Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Race, disability, and children

Number of days we have lost with our daughter due to the negligence of the state of Illinois: 29

If that isn't a SEO (search engine optimization) grabbing title, I don't know what is. I'm afraid that the reality of the post isn't going to live up to the hype of the title, but it's what I'm writing about, so there it is. Right up front, I'm not even going to pretend I have these things figured out or that I'm even close to being an expert (whatever that is), but I've had these thoughts brewing through my head for some time now.

The other day, while wasting time doing important computer work, I happened to take a look at a fairly well-known blogger who I keep up with every now and then. (I'm not going to name her, because my complaint isn't something she did on purpose and this post isn't really directed at her.) I saw on her blog that she was having a give-away for a gift-certificate. This was in relation to two nativity sets she had (kind of a get ready for Christmas early-thing.) I glanced at the nativity sets and thought, "They're kind of cute." I then took a second look and truly the next thought that jumped to mind was, "Boy, those are really white figures in both those sets." This really bothered me and suddenly they weren't nearly so cute as they were before.

I don't pretend to be the epitome of racial integration. In fact, most of the time, I feel as though I do a fairly rotten job of venturing outside my bubble and comfort zone. This is definitely not something I am proud of. That said, we do live in an incredibly diverse area and have daily contact with a wide variety of people. We see a lot of color in our lives. Usually we don't even notice this until we venture out and find ourselves in less diverse places. The difference is immediately noticeable and my children have even noticed and commented on it. I believe this is the first teeny, tiny baby step towards a more equitable society... noticing. Not noticing the differences, but noticing the sameness.

This is more difficult because we tend not to notice what is not there. I'm sure you have all had the experience of realizing very belatedly that someone you are used to seeing somewhere isn't there anymore. (This is assuming you just see them and don't talk to them on a regular basis... you'll miss the person quicker because you miss the interaction.) If you aren't used to seeing people in a wide variety of colors around you, you won't notice that they are missing.

I've written elsewhere about H.'s and my experiences when we are out and about and in it I mentioned that the best thing parents can do for their children is to expose them to a wide variety of people. If they are used to seeing people with facial differences, it will cease to be something scary or noteworthy. The same is true, I believe, with color as well. If you are used to seeing people who are a different color than yourself, then it becomes something that is normal. Seeing the other person as not something different is the first step towards engagement. We fear what we don't know.

To that end, I have tried (once again, imperfectly) to expose my children to as wide a variety of people as possible. Books are one way we can expose our children to a wider world, even if we realize it may not be right outside our door. While didactic books which teach have their place, my favorites are the ones where the person perceived as different is part of the story without fanfare. A character with a physical difference or of a different color has as much value and right to be read about as the more typical healthy white children who tend to inhabit storybook land. Sometimes it takes some searching to find these books, so here is a brief (and very incomplete) list of books we like which do this very well.

Everywhere Babies by Susan Meyers and illustrated by Marla Frazee. The illustrations are one of the very best parts of one of our favorite books. There are indeed babies everywhere and they come in all colors, shapes, and sizes.... all doing normal baby and parent things.

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. Yes, it's an older book, but it is wonderful. One of the reasons it is so noteworthy is because it is the epitome of a child doing the everyday thing of playing in the snow, he just happens to be African-American.

Corduroy by Don Freeman is another older book which remains popular and quietly features a child of color.

Those are the best known book, but I have a few more which you might not be aware of.

The Paperboy by Dav Pilkey. This story follows a boy as he gets up early in order to do his paper route. The story is about what the world is like that early in the morning as it follows the paper boy on his route. It is a lovely quiet book about the joy of hard work and solitude, the paper boy just happens to be of color.

Where Does the Trail Lead? by Burton Albert. This book is set on an island (it looks rather Nantucket-ish to me) and follows a boy following trails on a sand dune which ends with him meeting his family (mother, father, sister) on the beach for a picnic dinner. The illustrations are wood cuts and very interesting to look at. It's a sweet story about adventure and the comfort of coming home to family, the family just happens to be African-American.

Have Fun, Molly Lou Melon by Patty Lovel. This is a book we found by chance at the library and have all fallen in love with it. Molly Lou Melon was blessed with a grandmother who inspired Molly Lou's imagination. She creates fantastic toys from things she found and has a lively imagination. A little girl moves in next door and Molly Lou befriends her... and teaches her to discover and use her imagination as they play together. Even just this would endear the book to me, but as the story progresses, you realize that Molly Lou's new friend uses forearm crutches. There is not mention of this in the story and it makes not a whit of difference to the plot, but it is just lovely to see a child featured with a physical difference.

Arabella by Wendy Orr. I discovered this book as I was planning our Five in a Row studies for this year. (They turned out to be a bust, remember, so we'll be doing them as a summer activity). The story is about a grandfather and grandson and a beloved model ship. There is a storm and the boy seems to be lost and ends with the grandfather telling his grandson how much more important he is to him than his model ship. It is only at the end of the book that you realize the grandson uses a wheelchair. This does play a part of the story, but it does not stop the boy from being a real child and capable of great bravery. Sadly, this book it out of print... and it shouldn't be.

Please don't think I am saying that by making these aspects unmentioned parts of each story that the ideas of race and disability shouldn't be discussed. They should and we need to discuss them with our children. It is OK to point out differences as long we are also pointing out how we are the same. In a perfect world we would have no more hesitation describing someone by mentioning their color or difference any more than we would when we describe someone mentioning hair color. The differences between us help shape us and make us each unique, but we can only do this if we accept everyone's underlying humanity and equality. Now, if someone would just make a picture book featuring a child with a facial difference that didn't need to be mentioned, but was just there..

(And for the curious, no, our nativity set is not all white, it is more shades of tan. Most of the people in the story were Middle Eastern after all.)

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