When Racial Bias is Taught Through Children’s Literature

by Bethany Edwards

Racial bias can be taught as innocently as reading a bedtime story. How do we expect to raise culturally conscious children when the books they read tell them:

1. white (and male)= default

2. black = poor/slavery/civil rights

Let’s chop that default button into bits—it hurts all readers! Laurie Halse Anderson

When Racial Bias is Taught through Children’s Literature

Reading books is not a problem. That is until you take a survey of all the books in the average home and classroom library. No more than 33 percent of children’s books in any given year features an adult woman or female animal. When the vast majority of books on the shelf feature a white/male protagonist or male anamorphic character (that are also written by white/male authors), you can be unconsciously teaching racial (and gender) bias.

Equality is something that we should ALL want to be a fundamental human right. This starts when we choose a book to expose them to the magic of learning to read — a privilege in itself.

When teachers (or parents) have limited knowledge of multicultural literature they are unable to support families in multicultural selections. In turn, children in the classroom are learning to read with a biased view of the world from the very beginning.

Diversity in Children’s Books: A Brave Act of Fairness

Author Linda Sue Park brought attention to Kirkus’ “brave act of fairness” to call for more diversity in children’s literature. Adults want to have kids read about a “Muslim Henry Huggins or a Latina Ramona Quimby”. The time is now for white kids to see that kids of color live regular, every day lives.

They need to see Grace running for class President, Jabari learning to jump off the high dive, and Lulu reading to her little brother. These kids are not frozen in some long ago-strife or current villiany/misery.

Black and brown kids can be bossy, intelligent, picky eaters, and fight with their siblings just like everyone else.


Avoiding Racial Bias and What Happens When You Do

Too often schools are the breeding grounds for racial inequality if they choose not to face it head-on. Racial conflicts amongst young kids often remain hidden. Most schools fail to act on racial microaggressions. This is often due to the high stress of negotiating such conflicts. This is often because of a fear of incompetence, public exposure, and accusation.

Those pay the price: students of color.


Instead of facing these conflicts head-on, teachers and even parents, use avoidance or coping strategies. Adults are afraid of being called “insensitive” or ” offensive” when reading or discussing books or assigning homework.

Furthermore, those that do actively seek out diversity in books still run into problems. “Diversity in books seems easy. They (teachers and parents) are getting books with this content. But they’re not making sure this content is respectful, responsible, and accurate.” (School Library Journal)

Allies of Children of Color: A Call to Action

Followed by the conversations I have with people about the issues I have outlined above, I am often asked: “what should I do?” First of all, I have my own biases and definitely do not speak for any person/people of color. I am an ally; fighting on the front lines for equality and justice for my students as well as my own children.

For my two biracial daughters, this fight can be the difference between life and death. The stakes are high for me. I have the emotional and physical well-being of two beautiful girls on the line. I am in for the fight of my life to ensure they receive an equal education.

10 Steps of Action Towards Equality

Ten things you can do right now to fight for racial and reading equality for ALL children:

  1. Look at the data for out of school suspensions according to race. If you see this same disparity at your school, call people to action.
  2. Look at the books being sent home for required nightly reading. Don’t see any diversity and only white males or white bunnies; call people to action.
  3. Volunteer in the school library and reading resource room. See which books were selected by teachers or being checked out by students. Don’t see equal representation; call people to action.
  4. Look at the school handbook for explicit language addressing racial slurs, racially motivated assaults. If there isn’t anything besides “bullying”, call people to action.
  5. Look at the school calendar for school-wide literacy events. If you only see “Dr. Seuss week” and “International Night”, call people to action. They can do more and they can do better.
  6. Look for a Minority Student Achievement Oversight Committee in your school district. If there isn’t one, call people to action.
  7. At home and school, address racial issues and topics. Use clear words: inclusive, injustice, equality, hate, love, activist, etc. Give kids the vocabulary words to use to express what they might see at school, after-school activities, playgroups, etc. By doing this, they will feel confident to speak up and speak out.
  8. Use the Lee and Low Library Questionnaire to help you create inclusive and diverse bookshelves. (For yourselves too!)
  9. Read the 10 Inclusive Children’s Book Laws from Anna McQuinn; best-selling author and champion of fighting for equal representation in children’s books.
  10. Write down a list of any privileges you enjoy yourself. Whatever your racial background might be, we all have biases. You can pretend they don’t exist and pass them to your children and/or students, or you can tackle them relentlessly. I am rooting for you to choose the latter.


Teaching Literacy Skills with Diverse Books

Lastly, I invite you to join my Facebook group: Read Your World: Teaching Literacy Skills with Diverse Books. This group was started to help parents of multiracial children like myself searching for high-quality books showcasing curly haired kids on adventures. Now, we have grown into a massive group of multicultural, multiracial, and multitalented authors, parents, teachers, and allies.

We ask questions, share advice, and most importantly, recommend books and resources. The goal is to educate ourselves. In our discussions, we seek to learn how to navigate those situations of racial bias when they DO happen. Furthermore, we seek out knowledge to help us be strong advocates for the children in our lives.

We are stronger together and together we rise. As Oprah said, #timesup.


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Kid Lit TV Commenter Shauna

Excellent points and writing Bethany. I love that you give action steps to work towards equality. The reason being is many Educators, and families are not sure where to start. One step at a time as you’ve mentioned in other posts. Thank you Bethany for being you and keeping diversity and equality Front and Center everyday ❤


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