Hi again! After a long hiatus finishing final exams and rushing to rustle together Christmas presents, it is wonderful to be back. (At peace. At a desk. With tea, cookies, and precious time to write and think about books.)
Now that the holiday scramble has subsided, I’ve had some time to think about my reading diverse books in my hometown. Or more specifically, what reading diverse books means to me in the small, majority white, politically conservative enclave where I grew up.
I’m lucky that I’ve been able to go home for every holiday to a family that is loving and supportive, and to the town where people have known me since childhood.
You can probably imagine it. It’s an everybody-knows-everybody’s-business town. With the one ice cream shop where my mom took me on Friday afternoons. The movie theater where I’ve run into everyone and their uncle. It’s where the librarians have known me since I was a child, but also where I encountered my first racist taunts on the playground – it was a boy, he was white, and he accused me of having small eyes and peeing in Coke bottles.
My family was part of a handful of families of color (among Mexican, Japanese, and Vietnamese American families) in a town that is 75% white. The majority of families here are also socioeconomically sound. And while I know there are lots of good people, there was also an anti-black hate crime committed here when I was in high school. After the news died down, no one talked about it again. But mostly, my hometown is filled with memories of the “playful” racism of peers and the quiet assent of adults.
While there’s no doubting that reading diverse books is extremely important for urban kids of color, I’m realizing increasingly that middle-class white communities like mine are also in sore need of stories that portray marginalized voices. As I’ve discussed like a broken record, stories have the power to humanize and eliminate the imagined divisions between self and the Other.
It’s pertinent to mention that in my 6 years of elementary school, we were assigned just two books about non-white protagonists. Two. One of the books was optional. What could be possible if kids were exposed to diverse books, if they could open their worlds past this small town?
When I look at all the kids of color in the parks and playgrounds, in this community that I know can unwittingly and intentionally marginalize, diverse books provide much-needed empowering mirrors. But the fact is that the white children living here will be surrounded by people who look like them for the majority of their formative years, reading about people who look like them, who experience the world similarly. But inevitably, the time will come for them to decide how they will act toward people who are different. For them, diverse books are their windows to empathy, and doors to positive action. To stopping the cycle of permissive racism.
This town is, understandably, insignificant to everyone but me. It is a adorable, sleepy suburbia manifest, with a bit of a streak for implicit bias. But it has schools and a great library, which means there’s hope. Going home for the holidays and surrounding myself with the past reinforces why I try to find ways to encourage reading diversely, in myself and others here. (On that note, stay tuned for a post on my Dumbledore’s Army Read-a-Thon picks. Opening one’s heart to stories starts with oneself, after all 🙂 )
Have you gone home for the holidays? How has reading diverse books led you to reconsider your past and chart your future directions?