On Being Excluded Understanding the Diversity Gap in Children’s Literature

Racism – Children partaking in the integration programme „WerteRaum“ of the Eduard-Spranger Primary School in Munich. The proportion of children with a migration background at this school is about 80 percent.
Children from the all-day school class 3bi participate in a workshop on "Professions" on 1 June 2017, organised by the interactive integration programme "WerteRaum" at the Eduard-Spranger Primary School in Munich (Bavaria). The project, designed for children with migration background, focuses on playful engagement in the areas of community, equality, education and professions. About 80 percent of the children at the Eduard-Spranger primary school in Munich have a migration background. | Photo (detail): Matthias Balk © picture alliance / dpa

BIPoC Children and the societies are depicted systematically as laughable, comical, barbaric, naïve or immoral, as beings closer to nature than to culture, as beings who are dependent on white knowledge and benevolence, writes Maisha M. Auma.

By Maisha M. Auma

“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanise.”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in ‘The Danger of a Single Story’

When Children begin to explore literary worlds, they are confronted with a reality of deep inequalities. Writing about multilayered intersectional experiences of ‘missing in literature’, about the lacking representation of hyperdiverse realities in children’s books, from my location in Berlin, Germany, includes looking into the context of children’s literature in German-speaking countries. It is also about looking outward to the wider European context. It further includes looking towards underrepresented geopolitical contexts like African, Asian and South American societies, as well as to the lived realities of First People (indigenous societies) whose daily experiences and territories have been erased from narrations of social realities. And finally, it includes looking to the North American context, as a context from which global dominance is deployed in narrating social realities, while the same context functions as a site for creativity and resistance in initiating and advocating for more diversity, inclusion, social justice and antiracism in children’s books.
  • Racism – “I can't breathe” is written on the mask of a boy taking part in a rally against police violence in Frankfurt. Bernd Kammerer © picture alliance
    A boy at an anti-racism demonstration in Frankfurt/Main on 6 June 2020
  • Racism - Munich: Primary school children with migration background in the schoolyard of a primary school. Sven Simon © picture alliance
    Munich: Primary school children with migration background in the schoolyard of a primary school. Photographed on 16 May 2019
  • Racism - Names under children's drawings in a childcare centre in Berlin-Neukölln Volkmar Heinz © picture alliance / zb
    Names under children's drawings in a childcare centre in Berlin-Neukölln (5 February 2015). Also on the shelves and coat hooks are names of children from many countries and different nationalities written.
  • Racism - Children of refugee families during an enrolment celebration at the primary school Kastanienallee. © FRM/dpa
    Children from refugee families, photographed in Halle (Saxony-Anhalt) on 29 August 2015, during an enrolment celebration at the primary school Kastanienallee. At the beginning of the new school year there will be statewide language classes and learning groups for children with a migration background in Saxony-Anhalt.
  • Racism - Migrant children learn in a welcoming class at the Weidenhof primary school in Potsdam (Brandenburg) Ralf Hirschberger © picture alliance / dpa
    Migrant children in a welcoming class at the Weidenhof Primary School in Potsdam (Brandenburg). In addition to the regular lessons, children of asylum seekers and refugees receive up to 5 extra lessons per week. In 2015, about 320 children, of which 137 had a migration background, were enrolled at the school. There is a home for asylum seekers in the catchment area.
  • Racism - Black Lives Matter demonstration at Deutzer Werft in Cologne on 6 June 2020 Jens Krick © picture alliance / Flashpic
    Black Lives Matter demonstration against racism and in remembrance of the death of George Floyd at Deutzer Werft in Cologne on 6 June 2020.
Nigerian feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns of the dangers of ‘a single story’, based on the geopolitical dominance of white- and west-centric narrations. This critique questions stories which generalise the experiences of white, male, able-bodied, ‘white-Christian’, heterosexual, male-identifying, middle-class people. Centralising these perspectives is deployed at the expense of Black, Indigenous, People of Colour, Sinti and Roma, Muslim- or Jewish-identified, religious-non-practicing, disabled of differently-abled, working-class or working poor, female-identifying, queer, inter* and trans* people.

“The relation of represented Children of Color Colour had now sunk below the level of represented animals. There is no difficulty in representing animals, fantasy-animals and inanimate figures. There seems to be resistance to representing Children of Colour and their realities.”


The singularity written into the stories in children’s books contains problematic normalisations. The most comprehensive study of 20th century children's books undertaken in the United States; Gender in Twentieth-Century Children's Books: Patterns of Disparity in Titles and Central Characters, analysed 6,000 books published from 1900 to 2000. It was carried out by sociologists of gender at Florida State University (McCabe, Fairchild, Grauerholz, Pescosolido and Tope, 2011). The most important finding is that when adult males and male animals counted into one category of representation they were represented as lead characters in 100% of all analysed children’s books. Adult females and female animals were only represented as lead characters in 33%. Racialised marginalisation in children’s publishing shows a similar pattern of inequality: Based on descriptive statistics collected by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, CCBC in Madison/Wisconsin (Diversity Gap Studies) since 1985, David Huyck and Sarah Park Dahlen found enormous disparities in the representation of BIPoC Children – BIPoC is an abbreviation for ‚Black, Indigenous, People of Colour’ – in comparison to animal figures and white characters in children’s books (Stechyson, 2019). For the year 2015, of the approximately 3,000 annual new children’s publications 73,3% of the main characters were white children, 12,5% of the main characters were animals (including fantasy-figures and inanimate objects) leaving only 14,2% for the representation of all racially marginalised groups together. This picture had shifted in 2018 to now 50% of all main characters being white, 27% were now animals including fantasy figures and only 23% of all main characters were all racially marginalised groups counted together. The relation of represented Children of Colour had now sunk below the level of represented animals. There is no difficulty in representing animals, fantasy-animals and inanimate figures. There seems to be resistance to representing Children of Colour and their realities.

Harmful Fictions

The representations of the social world in children’s literature are mostly fictional. They have however proved to be systematically excluding. Where BIPoC children are included, their depictions and those of the geopolitical territories associated with their lives tend to be stereotypical, stigmatising or dehumanising. Many German picture books and children’s books normalise the ‘white adventurer’. The German shoe label Salamander has published a comic-booklet (featuring its mascot, a male fire salamander named ‘Lurchi’, which is derived from the German word for salamander, Lurch), from 1937 to the present. In a 4th edition of Lurchi with the barbarians (Lurchi bei den Wilden) from 2019, Lurchi paints himself black (which is in effect Blackface). This is accompanied by a racist term about Lurchi becoming a N****lein (a little N****). Lurchi does this to not being cooked and eaten (Bochmann and Staufer, 2013; 7). The geopolitical context of his ‘adventure’ is a BIPoC society. Other German/European examples of the white adventurer are Die kleine Hexe (The little witch), Pippi Langstrumpf in Taka-Tuka-Land as well as the Tin Tin Comics (Tim und Struppi in A****) to name just a few. BIPoC Children and the societies are depicted systematically as laughable, comical, barbaric, naïve or immoral, as beings closer to nature than to culture, as beings who are dependent on white knowledge and benevolence (Auma, 2018). Such depictions are not only fictional, they are also harmful! They do not only deprive very young BIPoC readers of a positive self-image and positive images of their social worlds, they also force them to deal with the normalisation of their devaluation, of being overlooked or dehumanised. Young readers must ‘read between the racism/the harm’ (Masad, 2016). These patterns of dis-empowerment are no misrepresentations. They are toxic representations, because they cause harm to the self-worth of racially marginalised children. The regularity with which geopolitical contexts associated with BIPoC and their social lives are represented is a form of cultural violence.

Powerful readers

I would like to close with some thoughts on initiatives, working towards more equity, race- and norm-critical intersectionality and social, economic and political inclusion in children’s literature. They want to promote the production of diverse worlds in books and other childhood media, addressed at plural, hyperdiverse societies/mini-publics. A common aim of two European initiatives; DRIN (Diversity, Representation, Inclusion and Norm-Critique) and Powervolle Lesende (Powerful Readers) is to bring together key actors in the arena of children’s books production, circulation and consumption, especially towards the goal of re-centering the voices and perspectives of marginalised social groups. Four North American initiatives – WNDB #WeNeedDiverseBooks, Disability in Kid Lit, Young, Black and Lit and I am Here, I am Queer, What the Hell Do I Read ?”, all serve as an inspiration for the quality of intersectional justice approaches necessary, for work required in order to consistently empower diverse and marginalised young readers. These initiatives all draw on Rudine Sims Bishop’s call to create and normalise ‘Windows and Mirrors’ with regard to racially marginalised young readers. Mirrors serve to empower young BIPoC readers to see themselves, their social lives and the geopolitical regions associated with their hyperdiverse diasporic realities represented as normal elements of daily narrations. Windows serve to close the ‘Empathy Gap’ towards marginalised groups, by normalising the way they negotiate barriers and the conditions of their dehumanisation. Windows provide a crucial insight into the lives of all our ‘marginalised neighbours’, as they deal with realities, which are rarely represented in children’s media. In Chimamanda Adichie’s words, these approaches broaden the scope of the stories we tell and read. They reconnect us all in our daily struggle to affirm our own and each other’s humanity. 
 
Quellen:
 
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi (2009). The Danger of A Single Story (TED-Talk). 
 
Auma, Maureen Maisha (2018). Kulturelle Bildung in pluralen Gesellschaften: Diversität von Anfang an! Diskriminierungskritik von Anfang an! In: KULTURELLE BILDUNG.
 
Bishop, Rudine Sims (1990). Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Doors. Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom, 6(3). 
 
Bochmann, Corinna/Staufer, Walter (2013). “Vom „N*-könig“ zum „Südseekönig“ zum...? Politische Korrektheit in Kinderbüchern. Das Spannungsfeld zwischen diskriminierungsfreier Sprache und Werktreue und die Bedeutung des Jugendschutzes”. In: BPJM-Aktuell (Bundesprüfstelle für jugendgefährdende Medien) (2/2013).
 
Decke-Cornill, Helene (2007). “Literaturdidaktik in einer „Pädagogik der Anerkennung“: Gender and other suspects”. In: Hallet, Wolfgang/Nünning, Ansgar (Hrsg.), Neue Ansätze und Konzepte der Literatur- und Kulturdidaktik (S. 239–258). Trier: WVT Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier.

Masad, Ilana (2016). Read Between the Racism: The Serious Lack of Diversity in Book Publishing.
 
McCabe, Janice/Fairchild, Emily/Grauerholz, Liz/Pescosolido, Bernice A./Tope, Daniel (2011). “Gender in Twentieth-Century Children’s Books: Patterns of Disparity in Titles and Central Characters”. Gender & Society 25(2): 197–226.
 
Sociologists for Women in Society (2011). Gender bias uncovered in children’s books with male characters, including male animals, leading the fictional pack. Science Daily, 4. Mai 2011.