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Representations (and the Lack Thereof) of Race and Hair (Loudness in the Library Year Three, Part 2)

August 11, 2015

Missed Part 1 of this series?  Don’t panic, here it is!

By now, many of us are familiar with the statistics kept by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center that reveal that the number of books by and about people of color has hovered between 9% and 14% over the past 20 years, despite the fact that children of color now constitute more than 50% of U.S. public school students.

When the Loudness in the Library curriculum emerged three years ago, my fellow teachers and I realized that it is both possible and necessary to have developmentally appropriate conversations with children about the hard truth that whiteness is vastly over-represented in children’s literature.  We discovered that book covers can be a remarkably accessible entry point into this conversation.

This year, we discussed many of the same points that we have in previous years: how book covers can “disguise” a character’s race with a symbol, a blurry photograph, or a silhouette.  But one pattern–how often tightly curly hair is disguised, obscured, or altered on book covers–particularly resonated with this group of students.

For example, compare these covers (all of which feature Black main characters)…



…with these, which feature East Asian, Middle-Eastern, White, and South Asian characters:


Here’s what 6th-graders had to say:

“You couldn’t see the hair on the African-American people, but you could on the others.”

“Certain types of hair is what you are supposed to have.”

“People could think they have to change their hair to fit in.”

“You could say, ‘My hair isn’t liked.  I should straighten it.’”

“If people read the same types of books a lot, they can have a stereotype in their head.”

“People might think, ‘I need to change.  I need to be that way.’”

“People might change their hair because of what someone else–not them–thinks.”

“Because of the media certain people are excluded from being considered beautiful.  Because of this, people’s self esteem lowers and they are made to feel insignificant.”

“Why are there barely any books featuring minorities in the plot, let alone with minorities being featured on the covers? This sends the message to people that they are not worthy enough to be shown on book covers.”

One student later wrote an essay about a personal insight gained from our discussion:

“I remember when I was four years old, and I went shopping with my mom to buy my first doll. My mother and I went to Target to look around for the doll. She asked me which one I would like. I pointed to the Barbie doll that was caucasian and had blonde hair. My mother thought otherwise. She wanted me to get the one that looked like me. All of the Barbies on the shelf were white. I had to search for one that looked like me. I eventually found one with brown skin and curly brown hair. I still have it. Back then, I just thought that the white Barbie dolls were prettier. I didn’t understand how problematic that really was until just a few years ago…

When I recently took a trip to Barnes and Noble, I was quite disappointed with their book selections. The store displays did not feature diverse or realistic looking characters. If I wanted to find books that had characters that looked like me, I would have to search for them. This means that bookstores and libraries are supporting the media’s definition of beauty, not real people, not people that I can relate to.”

Stay tuned; next, we’re talking about a problematic portrayal of American Indian history.

Update: Part 3 is up… and so is Part 4!

Check out our discussions from Year 1 of this curriculum here.

-Allie Jane Bruce


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