Thursday, April 22, 2010

Can white people be multicultural, too?

Talking about the Fuse #8 poll* this week got me clicking links and thinking about a project I started and abandoned--as I do many things. I was trying to compile a list of books in which white characters thought or talked or learned about their white identity. Although "multicultural" is often shorthand for "nonwhite," I think a truly multicultural collection also offers books which help white kids figure out how their skin color has affected their lives. Especially since studies show that white parents are the least likely to talk to their kids about race.

I think I got started on this project when I heard some kids in the library talking about so and so being "B" or "W," meaning white or black. The kids were shortening the words the way you do swear words, because they had got the message that they weren't supposed to talk about race. Don't get me wrong: most of the kids in my library don't mind labeling people, and the labels are usually black, white, Spanish or Chinese. Never mind that most of the Asians in this neighborhood are Cambodian or Laotian. But there are some white kids who treat race like a taboo subject. And I think they could use some books that talk about the entitlement and the guilt that can go along with being white.

For me, the blog Stuff White People Like came along at the perfect time. It showed how whiteness--a particular kind of upper middle class, college educated, self-conscious whiteness--was its own culture, and it made me laugh at myself. Reading White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack [pdf] and Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria had already revealed to me how white people get away with not thinking race doesn't have anything to do with them. And recently, the Newsweek excerpt from Nurtureshock backed up my observation that white people don't like to talk about race.

So I started making mental notes of literature that could be helpful to kids the way the resources above were helpful to me. When I put this project aside, here's what was on my list (they're all YA): Dramarama by E. Lockhart; My Mother the Cheerleader, by Rob Sharenow; Ethan, Suspended, by Pamela Ehrenberg; and How Ya Like Me Now, by Brendan Halpin.

I'm thinking about revisiting them and evaluating them using the criteria in the Higgins article on the CCBC website and Mitali Perkin's landmark Straight Talk on Race article for SLJ. Meanwhile, does anyone else know other titles that really talk about whiteness?

*Oh my goodness! Elizabeth Bird linked to my grading post! How thrilling!

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