structure, or even what racism is, we can’t teach our kids how to stop racist behavior.
If we’re unable to see the ways we are complicit in white supremacy (we all are – including me), we can’t teach our kids to dismantle systemic racism. Reverse-racism removes power from the equation of racism. This handy trick makes it easy to dismiss and silence people of color who speak up against racist action and systems of inequity.
It’s human nature for us to view those with less power as less capable. Which makes it easy to dismiss them. Which makes speaking truth to power very hard for folks with less power. Damn vicious cycle, is what it is!
This is what we call: Systemic racism. It’s a system, efficiently self-perpetuating. Gotta break it.
So how do we tell our kids of color that racial discrimination exists, and that it’s gonna be harder to do basic things like be humans in the world, simply because of our race? Without overwhelming them and sending them into a spiraling pile of tears and anxiety?
How do we teach white kids to shake off the instinct to dismiss people of color? Without provoking white fragility (more on that later) and inspiring them to justify negative treatment towards kids of color as inherently deserved?
How do we teach all our kids to disobey safely (and disobey we must!) when unjust systems are hurting people?
THE PLAN: Teach our kids to understand power inequity so they can name it, unpack it, and dismantle it when it happens in the real world. Let’s start these discussions with adorable picture books!
Teach our kids to be anti-racist as if lit from a fire below – bring power back to those who have had it denied. Social power is not a scarce or limited resource. We’re social animals who benefit when the community thrives – social power catches like fire. It grows. We lift up kids of color, and all kids rise.
You might also like: Children’s Books About Civil Disobedience & Disrupting Injustice
Power Up: Why Responsible Representation Matters
Center. Voices. Of. Color.
The problem with books about racism written by white folks is that there are key elements about being targeted by racism that white folks just don’t know to include. It’s very hard for some of us with racial privilege to shut up and pass the mic. But we must!
We can tell kids of color that they can grow up to be President one day – but as an Asian girl raised on history books full of rich White men (and those few go-to Black men), I didn’t need anyone to tell me that no matter how I performed or organized my life, there is no way our country would be electing an Asian lady into the highest office of our government within my lifetime.
These books – all written by Black women, highlight how important it is that kids of color see themselves responsibly represented. Our kids can’t become if they don’t even see becoming as a possibility.
Ages 9+We originally included *Parker Looks Up in this list, but given the point of the book is respectful representation, after hearing from AICL on how this book stereotypes and denigrates Indigenous folks, that makes it an inappropriate pick to highlight responsible representation. Thanks Alyssa M. for catching that in the comments!
**Keepin’ it on the up & up: Zetta Elliott, the author of ‘Milo’s Museum,’ is one of the lovely supporters who keeps this post free and accessible for all – but I’ve been recommending her books since way before she joined our patreon community and have had plans to analyze how it differs from the tokenism in ‘Grandma in Blue with a Red Hat’ (exclusively for patreon supporters) since way before we connected.
You might also like: All My Sons Deserve Respect! Complex Black Boys in Kidlit
Power Up: Disobey & Refuse To Submit
There aren’t many folks who break glass ceilings unscathed.
Our culture doesn’t do a great job at celebrating the battle scars of social progress. So we’ve got to teach our kids to value disobedience and a certain type of scratchy disagreeableness.
Who is seen as a ‘natural‘ – a natural talent, a natural leader, a natural beauty? Who is pinged for advancement and handed power because they ‘seem like a good fit‘ through some ambiguous gut intuition (aka unconscious bias)? We all love easy-going folks. It’s much easier to be easy-going if things are already going your way and society is not designed to progress at your expense. Nasty cycle.
By nature of this work – folks who smash glass ceilings must be disobedient and non-compliant. They lend themselves to being perceived by those who want to maintain inequity as unlikable or even dangerous. All those harsh b*tches, dragon ladies, angry Black women, [insert your least favorite slur here] – labels used to denigrate women of color who refused to accept their place as subservient.
So you’re going to have a hard time finding books about unlikable heroes. American children’s authors love sanding off the rough parts before going to print, as if kids can’t accept imperfect heroes. Sneaky paternalism.
For now though, you’ll have to settle for glass-chippers who manage to ignore haters. Normalize rebellion. Teach girls and nonbinary kids of color that disagreeableness isn’t to be feared – oppression is. Teach kids to value feminine disobedience, to disambiguate goodness from polite quietness.
Also – avoid saviorism (click here for a patron-only book list unpacking that nonsense). If you’re reading a book about racism and a white protagonist helps a kid of color through racial injustice, that’s not centering people of color, that’s disempowering POC as useless victims.
You might also like: Raising Rebels: Books For The Next Generation Of Kind & Brilliant Leaders
Power Up: Understand The Emotional Labor Of Being The Only One
Being the only one person of color in a sea of whiteness is exhausting. Even though kids can feel it, they need our help naming it, analyzing it, and understanding the roots of it. If we don’t help them through it, kids grow up internalizing racism, believing that those microaggressions and the discomfort and trauma of being targeted by racist behavior is inherent to them, rather than a symptom of an unhealthy society.
By targeting cultural associations instead of skin color, aggressors excuse racist behavior as not-racist because it’s about something like a name, a hijab, or targeting someone within their own racial group. This bigotry centers whiteness as the default, and anything deviant from whiteness as inferior.
Notice that the kids in these stories aren’t explicit targeted because of their race, but the aggression against them is still racist. Kids need to see that oppression expands beyond simply skin color or racial identity. We target Muslims because Islam is perceived as a threat to Eurocentric Christianity (it’s not.) We target Asian names because they don’t conform to Whiteness. We target darker-skinned people even within the same family or race because of colorism – tool to divide and conquer within each group of color that elevates proximity to whiteness.
Within each book – we see how external aggression from outsiders become internal thoughts that drive each child’s behavior. Individual acts of racial bias are just the tip of the glacier in white supremacy. Racism is a system that teaches kids of color to value whiteness. Racism exhausts a child of color’s ability to thrive because their minds and bodies are too busy orienting themselves around whiteness in order to stay safe in a racist society.
Keepin it on the up & up: Sailaja Joshi, the founder of Bharat Babies & publisher of Always Anjali, is one of the delightful patreon supporters who keeps my work open and accessible for all – but I’ve recommended Always Anjali before we connected.
You might also like: Circumventing White Fragility With Adorable Children’s Books: Bharat Babies
Stay Curious, Stand Brave & Believe People of Color
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