Photo: Davidlohr Bueso
1. When an American student learns to read, odds are they’ll be reading about white people.
In 2013, multicultural publisher Lee and Low Books created a graphic illustrating the state of children’s book publishing in the US. They found that though around 37% of the US population are people of color, only 10% of children’s books published had multicultural content. This gap hasn’t changed since 1994.
A University of Wisconsin study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center also found that of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people, or 2.9% To put this in perspective, in 1965, when a similar review of children’s books was done, 6.7% of books had black characters. This was at a time when eight of the publishers included in the study published only all-white books.
Put another way, we have less diversity in book publishing now than we did before the civil rights movement.
2. Books that do discuss “diverse content” are more likely to be banned and removed from reading lists.
In 2014, an analysis of the American Library Association’s list of banned books found that over half (or 52%) were either written by a “diverse” author or contained diverse content. An ALA press release stated that when they analyzed book complaints from 2001 to 2013 “attempts to remove books by authors of color and books with themes about issues concerning communities of color are disproportionately challenged and banned.”
Recent events in the news reflect that reality. This July, parents in Florida petitioned to ban two children’s books–Nasreen’s Secret School and The Librarian of Basra — set in Afghanistan and Iraq. Parents accused the books of promoting another religion besides Christianity and being too violent. Parents in New York also tried to ban the books fearing they promoted a “pro-Muslim agenda. ”
The Librarian of Basra is inspired by a 2003 New York Times story about Alia Muhammad Baker, who saved part of the Basra library’s collection before the building was burned in a fire after British forces entered the city. Nasreen’s Secret School is about a young girl in Afghanistan whose grandmother sends her to a secret school for girls.
3. When an American student goes to school, their textbooks often show bias against non-white, non-Christian, and non-capitalist ideas and societies.
Just last year, a scholarly review of 43 history, geography and government textbooks in Texas created controversy. According to the Washington Post’s summary of the review, here were some of the problematic findings:
“Misleading information that undermines the Constitutional concept of the separation of church and state.”
* “Biased statements that inappropriately portray Islam and Muslims negatively.”
* “Downplaying the role that conquest played in the spread of Christianity.”
* “An incomplete — and often inaccurate – account of religions other than Christianity.”
* “An uncritical celebration of the free enterprise system” that ignores “legitimate problems that exist in capitalism” and excludes “government’s role in the U.S. economic system.”
* “A general lack of attention to Native American peoples and culture and occasionally include biased or misleading information.”
In the 1995 book “Lies My Teacher Told Me” James W. Loewen looked at 12 history books commonly used in American high schools and also found that most talked little about racism. Many didn’t have the word “racism” or “racial prejudice” in the index, or described how racism grew from the practice of keeping slaves.
4. When an American students enters the Advanced Placement American History program, the curriculum downplays the country’s past racial mistakes.
Last year, the Republican National Committee issued a resolution claiming that the AP United States History curriculum “reflects a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects” and portrays U.S. colonists as “oppressors and exploiters while ignoring the dreamers and innovators who built our country.” Former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson even suggested that the 2014 curriculum would make students “ready to sign up for ISIS.”
The AP program ultimately caved and revised its standards. But an article in Quartz argued that the revisions that exist today “gloss over the country’s racist past” and were ultimately far less historically accurate. The article illustrated some key changes. For one example, the sentence “By supplying American Indian allies with deadlier weapons and alcohol, and by rewarding Indian military actions, Europeans helped increase the intensity and destructiveness of American Indian warfare” was replaced with “The introduction of guns, other weapons, and alcohol stimulated cultural and demographic changes in some Native American societies.”
An article written by student for the Colorado Independent noted other changes:
“Rather than learning that the Cold War ended due to multilateral diplomacy and “significant arms reductions [on both sides],” I’ll be taught that the war ended thanks to “Reagan’s diplomatic initiatives” – an assessment that recognizes only American efforts. The newly revised course will emphasize American military victories, encourage “national identity” and endorse free enterprise. What’s more, the term “slavery” is used significantly less in the revised class reading than in the old text.”
The Advanced Placement program also doesn’t offer any alternative course to learn more about nonwhite cultures and histories. The AP program only offers specialized courses in American and European history, and lumps the rest into the broader topic of “World History.”
5. When an American student goes to college, the literature, philosophy, film, and art departments generally only focus on work from the West.
In the book Unthinking Eurocentrism, authors Ella Shohat and Robert Stam argue that in our education system “Philosophy and literature are assumed to be European philosophy and literature. The “best that is thought and written” is assumed to have been thought and written by Europeans.”
An essay by Kendra James in the blog Racialicious illustrated how this affected the writer’s university experience. James, a graduate of the Oberlin College Cinema department writes “Of the 20 or so courses offered within the Cinema department (not including private readings and one-on-one seminars), there are zero offered on African-American film, Latino film, LGBTQ Film, African film, and East Asian film. There are, however, seven classes you can take on the European film tradition, and one on framing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict via film. To find classes on African-American, Japanese, and Chinese film tradition you have to leave the department. The classes count towards a Cinema Studies major, but fall under East Asian or African American studies, as if they somehow don’t fully qualify in their otherness. Most importantly, students are not required to take any of these classes that deviate from the White Hollywood arc.”
James argued in her essay that these course requirements can ultimately end up affecting pop culture, using writer Oberlin alumni Lena Dunham as an example: “I don’t claim to know what Dunham’s course schedule was while she attended Oberlin, but the fact that there’s a chance that she–and the other writers and directors who will come after her–has never had to read a Langston Hughes play, watch anything by Chen Kaige or Oscar Micheaux, or study any type of non-white/European media narrative is troubling.”