Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Diversity at my son's school: are they for real?

A couple of years back, I wrote a post, also published at Anti-Racist Parent--now renamed Love Isn't Enough, in which I surveyed my son's library to examine gender stereotypes and the representation of people of color in his books. I took a trip down memory lane this week, and conducted a similar experiment at his school during my short stint as a volunteer at a Scholastic Book Fair/Fundraiser. Fascinating.

Of course, the school AND the company Scholastic both like to pay a lot of lip service to "diversity." Who doesn't these days.

The first article by Scholastic on "diversity" that popped up in my search says:

Even 3 and 4 year olds are tuned in to matters of culture and ethnicity. For them, the issues are not social but personal, and are closely related to their self-esteem. . . If your child's preschool validates cultural diversity, you'll know it just by looking around. Are a variety of faces represented on the walls?

That article was published in 1996. So, how is Scholastic doing now as far as honoring diversity with the reading materials it sells in the communities who choose Scholastic book fairs as venues for fundraising?

First, let's look at my son's school community. I know that each classroom, during enrollment, tries to balance equally the gender represented in the student body. Racially, in my completely unscientific estimation, the population of the school is about eighty percent white, reflecting--and possibly proportion-wise surpassing--the racial make-up of Portland, the whitest US city with a population of over half-million. (Portland is about 78% white, while the state of Oregon is 87% white. Just to throw in a bit of trivia, the Czech Republic, where I grew up, is about 97% white). Religious affiliations are impossible to determine, though I know for sure that at least three major religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism) are represented. A myriad of ethnicities are represented, however, the only ones I can determine, other than those overrepresented in the region (e.g. Anglo-American and Scandinavian-American), are ones based on the languages I've heard at the school. I have heard Vietnamese, Chinese, French and Spanish. The languages spoken, of course, don't necessarily give me information on specific ethnicities (for instance, a French speaker could be Canadian, Hatian, or French among many other possibilities) but at least we can establish that a percentage of children at my son's school are growing up bi- or multi-lingual.

Let me just say, that to some, this may seem like an odd exercise in face value symbology. But we would be kidding ourselves if we asserted that we live in a colorblind society and that our ideas about people are not influenced by the racial, gender, and many other types of stereotypes which we encounter just about everywhere--in the media, in books, in advertising and entertainment, in our families, etc.

So, I was curious to see what a giant such as Scholastic was doing to educate our children, and if their book selection for the young was reinforcing or helping to shatter two categories of stereotypes in particular: gender pigeonholes and stereotypes about people of color still so prevalent in this society.

As far as gender, I counted how many book covers featured girls and women, paying attention to the numbers of "visible minorities" (yes, indeed a subjective definition), and to what the girls were pictured doing. Were they shown in midst of interesting and varied activities or just standing there looking pretty (and pretty "useless")?

As far as race, I took note of the number of books showing people of color, and again in what context they appeared.

In this survey, I only focused on book covers due to a time constraint, and because it is the cover that usually determines whether parents and children choose the book to pick up, flip through, and possibly purchase.

So, what was the Scholastic preschool/early elementary-level book selection like? Here are my findings:

Of the nearly 300 books displayed, 75 portrayed people only, and 21 showed people and animals together. The rest of the book covers showed either only animals, a scene, a building, or nondescript characters such as aliens. So, about one-third of the books for sale featured people on the front covers.

Of the approximately 100 covers with people on them, 20 featured "visible minorities." Of those books, 11 displayed girls or women on the front, interestingly almost always with one or more males. Four books showed people of color interacting with animals, six showed people of color alone (though I'm being generous here, because one cover was of a must-look-very-closely-to-ascertain African-American boy's arm carrying a suitcase--and I still counted it). Finally, ten, or about half, showed "visible minorities" together with whites.

Three of the twenty books with people of color had Asian-Americans/Pacific Islanders on the cover. Yes, that's three out of 100 when my son's school has quite a few students of Asian heritage, and when the Portland population is more than twice that, percentage-wise. Needless to say, I was disappointed to see such underrepresentation.

Only one of the books had a Latina on the cover (Dora, the Explorer). That's right; only one out of a hundred books showed a Latina, while Latinos, according to the US Census Bureau, represent fifteen percent of the US population, and in the greater Portland Metro area, depending on the location, 7 to 50% of the total local population.

Sixteen of the twenty book covers featuring people of color showed African-Americans.

Eight of the books with "visible minorities" on the front focused on athletes, all African-Americans, and all but one of the many athletes shown on the book cover "collages" were male sports figures. Additionally, two book covers showed Barack Obama--one where he was alone and smiling, and the other where he was smiling, surrounded by his smiling family. Are you smiling yet?

So, let's talk more about what we see people of color doing on the book covers. The Asian girls are just standing there, one looking startled (whoa, she's not smiling!), the other... drum roll... smiling pretty. The one pair of Asian parents we are shown is smiling, climbing up and hugging a giant dinosaur. And Dora? She's at the doctor's office, sitting on the examination table with a stethoscope in her ears. Dora--pictured with a doctor who is a white woman--is, you may gasp now... smiling. And the African-American characters and personalities? Some are engrossed in sports games, others happily posing in sports jerseys. Other than sports figures, there is one black girl sitting on a bench with a book in her lap. However, she is not reading, but talking to a friend instead. And there is one black kid taking eggs out of an Easter basket. And there is that boy carrying a suitcase--his arm only, rather--because the rest of his body is on the back cover. But the remaining people of color are just standing there or jumping up into the air smiling, looking pretty. Even a photograph of Ruby Bridges on the book cover of her autobiographical story for children about being the first African-American to attend an all-white school in New Orleans, is pictured just standing there, smiling. A beautiful photo, nonetheless, but she is seen without books, pencils or anything hinting at the theme of the book. Inside, the book does have powerful photographs of the protests surrounding desegregation and of Ruby at school with her teacher and friends, but on the cover, her image is stripped of the historical context, so central to the story.

It is interesting to note that of all the people, the athletes (and a couple of kids who look scared of ghosts or who knows what) are the only ones whose facial expressions show intensity, this while focusing on a sports game. Otherwise, all the rest of the people, and especially those of color are seen smiling and looking "non-threatening." Showing people (and animals with human-like features) in their happy-go-lucky best is a definite trend with books for this age group in general.

Of the nearly 100 books featuring people, 39 included girls on the cover (Remember, most accompanied by boys or men). Ten of them were girls or women of color. About half the book covers with females showed girls as active and engaged in an activity, including painting, cooking, playing with dolls, performing theater, riding a horse or building a snowman. The other half of girls were pictured mostly posing with smiles on their faces. A much smaller percentage of "active" females was shown on the covers featuring women of color.

As far as the catalogue for the book fair, designed by Scholastic, of the fifty books featured, only ONE book cover displays a person of color, an African-American girl hugging a dog she rescued.

So, in conclusion. Are we seeing Scholastic breaking with or reinforcing gender and racial stereotypes? I must share that I am disappointed that, though a large percentage of books featured females on their covers, many of the girls, especially the girls of color, were shown not engaged in ANY interesting or meaningful activities. Instead, they were posing on the book cover, looking cute. Most of the girls shown as active were doing typically "girly" things such as art, playing with dolls, dancing or cooking. I didn't see any girls (ok, except for the one building a snowman) engaged in scientific pursuits or activities stereotypically assigned to boys, such as building, using machines or doing sports (other than one female basketball player and a horse rider).

I was also unhappy about the relatively low numbers of books featuring people of color, and even deeper than that, that the range of activities in which "visible minorities" were shown engaging was by far much narrower than that of their white counterparts. I mean, half of all the African-American "faces" belonged to athletes. What about the scholars, the scientists, the artists, the writers, the teachers... You get the drift.

Should I send my "analysis" to Scholastic? I think I'll do that... and report back.

No comments: