Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Tackling White Mind

What the heck is white mind? Is it the opposite of black soul? Is it a new game? Or maybe a new political affiliation?  No, no, and no.

In the current issue of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Bulletin, there is the final installment of a three-part series in the Illustrator's Perspective column that "...examines what illustrators can do so that all kinds of children can see themselves reflected in our books." Boldly titled "White Mind," I have followed this column and the author's blog, Coloring Between the Lines, with curiosity, some angst, and a thirst for answers. On her blog, Anne Sibley O'Brien, tackles issues of race and culture as they relate to children's literature, and with great precision delves into what she considers white conditioning.

As an African-American woman writing stories for children, characters of various cultural backgrounds are born in my imagination. Admittedly, most of them are children of color. But interestingly, when I begin to write, I envision and treat my characters as "every child." They are not usually identified as "ethnic," just simply as girls or boys. This small fact probably won't surprise O'Brien.

But I cannot help but wonder what editors and publishers will see...what they will assume about my writing and my characters. I wonder, but I don't worry.

One of my goals as an aspiring author is to normalize racial differences and grow the presence of children of color in picture books, early readers, and middle school chapter books. Children of all nationalities should browse the shelves in libraries and open the pages of books to see themselves depicted as princesses or pirates, wizards or witches, mermaids or munchkins, vampires or valedictorians. Yes, I too have a dream.

In the final installment of "White Mind," O'Brien asks, "What if all races of children got auditions for all picture book roles that didn't require particular racial identities to tell the story truly?" Imagine a Cinderalla of Asian descent. A Nigerian Harry Potter. An African-American Little Mermaid. Or Hispanic Hardy Boys. Same characters, same plot, just a different appearance.

I was an adult before I became acutely aware of my racial identity. I had spent my entire life surrounded by faces that looked like mine. Sure, I had the odd teacher or administrator or librarian that was white, but that was the extent of my brush with diversity.

After graduating from college, I became immersed in a professional world where I was the only one that looked like me. Navigating through curious stares, awkward questions about hair, and intellectual discussions about nationality with my white counterparts, we all became both teacher and student.  Our epiphany was our glorious "sameness." We explored our differences and discovered we were more alike than different. Children's literature has the power to do that for young minds; writers and illustrators have the awesome responsibility of being the conduit for that power.

I am grateful to writer/illustrators like O'Brien, who tackle tough issues to make a difference. "White Mind" doesn't just happen in children's literature; it happens in many corners of society. Acknowledging its existence and providing roadmap to the atypical path of diversity is a great start. Thanks, Ms. O'Brien.

Always, Athena


  1. I've been following this series and it has been very eye-opening. I grew up in a college town so I was lucky to be exposed to all different types of people --- but it still seems the publishing industry has a lot to do to catch up with the changing demographics in our country.

    Hopefully we'll see a growing trend of more authors of color who write about a child's unique experience that doesn't depend or rely on their race or ethnicity.

  2. I'm a new follower and I'm really glad I stopped by today, you opened my eyes to something I'd never come across before!

    I grew up in a city that had all different types of people, however my husband did not, and though he has no experienced all sorts I still look back at the close-minded families and friends back home who still don't understand how different the world is outside of their circle.

    I'm with Karen, I hope to one day soon see other children's unique experiences in novels.

  3. Hi, Athena,
    Thanks so much for linking to my post and adding your thoughts.
    The more light we shine on any obstacles in our way (especially the ones invisible to us) the more we get to experience "our glorious sameness." Yes!