Doing Diversity and Doing Diversity Right
I’ve been away for a while, and if you’re good kids I will one day tell you what I did while I was away. So now I’m back, and school’s back, so it’s time to talk a bit about diversity in schoolbooks.
Diversity has been a big topic in German debates about schools, most prominently about gays and lesbians. Several states introduced “gender and sexual diversity”, not only as part of sex ed, but also as part of all subjects. You can imagine the uproar about the “gay agenda”, “sexualisation of schoolchildren” and “I don’t want my kid to hear about butt sex”. What was the nefarious plan? Maths books were supposed to have exercises like this:
Paul and John want to get married. Each guest at their wedding eats two pieces of cake. One cake yields 12 pieces. There are 48 guests. How many cakes do Paul and John have to buy?
Now, if that makes you think of butt sex it is clear that the problem is you and your imagination, but it shows that diversity is still a big issue.
Therefore, when I saw my kid’s German book containing children from diverse backgrounds, I was delighted. Not just Peters and Carolines and Theos and Annes. Also Yilmaz and Aische and Giovanni. And illustrations that feature black and brown and Asian and white kids. Because one in ten people here has a migratory background and among kids that percentage is way higher, about 50% in “our” class. Yay for diversity, things are moving.
The more disappointed I was when last weekend my daughter had to read a text from the book. It was meant to be read as a conversation between schoolchildren and while they were racially diverse, they were all male. If you ever taught language classes to children you know that they are very reluctant to read a role that does not conform to their gender. Make a girl read Max and she gets teased. Make a boy read Maxine and you may have a serious fight on your hands. This means that in the lesson where the text is read, the girls will mostly be silent. The teacher is a woman, so one girl may have a speaking role. Given the imbalance of speech time in class, this is bad. Given the message it sends to girls it is double bad. Given the message it sends to immigrant girls we go into WTF were they thinking territory.
This raised my interest: was it just one unfortunate example? So I looked more closely at the book and unfortunately, it’s not. The whole book is a failed attempt at diversity, a failed attempt where teachable moments are ignored and unfortunate stereotypes are being reproduced.
The text that got my attention is the only one of its kind. There is not a mass of dialogues that can be read out aloud with diverse roles for boys and girl, ethnic Germans and children with a migratory background. Only one text where children can assume the role of a character and it shuts the girls up.
Other texts are similar: they touch a topic and then they don’t explore it. One text is about an adopted child. The illustration shows a black boy with white parents and the boy making a paperchain of kids that are half black and half white, but this entire herd of elephants isn’t touched upon in the text. Either the author didn’t intend to talk about a transracial adoption and the illustrator added some “gratitous diversity”, or the author thought that the fact that this was a transracial adoption didn’t matter. Either way, it smells of “colourblindness”.
The last example I want to cover is about boys, girls and consent. The girls chase a particular boy on the schoolyard to kiss him. The boy’s protests are dismissed, the protagonist girl even tells her mother that he only acts as if he doesn’t like it. Apart from the fact that the gender roles are more likely to be reversed, there’s no solution to the issue of consent here. The mother (of course the mother) doesn’t have a conversation about touching and kissing people who don’t want to be touched or kissed. In the end the boy gets kissed again, this time by another girl, but it turns out he would not have minded our protagonist girl so much. I correct myself: The issue of consent is dismissed in favour of dangerous messages about “playing hard to get”.
I could list many more examples where differences are not explored as if they didn’t exist, as if it were not important for children if their skin is white or black. Culture and customs are almost exclusively ethnic German, when other cultures are mentioned, they are exoticised, the exception and not really part of us and here and now. Short poems, rhymes, etc. almost exclusively feature male characters. Many of the “classical” stories are deeply problematic in terms of gender or race, like Le Petit Nicolas. In short, the book is lacking, and it is lacking most where it tried.
Americans have a saying that all the blacks are men and all the women are white. This book reminded me of this saying. The authors and illustrators clearly thought about diversity, but they didn’t think it through. They didn’t consider issues of how the child characters’ origin would influence the child characters and the stories, how they could integrate aspects of other cultures as a normal fact of life as it is to those of us living in a diverse world. Where there is diversity, such as the racial diversity in the text that got me started, it is only one aspect. It’s either race OR gender and, if I as a white woman don’t feel represented by white men, and if my white daughters don’t feel represented by white boys, why should Women of Colour feel represented by white women OR Men of Colour? Nobody is saying that there always has to be one character of each possible variety. We’re not playing Noah’s Diversity Ark, but a better mix would be in order. Authors need to think about more than one issue and frankly, they often need to think more, because I can only hope that my daughter’s class is going to skip the “kiss the boy” text.
So, what’s your experience with diversity in books?