On Race and Representation

We discussed in class the other night the intersecting issues of race, racism, representation, and censorship in YA lit and public library collections. I wanted to share some thoughts on these issues from the school library media center perspective. Well, my school library media perspective, at least.

For many children, the school library or media center is their home library. It is one they have regular access to, and one designed specifically for their use. As such, it is central to the question of children’s rights to intellectual freedom and access to information. ALA comes down on the side of children, stating that, “although the educational level and program of the school necessarily shapes the resources and services of a school library media program, the principles of the Library Bill of Rights apply equally to all libraries, including school library media programs." So here, we have the Children's Internet Protection Act regulating internet access, while school systems design their own selection criteria for print and other resources.

It is this selection process with which I am concerned. As we work to build our school library collections how can we ensure that we are building inclusive collections that celebrate our society’s wide variety of cultures, traditions, languages, histories, beliefs, and view points? Is there a difference between selecting for bias-free materials and censorship? How do we take into consideration the greater societal impact of the subtle sexism and racism of many text and children’s books without eliminating problematic materials?

This issue has been of concern to teachers and librarians for years. In 1978, the National Council of Teachers wrote a guideline to recognizing and dealing with censorship in our school systems. They describe some forms censorship may take:

"1. Subtle censorship of "selection." The perspective of the individual or group making selections can be one-sided, sometimes from lack of wide knowledge of literature for children, sometimes from a bias against certain types of books or their content, authors, or illustrators.

2. Deliberate exclusion of certain books. Classroom teachers and librarians sometimes fear that community groups or school officials will object to a book. A list of controversial topics has long kept many books out of some schools or libraries entirely, or on special shelves. School librarians sometimes have a storage room for controversial books."

They recommended creating a written selection policy and a procedure to deal with complaints leveled against materials in collaboration with the PTA and community. They also recommend frequent communication between librarians, teachers, administrators and parents concerning books being used in the curriculum, and available in the library. Inviting the public to book talks and discussions on hot-topic books offer a forum for dissenting viewpoints to be heard, without resorting to formal complaint.

In 1981, the NCTE dug further into the heart of my question with their position paper, The Students’ Right to Read. In it, they discuss the growing pressure from the community at large that English teachers faced in text selection. In it, they discuss issues of racial bias:
Literature about ethnic or racial minorities remains "controversial" or "objectionable" to many adults. As long as groups such as Blacks, Indians, Orientals, Chicanos, and Puerto Ricans "kept their proper place"--awarded them by an Anglo society--censors rarely raised their voices. But attacks have increased in frequency as minority groups have refused to observe their assigned "place." Though nominally, the criticisms of racial or ethnic literature have usually been directed at "bad language," "suggestive situations," "questionable literary merit," or "ungrammatical English" (usually oblique complaints about the different dialect or culture of a group), the underlying motive for some attacks has unquestionably been racial.

However, here we are still discussing “traditional” censorship: censoring the voice of the minority, the powerless, the dissenting viewpoint, the dialect. Here we have teachers and librarians fighting the power structure and working to even the playing field for traditionally disenfranchised peoples. What happens when, in the interest of plurality and respect, librarians seek to remove biased works from their collections?

Once again, we can turn to the ALA’s interpretation of it’s Bill of Rights:

"Censorship may include removing or not selecting materials because they are considered by some as racist or sexist ... Librarians have an obligation to protect library collections from removal of materials and resources based on personal bias or prejudice.

Intellectual freedom, the essence of equitable library services, provides for free access to all expressions of ideas through which any and all sides of a question, cause, or movement may be explored. Toleration is meaningless without tolerance for what some may consider detestable."

According to the ALA, the removal, or omission, of works due to bias, prejudicial language, or distortion is a violation of our patrons’ intellectual freedom. ALA has declared that the provisions in the Library Bill of Rights apply to school libraries and media centers, as well as public libraries. However, I think that this interpretation fails to recognize the societal impact of hundreds of years of one very particular viewpoint. It fails to consider the role played by our dominant power-structure in publishing, education, and entertainment. When every textbook a child reads, every informative text in their classroom, the majority of television, movies, and magazines is written from a specific viewpoint that devalues their language, their culture, and their history, I think that it is the responsibility of the school librarian not only to represent other points of view, but to de-emphasize these harmful and repetitive voices.

Children are profoundly influenced by the books they read. The fiction they read informs their world view and their sense of self. The non-fiction texts they read profess to tell them what is true about the world. How irresponsible it would be of a school librarian to stock her shelves with accepted and acceptable lies in the name of tolerance. The problem with keeping, say, The Indian in the Cupboard, on the shelves on it’s artistic merit is how to deal effectively with the incredibly harmful stereotypes is professes. A child who has never known an American Indian, and may never know one, has no existing schema to map this book onto. Offering equal shelf space to Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian does not guarantee that this child will ever read it. So I am left not wanting to censor a viewpoint, but recognizing that a) that viewpoint is harmful, and b) that viewpoint is a pervasive force in society and certainly does not cease to exist outside of that one book. Perhaps pairing problematic books with their more enlightened brethren? Or offering book discussion questions with them? Or sending kids to the public library (I kid, I kid!)?

The Baltimore County Public Schools’ selection criteria come
close to riding this selection/censorship line successfully. They state that materials should be:
* Accurate in terms of content: Library media materials should present facts in an objective manner. Authority of the author, organization, publisher/producer should be a consideration in selection. Materials concerning human development and family life should contain facts which are presented in a manner appropriate to the level of the students.
* Reflective of the pluralistic nature of a global society: Library media materials should provide a global perspective and promote diversity as a positive attribute of our society. It is important to include materials by authors and illustrators of all cultures.
* Free of bias and stereotype: Materials should reflect the basic humanity of all people and be free of stereotypes, caricatures, distorted dialect, sexual bias, and other offensive characteristics. Library materials concerning religious, social, and political content should inform rather than indoctrinate.

We, as school library media specialists, are the guardians of the wealth of information available in our libraries. We must make sure that the materials within those walls are helpful, informative, true, and unbiased. This may mean including information we are uncomfortable about, perhaps, on the machinery of warfare or conservative religious ethics. In my opinion, it also means making sure that our stacks are a place of true plurality and not simply an extension of the status quo.

1 comment:

  1. Not to sound too too much like a broken record, but yes, you are correct :) This indeed is a huge issue affecting school and public libraries, and also publishing houses.

    I agree with you on all counts about the collection development policy stuff towards the end of the post--and yes, the Baltimore Public Library does seem to have all their ducks in a row in writing theirs.

    I'd just also like to point out that I wish publishers took a stronger stance in printing stories and information about the lives of people in the US who aren't white. I go to so many presentations in the major houses each season--if I had a hash mark for every time I whisper to myself "another book about a white girl," well, I think it would probably hit the thousands--as opposed to the 0-4 books about non-white people that are published every season.

    What's the solution to this? Not sure...Affirmative Action in hiring? Publishing? Editing? Possibly...but it's definitely a complicated issue that needs to be addressed.