Introduction to the CYAB Roundtable by Hafizah Geter & Antonio Aiello
This roundtable is a part of PEN’s new and ongoing initiative, The PEN Equity Project
Looking back at the institutions of my childhood, whiteness was among the first lessons I learned of the world and of myself. I learned in white cities, white schools, and from white teachers who taught from books written, overwhelmingly, by white authors and historians. When people of color appeared in books we appeared in our relation to whiteness: in slavery, internment, or our negotiations to be free.
Luckily for me, however, I was the daughter of an African immigrant and a painter born in George Wallace’s Alabama. My parents, all too aware of how American culture teaches children of color to hate or erase their identities, made imbuing us with pride in our heritage their primary obsession. From an early age my mother read my sister and I Langston Hughes poems and told us facts about people of color who were inventors, scientists, historians, writers, singers, and activists. My father also illustrated children’s books, and sometimes used us as his models. We literally got to see ourselves in the world of books. We got to see how we fit into stories that allowed us identities beyond slavery or civil rights narratives. With each book my father illustrated, or each poem or fact my mother shared, our belief in our own humanity and in the possibilities of our own personal narratives
Intentional or not, the whitewashing of CYAB lit has created a “glass ceiling” tailor made to limit children of color by teaching children of all colors that there are certain things a Black/Asian/Native/Hispanic person cannot or should not be. Do I remember encountering Asian Firemen, Hispanic doctors, Black concertists, or happy Indian families at the park in the books I read at school? How old was I before I read a book that contemplated the interior lives of Native Americans beyond genocide?
For me, as for many, the situation is dire. I see the thread that ties our failure to fully and complexly represent people of color in literature and media to the bodies of Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin and their killers’ inability to see their humanity. The PEN Equity Project asks writers, editors, publishing professionals, and readers to consider the gravity of the stories we aren’t telling.
— Hafizah Geter
A defining moment in my life as a parent was the weekend my son came home from camp and recounted how two boys bullied him for being Asian. I’m white and my wife is white and raising two Korean children, we’ve learned first hand the work involved in addressing racism on many levels and all the common and idiosyncratic ways race insinuates itself into daily life. We’ve had conversations about racism and name-calling before. Just as we’ve had conversations about skin color and eyelids and hair; conversations about how all Asians aren’t from China, aren’t math geniuses, genetically driven to succeed, and don’t all play piano or violin or table tennis like mad little child prodigies. We’ve had conversations about being white, being Italian with a vowel-heavy name, being Korean, being American, and being somewhere in-between.
It’s a full time job counterbalancing and counteracting the whitewashing, homogenization, irrelevance, and erasure of our children’s, and by default our family’s, heritage. But my wife and I have become cultural DJs adept at finding movies, books, and TV shows where all the characters aren’t white people who live in colorless cities. We position our children’s lives and narratives in the universal by developing our own library of books written by and about people of color who celebrate the particulars of their cultures and heritage. All of this is done to nurture a strong sense of identity and pride in our Korean culture and a broader awareness and appreciation of the diverse cultures that make up our society.
But what happened at my son’s camp crystallized something I had fought for a long time: the notion that no matter how much work we do to immunize our kids against the prejudices of others, it will never be enough. Our protections will never be enough to fend off bullies or racist or bigots or stereotypes that position their identities as inferior; our love will never be enough to change the skewed system of values and exclusive cultural exchange that favors whiteness above all other races. It will never be enough because from the books available to our kids to the movies we watch to the ads we consume, we are taught that one point of view supersedes all others—the point of view of whiteness.
As we launch The PEN Equity Project, we want to explore and confront the ways in which such a flawed system of values is perpetuated. At the heart of it all is how our children learn to value one race over another. Fewer than 1 in 10 children’s and young adult books published every year are by or about people of color. Based on those statistics, chances are high that when my son or daughter walks into their incredibly diverse classrooms to pick through the 200-plus books available to them for casual classroom reading, at best they might find 20 books by or about people of color, and maybe 4 books by or about Asians—all Asians.
To explore the reality of this, my daughter and I proposed to do an informal inventory of the books available in her 5th grade language arts classroom in one of the most diverse and progressive elementary public schools in the region. Her language arts teacher received the project enthusiastically; however, it remains stalled with the school district’s office of curriculum and instruction, a delay that underscores the difficulty, sensitivity, and complexity of even addressing issues of diversity, let alone coming up with solutions.
And that’s exactly what we hope to do in the space of this roundtable.
We’ve gathered together some of the most notable writers and editors working in children’s and young adult book publishing and asked them to write about the effect the availability of diverse books had on their sense of identity growing up and what tangible changes they would make to bring about more diversity and equity in publishing.
— Antonio Aiello