Pre-K

How We Talk (or Don’t Talk) About Diversity When We Read with
Our Kids

by Matt de la Peña

Photo credit: Allen Donikowski, Moment/Getty Images

I still remember the concerned look on my mom’s face as we stood together in the doll aisle at Toys “R” Us. “What am I supposed to do now?” she said under her breath.

I shrugged.

I was just a freshman in high school, and I didn’t want to be there. But before my mom would drop me off at the gym, so I could play ball with the fellas, I had to accompany her to the toy store to help pick out a gift for my youngest sister.

It’s important to note that my working class folks didn’t have a whole lot of disposable income when I was a kid. We’d wake up most Christmas mornings to find one wrapped gift each tucked under the tree. Some years it was socks. Other years — the good years! — it was a plastic skateboard, or a Barbie Corvette, or an Easy Bake Oven. That year my sis happened to be obsessed with Cabbage Patch Kids. Which were expensive. And hard to find. But my mom was determined to make it happen. She called stores all around the city until she found the one place that still had them in stock.

The problem?

By the time we got to Toys “R” Us, they only had three left. And none of them looked like my sis.

We’re mixed kids. Half Mexican, half white. Back then you never found “mixed” dolls, so my mom would opt for the “Latino” doll, or, more commonly, the white doll. But here she was, staring down at three African American Cabbage Patch Kids.

After another minute of hemming and hawing she lifted one of the black dolls off the rack, paid for it with credit, wrapped it in shiny candy cane paper, and tucked it under the tree between the gift for me and the gift for my middle sister. When my youngest sis tore open her present that Christmas morning she jumped up and down and spun around in circles clutching her very own Cabbage Patch Kid tightly against her chest, chanting, “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you!”

There weren’t any deep, race-related discussions that Christmas morning. My mom didn’t sit my sis down and use it as some kind of teachable moment. It was simpler than that. It was just an excited little girl and her new doll.

As a new parent (I have a 10-month-old baby girl!) I’ve recently discovered a fascinating phenomenon. Whenever my daughter falls and bumps her head, or coughs up a mouthful of sweet potato, she looks to me or my wife before reacting. If we remain calm, she remains calm (most of the time). Conversely, if we freak out, she freaks out.

Lately I’ve been wondering if this phenomenon holds true in other contexts as well. Like with dolls. Or making new friends at the park. Or . . . literature.

Maybe kids look to us (parents, teachers, librarians) before deciding how to frame a new book they’ve just encountered. If we make a big deal about the differences between the young reader and the characters in the story, isn’t the story more likely to be viewed as “other” in the child’s mind? If we focus on the narrative instead, and on the journey of the characters, maybe a young reader’s attention will remain here, too. At least in the short term.

This is my current approach to writing. I still strive to write books featuring diverse characters, but I now try to place them in stories that have nothing to do with diversity, not overtly anyway. Last Stop on Market Street is an example of this new approach. CJ and his grandma are African American, but the story is about a colorful bus ride through a bustling city. It’s about a boy’s relationship with his amazing grandma. It’s about seeing the beautiful in the world and the power of service. My dream is for the book to be read by (and read to) kids of all races. I didn’t set out to write a book that would spark race-related conversation; I wanted to take readers on a fun ride with two special characters.

Don’t get me wrong, my little sis did eventually ask my mom about the skin color of her Cabbage Patch Kid. It was almost a year later. By then the doll was my sister’s best friend. The point is, my sister arrived at her questions on her own. Some readers of Last Stop may eventually ask questions, too. In no way am I saying these conversations should be avoided. I’m saying these conversations don’t have to be the focus. I’m saying it’s worth considering how we consciously or unconsciously frame “diverse” stories to the little guys.

Comments
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  • radicalibrarian

    I also love books that just tell a story that just happen to have not white characters. I have two children and this is how I have chosen to deal with diversity issues. Not talk about it. Eventually they will ask and a casual conversation will take place. As a librarian, I am closely following the #WeNeedDiverseBooks discussions so that we can fix this major issue in children’s literature. I have lots of hope!

  • This is a great post, Matt, and an excellent point! Yes, our non-reactions can be even more important than our reactions.

  • Junko Yokota

    I agree with your feelings very much in terms of accepting diversity for its naturalness, and endorse your thoughts above, especially for our young children. On the other hand, we also need books that do problematize the racial issues and get children and adults talking, thinking, and into action because sadly, our world is not yet allowing us to accept diversity as natural, and there are barriers to be faced and overcome. We can’t go through the world with blinders on . . . . so I see diversity in books for just what you describe as naturalness, as well as needing corrective lenses.

  • debreese

    This skates close to the colorblind approach. There are studies about it. When parents avoid discussions of race, with the idea that pointing it out tells the kid that race is a problem, kids are left to take cues from other sources around them. We all know those other sources are very powerful, and that they are racist towards people like you and me. Junko points out that diversity is not seen as natural and I think silence affirms it not being natural. The new picture book, THE CASE FOR LOVING, suggests that colorblind approach. It is a feel-good thing, but not one that does justice to what we are all dealing with right now. Here’s my review of the LOVING picture book. It points to that research (in addition to discussing Jeter’s identity). http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2015/03/the-case-for-loving-by-selina-alko-and.html

    • Matt de la Pena

      Bringing the black doll into the house is a message that shouldn’t be ignored. Not all communication is verbal. And the verbal part came soon after. Which is important too.

      • debreese

        Hi Matt, I love that part of the story. That your mom bought it and your sister accepted it—I love that, too. Did you hear the story a few years back about the FAO Schwartz nursery? Dolls that could be adopted and named? It is Act 3 here: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/347/matchmakers#

        • Matt de la Pena

          Will check it out, Debbie. And your review of LOVING, too. Hope to see you on the road soon!

          • debreese

            AWP! I’ll be there.

      • I also love that part of the story. You’re right! We have to do both… set good examples through our actions and also talk about it.

    • I’ll reiterate this point, too. I wrote about this years ago (and again last year) on GeekDad: http://geekdad.com/2014/12/racist-kids/ The studies mostly included middle-class white families, but it showed that NOT talking about race actually reinforces negative attitudes about race, which is the opposite of what many of these white parents were intending. Yes, bringing the black doll into the house is nonverbal communication—but when we don’t talk about race, we think that the message we’re sending is “skin color doesn’t matter” and it turns out a lot of the time the message the kid is receiving is actually “race is a taboo subject because people with different skin are bad.” I support #WeNeedDiverseBooks because I want my kids to see people of all colors in the books they read, and I agree that not every story about a person of color has to be about that person dealing with racial issues. However, I disagree that if I’m reading a picture book to my kid that the best thing to do is NOT point out the character’s skin color. Based on the studies, it seems like pointing out the color is the best way to teach them that it’s okay to accept people who are different from you.

      • I agree, Jonathan. I was thinking about the same research when I read this article. I believe we need to actively talk to our children about the value of our differences and how people of all colors and cultures are good.

      • Randall Hauk

        Let me rush right home and tell my kid that his friends aren’t bad people despite the differences in skin color?

  • Great essay. I don’t think it implies colorblindness at all; that would mean closing your ears and going “nanananana can’t hear you” when the child does eventually ask about race. I agree; a lot of why kids are resistant to difference is that their parents train them to be. Presenting diversity as nonchalant and normal (since, y’know, it is) is a great way to normalize it so that complex conversations can happen in a place where diversity is already welcomed, making it clear when explaining racism and prejudice that in the home space, that type of attitude is not expected or accepted.

  • Jherine

    I totally understand this perspective. For my seven-year-old, the race of the characters that she encounters is important–not that they are defined by their race or culture, but that they are visible. Last week we were in Target and she could not find a single chapter book (that’s what she’s into) with a character of color. She wasn’t searching for a deep, profound book about the experience of a mixed race kid in Newnan. She just wanted a beautiful girl that looked like her.
    So we’re writing the book ourselves. It isnt colorblindness, but the acknowledgement that race isn’t the only story we can tell.

    • Conuly

      Try Keena Ford, if you don’t mind ordering from Amazon. Books are out there, but they’re not often on the shelves.

  • I disagree with you although I really want to agree with you. You’re talking about an ideal situation. Kids look to grown ups to see if race is a big deal, and being calm and accepting is a great example to set. But the conversation about race almost always has to happen anyway, because of something racist overheard or some action seen in the real world and a kid looks to us with the question of “What was that?” It can’t be dismissed or normalized. Studies show that kids ARE noticing race, and I think we can’t ignore that.

    Also, I think you can’t rule out theories of identity development. As kids get around 6th grade and try to figure out who they are, they naturally gravitate towards other kids who look like them or come from the same socio-economic background, religion, etc. They’re trying to figure out who they are. A discussion about diversity and acceptance would be beneficial at this point too. And if it’s anything like when I grew up, that’s a conversation that’s going to happen over and over through middle school years especially.

    I do agree with you that we need to be calm about it. And I agree that more diversity in books would really help! I want to see lots of different kids being represented in children’s books so it’s not such a HUGE deal when kids see someone who looks different from them the first time at the playground. Also, that joy in finding a character who looks like you is so magical, every kid should have experience!

  • jennie

    I was so intrigued to read about parents remaining calm for a child’s minor injury. I have seen parents going totally ballistic for a small bump on the head & of course, you
    know what happens………

  • Heather Dent

    Yes! This piece eloquently puts in to words my own thoughts and opinions on this matter. Thank you! I have wonderful memories of my dad reading books like Liza Lou, Seven Chinese Brothers, the Rough Face Girl, and Lon Po Po. We never made these books into a big deal. He just read them like he would any other book, and I never saw these books in terms of race until I got older. They were just wonderful stories. I think it’s so important that we avoid teaching children this “us and them” mentality.

  • Diane Kress Hower

    I was relieved when I read this post. Last Stop is one of the richest books I have read in a long while. I wasn’t paying attention to race and the current discussion on lack of diversity in children’s lit. Submerged in the richness of human life best describes my experience. I completely agree about other. When we point out other, it creates opportunity for more other. Create books with diversity, yes. Point out to kids that others are different feeds the them and us mentality that permeates and further divides our world.

  • Stacey Shubitz

    I like the analogy you made to how we react when our children fall down or have a problem. Our attitudes are contagious, aren’t they?

    I love Last Stop on Market Street. Thanks for writing such a beautiful story with a strong message.