Recently, I picked up a picture book that disappointed me by its failed attempt to show social diversity. It features a different profession on each spread along with other assorted setting characters (people who populate the space like furniture). The worker is the focus (MC) of each spread. The book, produced by Scholastic, tries to sprinkle diversity in perceived race and gender across the book, largely through setting characters, but fails. Here’s why.
The breakdown of the MCs and their background cast on each spread:
- Firefighter = white male, with four other male firefighters, two white, two ambiguous brown, in background
- Police officer = white male, with two white kids, boy and girl, in background
- Doctor = white female, with waiting room populated by four white men, one black woman, one white woman, one white boy, one black girl
- Baseball player = ambiguous brown male, with white male umpire and an assortment of other players, mostly white, one black, all male, in background
- Construction foreman = white male, with three male construction workers, two white and one black, in background
- Astronaut = completely ambiguous, in spacesuit, no background characters
- Server/waiter = black male, with a large white family at table demonstrably waiting for him, a white couple at another table, and a black boy with an ambiguous not-quite-brown male at another table
- Railroad conductor and engineer = both white males
- Zookeeper = ambiguous brown male, with three white kids in background
The illustrator and publisher obviously gave some thought to including diverse characters, but they did not take that thought far enough. The diverse characters are sprinkled in the background like furniture; they’re sparse; and most are ambiguous, meaning that they’re not pinky white but are some shade from darker ecru to light brown that could suggest a tan or any number of ethnic or mixed heritages.
Why no women firefighters or women on the construction site? Why is the only MC that is unambiguously black a waiter with a large family of white people to serve? What about a black or Hispanic police officer and a nonwhite construction foreman? And more diversity in the setting characters since there are so many?
It’s not a matter of squeezing out white men. It’s a matter of including all people and giving all people, from various backgrounds, access to positions of leadership and exceptionalism. Yes, even in a picture book, perhaps especially in a picture book whose primary audience are young people, it matters. What does it say to a young black person when the only profession represented by a black man is a waiter? (I’ve been a server. I think everyone should be required to work in a restaurant sometime in his or her life. It’s hard work and requires a lot of skill to do well. I’m not denigrating the work but the implication, because in our society being a server is generally not perceived as admirable or as a leadership position.) Why are all the leadership positions held by white men? The only woman who dominates a spread has a professional job but it’s a caretaker job. Also, there are no persons with disabilities shown.
These are things people in publishing–writers, editors, illustrators, art researchers and designers, agents, etc.–need to think more about. Please.
Some might argue that when you look for racism, when you look for any problem, then you’re going to see it, even if it’s not “intended.” No, when you open your eyes and learn to pay attention, then you notice what is already there. You don’t create it, pull it out of a magician’s hat of progressive propaganda or whatever, by noticing it and calling attention to it. It’s there. It has been there. It will continue to be there until people make themselves active observers. Until more and more make themselves aware and notice and call it out and challenge it. Until we actively try to tell and show a more tolerant and inclusive story. Racism and other forms of discrimination don’t have to be “intended” to be present, pervasive and powerful.