Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Stepping into the Gap

Last week I read Edi Campbell’s blog post Voices.

It’s been rubbing against my conscience--and consciousness--ever since.  Even as I was reading it I felt it--the friction of absence, ironically. The discomfort of acknowledging what I missed as a White reader. I was blind to the racist image that can be seen in Voices in the Park. I didn't see it back in 1998, when it originally came out in the United States, and not the last time I took a look at it.

I’m not going to spend time talking about intent. I’m not going to spend time arguing whether or not the image of the gorilla in the book is racist.  I’m not going to spend time criticizing or defending the book.  None of that is the point for me right now.

The point is that my understanding of the gap between what I see in a book as a White reader and what readers who aren’t White may see was further illuminated. I’ve known the gap is there; I try to be mindful of it.  But it’s so much bigger than I realized. A flashlight isn’t enough to illuminate it. A floodlight may not be enough. The only way to understand it is to step into it.

The point, as Edi Campbell writes, is about perception. And I need to be out in that gap, beyond what I can clearly see, beyond my comfort zone, to begin to understand perspectives beyond my own. 

What all of us see and do not see is influenced by our experiences and by the internalized racism that lives in our hearts and minds and pulses through society. We didn’t invite it to take up residence, but there it is anyway, blocking the light and we don’t even necessarily know it.

But once we do know it, we can’t ignore it. Not if we want change in the children’s and young adult book world and change in society as a whole. But as we in the children’s and young adult literature world have proven over and over, we often can’t talk about the impact of racism on the work we do without backing into corners, because it makes us so uncomfortable.

Sure those of us who are White readers and writers and editors and critics can live with our limited field of vision; we can choose not to step into the gap. We’re doing fine. But others are not. Sometimes they’re hurting. Sometimes they’re angry. Sometimes they’re dying.  

Any newspaper will tell you this is not hyperbole.

None of this is easy, for anyone. Edi asks herself,

“When am I sensible and when am I sensitive? When am I giving into my own colonized thinking (not seeing things), when am [I] waking people up and when am I crying wolf? And what do others think? Publishers have to be able to trust marginalized people when we say ‘this is wrong’. Yet, when do we really know whether an image is being used to exoticize human diversity (and reinforces age old stereotypes) or simply to express creativity? I do think this deserves a robust discussion, yes of course on this blog, but even more so in publishing houses where images are created and taken to our children.”

Are we up for that? Are we up for robust discussion, not to mention an honest accounting? Are we ready to step into the gap? If we aren’t, then I believe these very same conversations we’ve been having in one way or another for well over fifty years will continue for another fifty with too little to show for them. Gains will be made, but I’m guessing they will be made largely outside the publishing mainstream, not within it. Within it, we will be asking the same questions we’re asking now, we were asking years ago.

Gains outside the mainstream are not enough. Good intentions are not enough, either.

Edi asks, In the 21st century can we not be sophisticated enough to overcome colonization of our minds?”

I would also ask, Can we not be courageous enough and compassionate enough to do so, either?

Megan Schliesman

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