Tackling Racism in Children's Books: What Asterix Taught Me About Parenting
In Was the Cat in the Hat Black?, author Philip Nel examines the racist illustrations present in a number of Dr. Seuss’s works, and points out racism present in other children’s classics. Many of these books are on our shelves.
When I brought Asterix (Jean-Yves Ferri) and Tintin (Hergé) books home to prepare for this blog post, I didn't know what to expect; they had not been a part of my reading history. Before I could get my hands on them, my 10-year-old daughter, the most precocious reader I've ever met, had already commandeered the whole stack. No big deal because now I had a guinea pig! I would have a first-hand experience to a child’s reaction when introduced to controversial literature. She had no idea what the books were about either but was interested because she saw graphic novels/comics.
My wife and I believe that a conversation with our girls about difficult or uncomfortable topics is a better solution than banning books or subjects. Therefore in our home, there are very few books that are off limits. I've watched my 10-year-old and as far as book choices go, I can usually trust her ability to discern what is appropriate and what is not. All of that worked together to create the perfect situation. I would be able to ask my 5th-grader questions about these books before I read them. While I procrastinated on this blog post, my daughter became a fan of both Asterix and Tintin, which threw a very interesting and unexpected twist on this whole project.
I consider myself to be pretty woke – I’m a native Nashvillian. Half of my great-grandparents were enslaved and other half were free people of color. Almost every grandparent, parent, great-aunt and uncle graduated from a Historically Black College or University (HBCU). I consider myself to be pretty sensitive and empathetic—“tender-hearted,” as they used to call us. I consider my daughter to be incredibly astute and attuned to issues of prejudice, race, and inequality—for a 10-year-old.
Imagine my surprise when we finally got a chance to talk about the books and she liked both Asterix AND Tintin. To my eyes, the problems in these books are very obvious but my daughter completely missed them. On several occasions, I asked whether she saw any problems with these books. She repeatedly said no, although she said some of the characters were mean. What I realized was that to me the problems with the caricatures and stereotypes were obvious, but to her they were completely lost. Of course, why would she know these images and ideas? The bulbous-lipped black characters and the broken English of the Native American characters are part of a bygone era for her age group. She's familiar racism and inequality as concepts, but not with the actual images.
On my best days, I respond to most situations with an "Is this crucial?" attitude. I work really hard to stay calm and reasonable. As a customer service supervisor and a parent, it is crucial that I temper my responses. I can't let them see me sweat, if you know what I mean? How does that play out when I see my 10-year-old reading and enjoying two books that depict and perpetuate racist and white supremacist imagery and stereotypes? My answer is "Meh, who cares?" Let her read it and see it so she, as an African American, can see how much of the world saw people like us and portrayed people like us in popular culture.
Then we talk about the images and ideas. We compare the images and ideas with other similar images and ideas from that era and today. We talk about how to deal with images and ideas we don't like or ones that offend us. Recently, the news has been filled with discussion about the portrayal of indigenous and black folks. The world is rife with conversational fodder when it comes to racism. We would also look for alternatives so she can understand that she doesn't have to read something she finds offensive (when and if she comes across something that offends her). She's mature enough for me to encourage her to discuss these kinds of issues/situations/books with classmates and teachers. It's probably pie-in-the-sky that she would do that but I wouldn't hesitate to suggest it.
It might surprise you that I am not making a big deal out of offensive content and that I am encouraging conversations like this with a 10-year-old. Well, I'm a huge music fan and some of the music I enjoy is considered offensive. I have discussed offensive language with my girls. I've tried to teach them that the artist needs to be fully aware of the history, context, and implications of offensive language and imagery before the artist uses them. I want them to be able to recognize what is offensive, why it is offensive, and be able to explain or cite alternatives. They cannot do that if they aren't exposed to such concepts in a safe space. The library is one of those safe spaces. For millennia the library has been a space where ideas were shared, researched, and, maybe, debated. Nashville Public Library's mission is to
Inspire Reading, Advance Learning, and Connect our Community.
That mission statement puts our library squarely in the middle of what libraries have historically been and in the middle of the American context as defined by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Libraries must be the repository of all ideas, especially the abhorrent ones. We cannot allow the ugliness nor the greatness of humanity to pass into darkness. We have to be the resource for future generations. Quite simply, the public library cannot say no. As we saw in discussions related to the political leadership in Virginia in early 2019, people don't know what blackface is. Educated people don't know the difference between indentured servant and slave.
So, what do I do when I see a child reading Asterix or Tintin? I don't freak out and ask the library to get rid of the book. I explain to the child that these books do not accurately or genuinely portray any group of people on the planet so after you've finished reading it let's talk about the fact that indigenous people shouldn't be on football helmets nor should we think black people are gross and stupid.
Whether or not you choose to share classic books such as these with the children in your life, we encourage you to have open conversations with them on the topic of race. It’s important; there is a wealth of research in support of that fact. In the absence of conversations on the topic, children can come to problematic and factually inaccurate conclusions. Here is a guide to talking with young children about race, from the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of American Library Association.