Inviting Cultural Stereotypes: Using the Reader’s Funds of Knowledge

by Yoo Kyung Sung, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque

Following last week’s blog, I reread my WOW Book Reviews, all of which illustrated conflicts with young protagonists and their cultural affiliations. Each protagonist struggled with their cultural identity, though in different ways. Eleven year-old Lucy, a Chinese-American in The Great Wall of Lucy Wu (Shang, 2011), is a proactive basketball player who tends to downplay her Chinese side. Her parents are Chinese-Americans and when a new family member from China upsets the cultural dynamics at home, it challenges Lucy’s perception of herself. Maomao, in A Near Year’s Reunion (Cheng-Liang, 2011), is a Chinese girl that lives with her mom most of the time because her father’s job requires a lot of travel. The Indian-American girl, Dini, in The Grand Plan to Fix Everything (2011), is also eleven. She revels in Bollywood movies, Bollywood celebrities, and dreams of being a movie scriptwriter. Her journey from the small rural community of Swapnagiri, in Southern India, to Maryland is filled with discoveries for her. I examined another of my reviews, Inside Out and Back Again (Lai, 2012), from the 2012 Notable Children’s Literature in Language Arts. Inside Out and Back Again (Lai, 2012) describes Hà’s journey in leaving Vietnam to settle down in Alabama. Hà’s frame for her cultural identity is anchored in language. As she learns a new one, it makes her appreciate her native language even more.

My book reviews generally evaluate cultural authenticity juxtaposed with my aesthetic responses of cultural portrayals. My aesthetic responses emanate from my appreciation of reading insightful global narratives showing a world that is culturally, linguistically, anthropologically, historically, politically, and racially complex. As I closely read my own reviews, six prevalent elements spanned the four books in terms of authentic stories of multicultural representation. These elements are not independent from each other, but are intricately interwoven within the narratives.

The elements are:

1) Stereotyping in Relation to a Readers’ “Funds of Knowledge”
2) Rethinking Cultural Traditions Leading to “Stereotypocide”
3) Reminding the Reader of Diversity Within Diversity
4) Broader Implied Audience
5) Globally Connected Concurrent Cultures
6) Children’s Agency and Pride.

Each component will be addressed this month. This week, my focus is on Stereotype in Relation to Reader’s “Funds of Knowledge.”

Stereotypes are often used by professional comedians to make their audiences laugh. Even though stereotypes have a negative connotation due to the fact that they frequently misrepresent particular groups, they make effective connections with which to draw an audience in. Comedians know that stereotypes rely on commonly understood social constructions, though they may not be factually correct. They know that such socially constructed knowledge will draw predictable aesthetic responses from audiences.

Similarly, aesthetic responses occur when authors draw in the reader by using commonly understood  knowledge of the culture they represent. Such stereotypes can connect audiences whose culture differs from that of the protagonists. Real knowledge of the culture by the reader, though, is usually conceptually limited. In other words, many authors embrace socially stereotyping a culture’s Funds of Knowledge (defined as the bodies of knowledge, including information, skills, and strategies which underlie household functioning, development, and well being [Moll et al, 1992; Gonzalez et al, 2005]) in a way consistent with mainstream understandings and, consequently, add to or reinforce cultural misunderstandings. For instance, in The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, Lucy’s brother, Kenny, is good at math and is an active math club member in school. Being gifted in math is a culturally stereotypical construct of Asian people. The author illustrates that excellence in math so that a mainstream audience would identify with that stereotype, yet the author emphasizes Kenny’s greater interest and strength in history instead, so that readers can move beyond their limiting stereotype about Asians and see that Kenny (and all Asians) often have greater ability in other subjects. Such stereotyping leads to narrative “tunnel vision” (Scott, 1998) — narrowing one vision without seeing beyond the tunnel. Or in this case, beyond the stereotype. However, if one carefully examined the culture’s funds of knowledge it would portray actual cultural traits like parents’ language, values and beliefs, ways of discipline, etc (Riojas-Cortez 2001). I see the use of Funds of Knowledge as a way for authors to sometimes embrace an audience’s prevailing social construction of a culture rather than add to an audience’s knowledge of that culture. I would call that people-oriented stereotypes.

Another example of Stereotype as Readers’ Funds of Knowledge is the festival-oriented stereotype. The Chinese New Years is one of the most recognized Chinese cultural icons. In A New Year’s Reunion the audience is drawn in when their social knowledge about Chinese culture is used as a literary entrée depicting the annual occurrence of the New Year’s celebration as one of socioeconomic need. In reality, many family members in China live apart during a majority of the year, but getting together for the New Year. In this case, the author uses superficial social knowledge of Chinese culture that poorly reflects global realities.

Lastly, old stereotypes are revisited and dispelled. In my review of Great Wall of Lucy Wu, I was delighted to notice the individualism of Lucy’s interaction with her Taiwanese-American friend, Talent. “Everyone seems to think we should be friends because we’re both Chinese, short, and in the same grade. The resemblance ends there, though” (p.28). That reminded me of my first job interview. Many Koreans from the local community were invited to meet me. Extra arrangements and considerations were made because I was Korean. Similarly, in my review of Inside Out & Back Again, is not intimidated by being a Vietnamese speaker. Rather, she critiques the irregularity of English pointing out, “Whoever invented English should have learned to spell” (p.177). Stereotypes of new immigrants who feel intimidated by a language barrier are debunked by the author’s portrayal of Ha. I found it refreshing. Next week I will explore Rethinking Cultural Traditions Leading to “Stereotypocide”(my own term).

References

González, N., Moll, L. C. and Amanti, C. (eds) (2005a) Funds of Knowledge: Theorizing Practices in Households, Communities and Classrooms (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum).

Moll, L. C., Amanti, C., Neff, D. and Gonzáles, N. (1992) Funds of knowledge for teaching: using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory into Practice, 31(2), 132–141.

Riojas-Cortez, M. (2001) Preschoolers’ funds of knowledge displayed through socio-dramatic play episodes in a bilingual classroom. Early Childhood Education Journal,29(1), 35–40. 15

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