Using picture books to combat racism
I caught an interview the other afternoon with former England footballer, John Barnes.
I am not the least bit interested in football, but his response to recent racist attacks within football grabbed my attention. Why? Because I believe his points are pertinent to the ongoing discussion about diversity in the picture book market.
Barnes was responding to calls for professional footballers to boycott social media for six months to help combat racism. This followed racist tweets against Manchester United player, Paul Pogba - 'one of a growing number of black footballers receiving racists abuse on social media.'
I saw that tweet from that boy and if Pogba had scored that penalty ... that boy would not have tweeted that. But he still would have had that thought in his head … We have to tackle the cause of racism, not the symptom... Now, what makes that boy feel the way he does? Obviously what society has wrongly shown him about different groups of people and making people feel superior - that's what we have to tackle through education. You can pass as many laws as you want; you can come off Twitter. That's not gonna stop people being racially biassed. … We keep tackling symptoms, and if you don't tackle the cause, the symptoms keep coming back in different ways.
I don't think [racism in football is] getting worse. I thought it was always the same. It was exactly the same. And it's exactly the same in society. Football is a reflection of society. Now is racism in society getting better? No! So why should it be getting better in football? Why should football be different to society? And until we target it in society, it will exist in all forms of society - of which football is one. We cannot fight racism in football and make it better if it's not getting better in society. It's impossible. Because before we are racist football fans, we are racist members of society. … ... We have to tackle what we've learned in society and recondition ourselves - not pass laws.
'We have to tackle what we've learned in society and recondition ourselves' - the implication is huge for anyone who has the opportunity (and responsibility) of influencing the minds of children. Which is why the diversity debate in picture books is so crucial. Because conditioning starts as soon as the child is born, as the 2018 BBC series, Babies: Their Wonderful World demonstrated so clearly.
In episode 1, Professor Jessica Somerville Phd (University of Washington, USA) conducted 'a simple experiment to see if babies, like adults, have a preference for people who are like them or similar to them in some way, shape or form.' Physical differences are easier for babies to distinguish than something that can't be seen (for example, economic status, some disabilities, values). So the researchers based their experiment on the most apparent visual difference between us - our ethnicity. The study (a repeat of an earlier American one) was conducted on UK toddlers from a predominantly white neighbourhood.
The results surprised me - and challenged me in my role as an illustrator of picture books.
Professor Somerville’s experiment consisted of two parts.
Stage 1: To see if babies have a preference for fairness
A baby watches as a white adult shares out toys between two adults. It is done in an obviously unfair manner - one participant receives lots of toys, the other just a few.
The scenario is then repeated, but with an Asian adult in charge. This time, the toys are divided equally between the two adult subjects.
The toddler can clearly see that in this instance, the White leader is unfair - but the Asian one plays fair.
Stage 2: To see if babies show racial bias
Now it gets interesting.
‘Who do you want to play with?'
The toddler is given the choice of playing with the unfair or the fair leader. You'd think they would choose the fair (Asian) leader, right? And that is their initial instinct: they cautiously point and gesticulate towards the Asian; a few tentative steps towards them are taken. But at the last moment, each (white) child changes its mind, making a beeline to the Caucasian leader.
The white babies consistently chose to play with the distributor who was most like them visually - even though they could be seen to be unfair. Familiarity won out over fairness.
Professor Somerville concluded that the White children studied (who have no experience of Asian people) felt safer with someone who shared their racial makeup. In other words, those with a familiar-looking face.
[The results] suggest that already in the second year of life, infants are tuned in to thinking about who they want to interact with, through their evaluations of other people. Also, it suggests that a lot of those preferences have their roots quite early in development… Infants are quite sensitive to the social information they receive on a daily basis. [They're] encoding that information, they're remembering it, and ... using it to guide the kind of sophisticated decisions like, Who am I going to play with?
The experiment's conclusion supports the concern raised by John Barnes regarding the boy who made the racist tweet:
… when he has a job, and he has to interview two people - one's black, one's white - because of the way he thinks, we know who he's going to give the job to. That's what we have to try and change - people's perception.
Which is where creators of picture books come in.
October 2019 sees the release of a book that I'm really excited to have been part of - Only You Can Be You! What Makes You Different Makes You GREAT, written by Sally and Nathan Clarkson (Tommy Nelson 2019).
It celebrates diversity - both through the Clarkson's text, and my art. Which has societal value, as Professor Somerville explained:
Infants are quite sensitive to the social information they receive on a daily basis. … using it to guide the kind of sophisticated decisions like, Who am I going to play with?
And later on in life, Who am I going to give a job to?
Clearly the more diverse a child’s upbringing, the less likely they will grow into adults with racist biases. Only You Can Be You! is full of different coloured kids. In small ways like this, I can strike a blow at racism. By sharing books like this with your kids, we are united and the blows are multiplied. As Nancy Pelosi tweeted:
Our diversity is our strength and our unity is our power.
I know it's a small drop in a vast ocean. But I hope Only You Can Be You! will contribute to a change in culture and recondition society. We have to start somewhere. Because at the end of the day, we shouldn't blame that kid's racist slurs on Twitter. He's just reflecting the society he's born into.
GOOD TO READ
The New Small Person by Lauren Child (Puffin 2014)
So Much by Trish Cooke, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury (Walker Books 1994)
Leon and Bob by Simon James (Walker Books 2008)
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats (Viking 1962)
Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love (Walker Books 2018)
Yumi by Annelore Parot (Chronicle Books 2012)