Talk About Class: Using Children’s Books to Spark Conversations
Facilitator: Ann Sibley O’Brien
Ann introduces herself by stating that she’s both a first time attendee of this conference and a first time workshop presenter. She said she grew up on a mission as a white girl in Korea, which meant she had a very othered and highly racialized childhood. Her high status and the admiration of white people meant her experience wasn’t a negative one, though, just one that really highlighted how different and special she was. Like being a princess, she would guess.
Her upbringing was a very odd experience for her, and it made her very conscious of race and class in both perception and interaction. When she returned to the states, it was with a heightened awareness of race, and she kept trying to put together why her focus on and awareness of race was so different from that of her peers in the white community, which led to her work in children’s books. She’s both a writer and an illustrator of children’s books, and is active/ involved in the concerns of the children’s book world. She is involved in questions like wondering why the number of books about children of color are so low (proportionally speaking) and why the authors of such books are so overwhelmingly white (like her) rather than being people of color. She is wondering why colored voices aren’t given a space to tell these stories.
She’s been looking since college for models of dealing with race in the white community in a way that is effective and promotes change, rather than inciting defensiveness and shutting down. She worked with a coalition model that evolved out of relationship co-counseling. Originally, she was invited last year to give a workshop on children’s books and race, but had to cancel because she had the flu. She was re-invited this year, but asked if she could do it on class instead. Even though her interest and expertise is in race, not class dynamics, she said sure — so she wants us to know this workshop is going to be structured a little differently as we collaborate and share our resources, tips, and knowledge. Since this is her first workshop and conference, she’s still trying to figure out a framework and structure for this. Her end goal is to equip anyone in here with a slightly expanded toolbag to approach conversations explaining race with children. And class.
Fundamentals: She wants to know what our script is. Interrupts herself again to clarify that she’s trying to balance the experience in the room with her presentation, and is totally okay with interruption. Gets back to starting the presentation, such as it is. She says we need to break the silence. Class, even more than race, is just not discussed in the US. Children are left to absorb the world around them, and have no names or voice or permission to understand it. They’re left on their own to try and figure it out, and internalize a lot of misconceptions and attitudes the adults around them are unconsciously modeling to them.
She said the first “R” children learn is race and racism, and talked about a social worker who observed a very diverse daycare and interaction of the students. What the social worker found was that kids are picking up everything the adults around them do and say — both conscious and unconscious — and that they are internalizing those relationships in regards to race — and class, probably — and mimicking the adult behaviors and assumptions in their own play.
When we talk with young children, we need to break it down to the simplest terms. She asked us to think in 20 words or less what we want to communicate to children about class and classism.
Mine: Sometimes people judge other people for how much they earn. Sometimes people say people who earn less money are worth less to the world. That’s not true.
Classroom Responses Shared w/ Group
Class is something you’re born into that will influence your life. — Wxy
Some kids have less or more than you and it doesn’t make them better or worse, and you should be grateful for what you have. — Wxy
What do you really need, do you have enough, and are you okay with that? — Wxx
Class is something you gain through experiences, life experiences. It’s not what you’re born with. — Bxy.
Your family’s cultural and racial story forms your life and is your heritage. — Wxx
You always have a place at the library, and we will help you and find what you need or want. — Wxx
Every person matters. Some people get treated as if they matter less, and that’s not fair. — Presenter.
The presenter talks about a particular approach she finds useful when helping transracial adoptive parents or white teachers who have never had discussions about race. This approach apparently introduces the conversation in non-confrontational way that reduces defensiveness and anger. She calls it, “Mirrors and lenses,” and it was inspired by a book about identity development as mirrors of how we believe society sees us.
Mirrors are what other people show us about who we are; the reflections about ourselves that we see.
[Personal Note: I think my mirror is warped]
She talked about dominant identities of race and class, and the marginalized experience. Since a majority identity is often considered normative, it is common for the marginalized experiences to have a stronger identity around that difference.
The majority tends NOT to identify their race (or class) as key part of their identity, because on a cultural level it’s accepted as the default. Minorities strong identify with differentiating aspects of their identity in part because it has been so pointed and discussed on a daily basis
[Personal Note: Consider role of bipolar diagnosis and mental illness awareness in my own identity.]
When someone from a dominant group tries to talk with someone from a minority group, they may have ingrained behaviors about not discussing race or money because it’s considered rude, and says we need to overcome this discomfort.
- The development of unconscious bias. 80% of white people have a positive bias toward the white race, regardless of their commitment to social justice. The brain has two main functions/ processes: sorting and associations.
- Sorting is when you sort things into categories based on similarities.
- Associations are things where you look at someone and associate them as similar or different than you, then sort them according to that. So if you’re raised as white middle class, that’s the default association and creates an unconscious bias. We need to address these biases young with our children to break the silence about racism. It’s the same idea with classism and other forms of discrimination.
- Contact theory — using books that will engage the reader and change people’s minds about cross cultural discussions, as well as reduce the fear/ discomfort kids might have in crossing group lines.
Wxx Attendee interrupts to say she thinks the Presenters 20 words or less thought should have ended with, ‘. . . And it’s not fair and we can do something about it.‘. She says instead of leaving children with the notion that the world is unfair, we should tell them they can and should change it.
[Personal Note: Gotta admit, this idea makes me uncomfortable. I don’t see how lying to kids and pretending the world should and can be fair is okay. It will always be unfair in some sense or other. That’s not a good or bad thing, it’s a fact of reality. Instead of pretending we can make the world fair and equitable, I feel like it’s more important to acknowledge that sometimes life sucks, but it does for everyone. We need to help each other and be a community, to help not only the people we love but also strangers when they’re down. We need to recognize no-one is immune from tragedy and bad luck, and to help each other get over the unfair bad times.]
She then asked the group as a class to raise their hand to answer the following questions, and that we could raise our hand more than once.
“Were you raised with less than enough; more than enough; or enough?” [P.N. I raised my hand for the last one.]
“How many have crossed class lines and are now living differently from how you were raised?” [P.N. I raised my hand.]
[Personal Note: I was raised with “enough” as white professional middle class, and married across class to working class/ blue collar and “less than enough.” Over time, we’ve transitioned to “enough.”]
Presenter says our relationship to money throughout our life, and our changing financial status through our lives, will inform attitudes and values we hold about class. An attendee then suggested one means of starting the conversation about class with kids would be to ask what “enough” means. Presenter asks how we talk about class to kids.
How Group Talks About Class
We go around the workshop and each attendee discusses how they talk to children about concepts of class and poverty. Fair warning: Lots of classism.
Wxx Teacher: She read her class of affluent students a book called How to Steal a Dog, and it just shocked the kids that there are poor people in the U.S. They had thought no-one in the U.S. could want for anything. Additionally, her school also often hosts fundraisers and drives and volunteer opportunities to help the less fortunate, which gives the kids lots of opportunities to volunteer and participate in social justice activism.
Bxy Teacher: He says he makes sure to teach his kids to address the adults in their lives with the same amount of respect. Says he talks to his kids about their habits of address, and how the affluent kids refer to certain adults (teachers, professionals, etc) as Mr. or Mrs. Lastname, but call their janitors, babysitters, and cafeteria workers by their first names in a familiar manner. He says this betrays a difference in perception and lack of respect, and talks to his students about that. As a result, his kids now call all adults, regardless of class, by Mr. or Mrs. Lastname.
Bxy: He thinks the previous guy’s point is a really good one, and it’s important to show respect to all adults no matter what their job is, even if it is in the service industry and the affluent kids are being served by adults.
Bxx Teacher: Brings up donations and how when her school donates, she tells the affluent kids not to donate stuff they’re tired of (oh, I’ve had this doll for a while and I’m bored of it, so I’ll donate it instead of throwing it away), but to purchase new items specifically for donation.
Wxx Teacher: Said none of the 5th grade children at her school are allowed to have their parents “rescue” them; ie: if the kids forget homework or lunch, their parents aren’t allowed to bring it to them. She says this is because affluent students only have this opportunity because they can have a stay at home parent, and kids in poor school districts wouldn’t have this ability, so it’s to teach the kids how to relate to poor kids. She says the schools gives a workshop at the beginning of the year to teach the parents “how to survive 5th grade,” so everyone is aware of the program and knows to be prepared.
[Personal Note: What the f**k? This is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard, and it assumes all jobs are 9-5. I don’t get how preventing kids from calling their parents for homework or lunch is helping them understand classism. I’ve never heard of anything like this in any of the areas I’ve lived, and I’ve lived in some poor-ass areas. Also, what about after-school events and fundraisers and school fairs? Are they changing the times of those? Because one thing I have noticed about working class parents is that their hours are all messed up, so they have a hard time being able to make events, fundraisers, school fairs, and parent-teacher conferences. Those things are actually important; homework isn’t. If the kid doesn’t get it in the day of and the parent can’t find time to bring it by the school, they just send it with the kid the next day.]
Wxy Teacher: Talked about how his 6th graders — also affluent — don’t really understand the concept of money/ value, so his lessons have been focused on helping them understand terms like “poverty” and “wealth” and giving them the context of value and wants vs. needs.
[Personal Note: What kind of 6th grader doesn’t understand basic terms like poverty, wealth, and the value of items? This is all so foreign and weird.]
Bxy Teacher: Stands up and says he’s seeing a lot of classism and affluence in the room
[p.n. thank god someone else noticed]
and says some of these “awareness” solutions have nothing to being poor. He says his student’s parents would never be prevented from coming to school to bail out their kids, and that’s not even an issue for poor families. Says it’s weird that wealthy people see that as a discussion about class. Adds that poor is not being able to get a ride to school because you missed the bus, and tells a story about a 6th grade student who rode the city bus to school because he was late and missed the school bus. Ripple of shocker murmurs goes across the room at the idea of a child riding the city bus, and the lady next to me says under her breath that she doesn’t even know how to get on the bus.
[p.n. this is just surreal]
Wxx Attendee(s): Says poor people are more creative with their resources than wealthy people, and that should be pointed out to affluent kids. Another woman says we should teach affluent kids what basic needs really are, because a lot of them have no idea and can’t discern between a need and a want. Another person says it’s a really common view to think that working class/ poor people are always in need, and that people with money are supposed to be their helpers/ saviors, and this is a classist view in and of itself. Says lots of working class and poor people make do perfectly fine with what they have and don’t need wealthy people to swoop in and “save” them, they just need some awareness and compassion.
[p.n. I guess it’s an easier solution to tell yourself that poor people are super creative with their resources and happier with less than it is to try and change the system. The status is not quo.]
Presenter: Going into the book evaluations, says in general not many children’s books are about class or poverty, and that ones that do exist address it from a standpoint of change and trauma: They are about stress, loss, and the change of material circumstances. She also says most children’s books are written from a default perspective of white professional middle class. Then she read a book out loud to us.
Book: Something Beautiful by Sharon Dennis Wyath
Basically, a little girl living in an apartment in the inner city looks around and sees the graffiti and broken glass and trash, and decides to find something beautiful in her neighborhood. She goes to the diner and is made a fried fish sandwich; she talks to her friends who present their various toys; she talks to the neighborhood shop owner who shows off his display of fruit; she listens to the singing and laughter of children on the playground; her neighbor shows her his smooth, pretty luck stone; and her aunt lets her hold her giggling nephew. Then she goes home and looks at the dirt/ graffiti/ broken glass. Get’s a broom and a mop and cleans it all up. Swears to plant flowers in the courtyard someday. Then her mom comes home from work, and she asks her mom what her something beautiful is, and the mom names the daughter.
Questions: What’s beautiful in your life? What little things make your heart sing? How can you improve happiness and beauty around you? How can you create beauty? This book illustrates power plus agency. Ask yourself, does she have “enough”? What is “enough”?
[Personal Note: They’ve actually done studies on this. In the United States, “enough” is generally an income of about $70,000 or so, give or take a little depending on the specific area. That is enough to pay the bills, put food on the table, and have a little extra. When happiness surveys are done, the happiness/ lack of stress plateaus after $70,000. Under this amount, the amount of stress and concern about bills and finances harms everyone and reduces their happiness. Above that . . . they’re fine. I feel like this class is kind of romanticizing poverty, and erroneously equating abject poverty with an income of, like ~$60,000 or something, where belts are tight but things aren’t that bad and a little thriftiness goes a long way.]
The presenter notes that there are almost no contemporary books about rural settings, that most books set in the countryside or on farms are set during the Great Depression or something.
Wxx Attendee: Points out that many children’s books are about kids rescued from poverty by magic — cites Matilda and Harry Potter. She says we should find more books that don’t rescue kids from poverty with magic, but instead show how to deal with it.
[Personal Note: Clearly she hasn’t had to actually live in poverty. Escapism is a way of ‘dealing with it’. Also, Johnny Tremain started out in relative affluence and social standing and dropped into disability, poverty, and shame. Calico Captive has Miriam starting out as a member of a well-respected and well-regarded family in the settler community, and drops her into a captivity, slavery, and poverty. In each of these situations, they adjust to their new circumstances and begin to improve their lives, but neither book ends with them acquiring their old circumstances.]
Bxy Attendee: Says we should take the lens of society and turn it into our mirror — look at how others see us.
Presenter: A key thing for kids to learn is they have a richness in poor communities that is not there in wealthy communities. Poor kids living in poverty in Africa, for instance, always have adults present to offer emotional support, but a lot of wealthy kids in the U.S. don’t have that kind of presence and support and spend a lot of time alone.
[Personal Note: I can’t even process the insanity anymore. See, guys, it’s totes better to live in poverty than in wealth, because poor people have, like, people around to offer emotional support! I mean, rich people may have all that money and clean water and food and electricity and shit, but they’re all lonely and sad in their pretty marble mansions.]
Then we partnered up and talked about how to talk to kids about poverty in the future and I booked it the hell outta there because they’re all crazy. (Crazy in that their perceptions of the world seem irreparably warped, not in the sense that they are actually mentally ill. Every mentally ill person I’ve met has had a stronger grasp on systems of inequality in our society than these so-called sane people.)