Exploring Racism and Prejudice through Literature
by Kathryn Tompkins, Fourth Grade, Van Horne Elementary, Vignette 2 of 3
My students had no problem talking about hate. White people hated black people, some men hated women, Hitler hated the Jews. Challenging them to understand that these were also issues of racism and prejudice met with resistance and getting them to consider that these issues still exist today seemed nearly impossible. Anytime we got close to talking about racism, they found a way to divert the talk and, because talk about racism was new to me as well, I was not sure how to move them beyond this resistance. Bolgatz (2005) says that we develop racial literacy, the ability to thoughtfully discuss issues of race and racism, by talking about race and racism “even when that talk is difficult or awkward” (p. 2). To effectively invite this talk, I decided to examine my field notes and students’ literature logs to understand the ways in which my students resisted this talk as well as how their talk about racism gradually changed across the school year.
Bolgantz (2005) points out that race does not have a biological basis, but is a social construction growing out of the intersection between skin color and sociohistorical hierarchies of power. Racism can be blatant such as when someone claims that particular human populations create superior civilizations and should dominate other human groups because they are intellectually superior. Many racists believe that differences between races are due to genetic factors, not to environment or history. Racism can be more subtle when assumptions are made that Whiteness is the norm or standard against which “others” are judged or when we fail to question inequality and accept it as “just the way the world is.” One way in which racism occurs is through prejudice where we judge others without having evidence to back up our opinions. Because racism is maintained through everyday life practices including the media and school curriculum, I knew that we could not avoid talking about racism and prejudice in my classroom just because those issues are uncomfortable. I also knew that the racial demographics of my class would influence our talk since half of my students were white and the rest were Latino with a few other students from other ethnic groups.
“I think that just happened in the old days” is a phrase that started off the year for my fourth graders when we read any book that raised issues of racism. In their minds, racism and prejudice existed a long time ago and then Martin Luther King, Jr. came along and solved all of the problems of the world. Bolgatz (2005) found that students discussed historical racism as if it “existed in a vacuum, with no connection to their own beliefs” (p. 86). I knew that I had my work cut out for me when it came to challenging my students to recognize that the problems of the past are often still present today. Racism may be less blatant than in the past; however, all one needs to do is turn on the news to be confronted with the problems of racism around the world as well as in our own community. I was fortunate to have a team of co-workers to think with me about ways to open the eyes and minds of children using literature. We worked together, reading books and participating in discussions to encourage students to personally connect with characters and discuss the difficult social issues faced by these characters.
The first read aloud that challenged students to consider racism was On the Other Side (Woodson, 2001). In this story, two girls, one white and one black, are separated by a fence. They aren’t allowed to cross the fence to play together. The students focused on the issue that it wasn’t “safe” to cross the fence, rather than admitting that it might be an issue of prejudice. They thought that maybe the moms didn’t know each other so they didn’t want their daughters to play with strangers. Of course they predicted that, after the book ended, the fence was knocked down and the girls became great friends. They were sure there was a happy ending!
The next book that we read was White Socks Only (Coleman, 1996). A grandmother tells the story of when she was a little girl and went to town to see if she could fry an egg on the hot cement. She succeeded and was on her way back home when she stopped to get a drink. The sign on the water fountain said “Whites Only” so she took off her shoes to reveal clean, white socks before she stepped up to drink. A white man came along and threatened to beat her with his belt. Before she knew it there were lots of black people taking their shoes off to get a drink at the fountain. The discussion in class consisted primarily of questions from the students – “Why was the white guy so mad at her?” “Why could only whites drink?” “Couldn’t she read the sign?” “Why don’t whites like blacks?” Most of the students seemed afraid to talk about the hate that was evident in this book but this time they did not dismiss that hate and were verbalizing their questions about racial tensions. They were especially awkward around one student in the class whom they perceived to be black. I wasn’t sure how to help them become more comfortable with discussing difficult issues but at least they were beginning to ask “why?”
We engaged students with several contemporary books to challenge their assumption that racism is a thing of the past. First Day in Grapes (Perez, 2002) is the story of a young Mexican-American boy whose family moves from one migrant farm camp to another. He gets picked on at school and made fun of but he stands up for himself. Most kids saw this book as kids bullying each other, but Ozzie believed that the children’s actions were racist. He argued that it was not just bullying but that the children were mean to the boy because he was Mexican and said that he knew this because his brother had been bullied for the same reason.
I read aloud another contemporary book, White Wash (Shange, 1997), the next week. This book definitely reminded me that I would not always feel comfortable with the content of the books I read to children. I know it is important to be open to books that might be hard for me to read because they make me sad. The students need to know that I care about what we are reading. The clothes and talk of the characters in this story are clearly in the present. A young girl, on her way home from school with her brother, is painted white and the boys who attack her insinuate that she is not American unless she is white. Her brother also gets beaten up and can’t help defend her. I thought that this story would evoke anger in my students about what happened to this young girl and her brother. The students talked about kids being bullied because of their skin color, but then the clichÃ©s started coming out. Despite the obviously current styles of clothing, the students stated that it must have happened before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s time. They also stated that it shouldn’t matter what a person is like on the outside, because all that matters is what is on the inside. They took the position of colorblindness, which my students seemed to feel was a good thing. Bolgatz (2005) defines colorblindness as “dismissing the significance and relevance of race” (p. 81). I struggled with how I could help students understand the importance of recognizing race and skin color as one part of a person’s identity and as influencing their experiences and interactions with others. Many students had been told by parents and teachers so often that skin color doesn’t matter and that everyone is the same on the inside that they dismissed the racial issues in books as insignificant. While some students were uncomfortable talking about race and took positions of colorblindness to avoid the discussion, others seemed to view these issues as irrelevant to their lives and seemed bored with our discussions.
One book that caught some of the students’ attention was Sister Anne’s Hands (Lorbieki, 1998), which has a beautiful cover of a nun and a girl planting flowers in a little pot. The girl learns that she will have a “woman of color” as her teacher and wonders what color her teacher could be. When she meets Sister Anne, she can’t help but stare at the darkness of her skin and is afraid to have those hands touch her. Sister Anne is a wonderful teacher, inspiring her students with her humor and dedicated way of making learning fun. Then a paper airplane sails near Sister Anne and when she opens it up it says, “Roses are red, Violets are blue. Don’t let Sister Anne get any black on you.” Several students laugh but Sister Anne sits in silence thinking. The next day the classroom walls are covered with pictures showing racist acts toward African Americans. She tells them that those are the colors of hatred and encourages them to open up their hearts. The story ends with the girl drawing peoples’ hands in all different colors – pink or polka dotted, red or yellow. The discussion began with talk about how poorly black people were treated in the past. One student identified herself as having black skin, although she does not consider herself Black since she is from Fiji. There was some discussion about how white people didn’t want to touch black skin. Then the talk turned to the happy ending and how it doesn’t matter what you look like on the outside. While students still fell back to clichÃ©s, they seemed more open to talking about their own skin color and recognizing the dark skin of their classmate with whom they were friends.
We finally seemed to be getting somewhere with the book Teammates (Golenbock, 1990), the story of the friendship between Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese when Jackie went to play for the Dodgers. The book begins with a history of segregation that I thought might help the students understand discrimination in the United States. Jackie is taunted by players and fans yet continues to play baseball and Pee Wee stands by him in the face of racist slurs from crowds. Ozzie opened up talk about racism by asking, “Who started hating black people?” Other students responded with stories of kids not being allowed to play who were black and adults who make racist comments. They also discussed movies that showed scenes of racism. Ozzie said that he recognized racism because he was bullied at his old school for being Mexican. Finally, students were actually discussing racism. Once again, however, the discussion ended with a student stating that everyone is the same on the inside and we are all human beings. It was discouraging that when we finally seemed to make progress in talking about racism, we ended up back with those clichÃ©s!
The next book, Rose Blanche (Innocenti, 1985) deals with prejudice that isn’t openly about skin color. This isn’t a book about blacks and whites or Mexicans and whites and so I thought it might challenge students’ thinking about these issues. A girl finds children who are imprisoned in a fenced yard during the Holocaust. She wants to help them because they are starving so she takes them food. At the end she is in the field and a shot is heard. She never makes it home. The students were shocked and saddened. I realized that students had no knowledge of the Holocaust and the rampant hate that Hitler exposed to the world. I wanted to do something more with the Holocaust yet struggled with how to appropriately raise these issues with fourth graders. I didn’t want them to just see photos from concentration camps but wanted them to understand more about the people whose lives were forever changed by hate and prejudice.
I waited a few months and then introduced the Holocaust by talking about hate. We watched a video of Patricia Polacco reading her story, The Butterfly (2001), about two girls during the time of the Holocaust. We also talked about Anne Frank and I read excerpts from her diary to the class and showed various picture books about her life. I wanted students to make connections to her as a young person, just like them, who lived and died during that time. I tried to find stories about her that they could relate to, such as her love for her cat and her friends. She became a real person to them rather than only a character in a book. They saw how much she was like them. I knew we were getting somewhere when they started checking out books on her life and reading about her on the internet.
I decided to share I Never Saw Another Butterfly (Volvkovd, 1962), a book of children’s drawings and poems from 1942-1944 in the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp. I read aloud a few poems and showed illustrations from the book. I tried to select poetry that highlighted a child’s view of the world and children’s ability to see beauty in everything, even in their darkest moments. I gave each student a small piece of paper and asked them to write about anything they were feeling. Then they used watercolors to paint a picture to go with their writing. The results were better than I ever would have imagined. The kids stunned me with how deeply they felt for children caught in the Holocaust. They wrote about the fear that the children must have felt for the unknown, the hopelessness of the camps, and struggle for those who tried to hide from the Nazis. I knew then that we were breaking down barriers and students were beginning to see characters in books as real kids with lives who were deeply hurt by racism and prejudice. They were beginning to identify with them and their struggles. The most effective way to connect children with issues of racism and prejudice seemed to be through the stories of other children, past and present.
Around this time, students were asked to make cultural x-rays of their own cultural identities. The posters had an outline of a person holding a large heart. Around the outside of the person, students were asked to put words and pictures describing themselves and their cultural identities, such as their languages, color, race, age, religion, where they lived, if they felt they were rich, middle class or poor, etc. In the heart, students put what they cared about and valued. Students were also asked to color the person to look like themselves. They had no trouble getting to work on their hearts and writing about their love of their families, friends, pets, sports, and even foods. Getting them to work on the outside was a different story. We heard, “I don’t have a culture, I am just white.” We struggled with ways to help students see culture as more than ethnicity or skin color and as influencing how each of us think about who we are and what is important in our lives.
As part of our study of Korean culture, we read aloud the story of a young girl and her brother during the Japanese occupation of Korea before World War II. In When My Name Was Keoko (Park, 2002) a family loses their names, their language, and much of their culture when the Japanese occupy Korea. The students identified with Keoko (whose Korean name is Sun-hee), a curious young girl who knows more that her family gives her credit for, and Tae-yul, her brother who is an active adolescent. Students imagined being in their situations and having to change their names and learn another country’s history in school each day. The uncle, who lives with the family, eventually flees because he writes a secret newspaper bashing the unfair rules that Japan has put into place in Korea. The father, who is a great scholar, cannot be the head of the school because he is Korean and so is not allowed by the Japanese to be in a position of leadership. Schools aren’t allowed to teach anything Korean. The Japanese didn’t like anything Korean and the Koreans didn’t like anything Japanese. If a Korean had an alliance with the Japanese occupiers, they were called Chin-il-pa, which meant love of the Japanese. Their lives were made easier by the Japanese who helped them to get rich yet their fellow Koreans hated them for being traitors. Students resonated with the idea of the Chin-il-pa because they had experiences of being disliked for one reason or another and also because they couldn’t believe that any Korean would side with the Japanese.
Sun-hee’s visit to her Japanese friend, Tomo, who is playing with a toy plane provoked the most discussion. Tomo flies the plane around yelling, “Kill the Americans.” My students were appalled that anyone would want to kill Americans. As I continued reading they learned that the Japanese had shown a movie in the school to teach the students what Americans were like. The film showed white people, usually wearing hats and riding horses, shooting and killing other people. The students were told that Americans hated all people with black hair. Sun-hee knew that her family admired America for its freedom and education so she didn’t believe what she was told. My students thought that the movie was an old Cowboys and Indians video and discussed why the Korean students would think it was real when it was just a movie. Robert said, “I think the video was to fool them to hate the Americans.” It was hard for the students to grasp that this story took place over 60 years ago and that Korean students had never seen a movie and so didn’t know that it was entertainment. For the first time my class realized that people could be prejudiced against an entire country and have opinions that were not based on evidence. I realized that until students recognized how others could misperceive them, they couldn’t fully understand how they could develop stereotypes and misperceive someone else.
This issue of how others view Americans caused a great deal of tension for students. Were people really prejudiced against Americans? Suddenly the talk turned from “people didn’t like them” to questioning why anyone wouldn’t like us! The first discussion on this topic started when we talked about the first few chapters in Keoko. One student said he would be mad if Japan took over the U.S. and changed our names. Another argued that it wouldn’t happen because “we are too powerful.” The discussion continued with talk about how we already had fought Japan when they attacked us “for no reason” at Pearl Harbor and started World War II. They seemed oblivious to the idea that anyone would not like Americans or would want to fight us, or that we would ever do anything to provoke someone into hating us. There was a lot of talk about how the U.S. tries to make peace and fights for freedom for ourselves and others. Students took the position that we were lucky to live in America where we could do whatever we wanted. They also stated that we would never start a war; we only wanted to protect other countries like Iraq. Ozzie tried to change the focus by saying, “that is how our soldiers die” but the topic went right back to how we go to war for peace. The students decided that the people of Korea should have stood up for themselves and not be controlled by Japan. They did not recognize what it is like to have another country occupy your country by force.
The discussion of how America only fights for peace carried over to other discussions in our class. When one student again talked about how we never start wars, that we only defend ourselves or protect other countries, Robert challenged the class by asking, “Who started the war in Iraq?” He wanted to know why the class thought we were there fighting for peace and whether you could “fight” for peace. This was an interesting challenge to the idealistic picture that these students held of the U.S. We seemed to be moving into a discussion of the tension between being proud to be Americans with the freedom to discuss these issues and questioning whether we are blinded by that patriotism and unable to see why other countries might dislike us. This discussion was diffused by Shawn, who used the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. to argue that one can fight for peace. It seemed that one student always diverted the conversation when we started getting to the deeper issues. Once again, Dr. King solved the world’s problems!
The difficulty in getting students to openly discuss racism was preceded by the challenge of getting them to recognize race as a significant factor in our world. Exploring a range of books portraying racism in different forms helped students become more comfortable with difference as a positive resource in the world, rather than as a problem. Once one student described herself as having “black skin” it seemed to open the door for the rest of the class to discuss race and to recognize that it does matter who we are on the outside as well as on the inside. I feel confident that next year I will more quickly recognize the moments in our discussions when I can challenge students to consider issues of racism and prejudice and the literature that helps open the spaces for that talk. Bolgatz (2005) argues that, “Racial literacy requires that students engage in interactions intellectually and emotionally. Students have to care about how race and racism affect them” (p.35). Looking at my students’ responses, I learned that as long as they viewed racism as removed from their lives, they failed to engage intellectually or emotionally. My challenge for next year is to create opportunities for students to confront racism and prejudice as present in their daily lives. I also have come to realize that I need to create a safe environment in which students can discuss difficult issues, but to accept that we may never feel completely comfortable with these discussions. Knowing how to interact with each other around issues that are not comfortable is actually a significant part of our learning about race and racism. As we explore our own cultural identities and prejudices as well as the cultures and perspectives of characters in books, I hope that students will come to see how they can take action and work for social change in the world.
Bolgatz, J. (2005). Talking race in the classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.
Coleman, E. (1996). White socks only. Chicago: Albert Whitman.
Golenbock, P. (1990). Teammates. New York: Harcourt Brace.
Innocenti, R. (1985). Rose Blanche. Minnesota: Creative Education.
Lorbiecki, M. (1998). Sister Anne’s hands. New York: Dial.
Park, L.S. (2002). When my name was Keoko. New York: Yearling.
Perez, L. King (2002). First day in grapes. New York: Lee & Low.
Polacco, P. (2001). The butterfly. New York: Scholastic.
Shange, N. (1997). Whitewash. New York. Walker.
Volavkovd, H. (Ed.) (1962). If I never saw another butterfly. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Woodson, J. (2001). The other side. New York: Putnam.
WOW Stories, Volume I, Issue 1 by Worlds of Words is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://wowlit.org/on-line-publications/stories/storiesi1/.