White privilege permeates every part of our society, and children’s media is certainly not immune from this affliction. “Data collected by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center indicates that from 2008-2012 only 10% of children’s books published were about people of color despite the fact that 37% of the U.S. population are people of color. That means that 90% of all children’s book published in the United States feature white characters or animals” (Kysia 2014). This lack of representation is not a recent phenomenon, and one that has been spoken of since at least 1965, given Nancy Larrick’s work from that year titled, “The All-White World of Children’s Books”, it is not difficult to see this issue has a long history, and that it continues to plague the industry today. This is also not only a problem in the United States, but everywhere white privilege holds sway. For example, from Ambelin Kwaymullina, an Aboriginal writer from the Palyku people of Australia: “What is to happen to us now, if we cannot find ourselves in stories? What is to happen to all the marginalised peoples of the earth? In the words of Honduran-Puerto Rican author Vanessa Martir: ‘When you don’t learn the history of your people and don’t read their literature, when all you read and learn is white and Western and male, and so very different from anything you’ve ever known and loved, you inevitably begin to believe that you are less…’” (Kwaymullina 2015). While there has been some progress in bringing children of color and native children onto the pages of books in recent years, as seen in the images below reflecting the CCBC’s findings in 2012 and 2015, it is clear that white children are afforded more “mirrors” on the page than children of color.
The “windows and mirrors” theory has been summarized by many authors and researchers, and essentially states, “with access to mirror texts, students are able to see that their narrative matters, and with access to window texts, students learn to understand and appreciate the narratives of others” (Everett n.d.). White privilege in the form of sheer numbers has skewed the number of mirrors and windows available to children, but these numbers alone are not the only example of white privilege in children’s media.
In addition to counting the number of books published about children of color, the CCBC also records the number of books published by people of color. Here one can also find a troubling effect of white privilege: many of the books published ABOUT children of color are not created BY people of color. Following is a break down from Lee & Low books, the largest multicultural children’s book publisher in the country, regarding the disparity between books about and by people of color:
In discussing these figures, the author states, “It’s disconcerting that more than half the books about people of color were created by cultural outsiders. Realistically, these numbers likely mean that there are more white creators speaking for people of color than people of color speaking for themselves. This problem may stem from a long history in which people of color have been overlooked to tell their own stories in favor of white voices” (Ehrlich, 2015). In addition to showing a preference for white authors and illustrators, this also calls into question the “quality and cultural authenticity” of these titles. “Who is checking to make sure diverse books are culturally accurate and do not reinforce stereotypes? Are cultural consultants being routinely employed to check for accuracy?” (Ehrlich, 2015), these questions and more are needed to ensure that titles that are published don’t contribute further to white privilege by allowing white voices to replicate negative images. While there has been an increase in the number of “sensitivity readers” checking these titles for the quality and authenticity of their representation (Fallon, 2017), the very fact that it is easier for white authors to be published than authors of color alone is an example of white privilege in the children’s publishing industry.
Further, white privilege can be seen in which books are nominated for and win the prestigious children’s literary awards, such as the Caldecott in the United States or the Carnegie in the United Kingdom. Winning a Caldecott award, for example, gives a book staying power on shelves, keeping it in circulation and thus in the hands of children for many years beyond its initial publication. However, the characters in Caldecott books are overwhelmingly white, as can be seen in the image below from Angela Moffett’s 2016 work “Exploring Racial Diversity in Caldecott Medal-Winning and Honor Books”:
Beyond simply the racial makeup of the titles, most that feature people of color or native peoples “present them as historical or fantastical, are folk or fairytales, or take places in countries other than the United States” and thus these titles “do not provide a mirror of a child’s own world but serve only as a window even when the protagonist is of the same race” (Moffett, 2016, p. 79-80). While the Caldecott has attempted to diversify in recent years, and other awards such as the Coretta Scott King award and the Pura Belpré award have been established to address this issue, it is still very much a problem today. The 2016 Carnegie medal longlist featured no authors of color “despite strong showings by writers of colour in every other major children’s book prize this year” (Kean 2017). While this did prompt a major backlash amongst authors, it is yet another example of the ways in which white privilege continues to permeate children’s literature.