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Posts tagged ‘racism’

North Carolina County Celebrates Banned Book Week By Banning Invisible Man

Book banning always struck me as a special kind of terrible. Not necessarily because of direct harm done — a student forbidden from reading, say Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is not a different end result than just not having that book on the syllabus — but because of the principle. There’s no greater insult to the very idea of education and to the discerning capabilities of young minds than to say, “You students can’t handle this book. You need to be protected from it.”Captainunderpantscover

Once a year, the American Library Association hosts Banned Book Week (Sept. 22-28 this year), a way to spread word about which books are being challenged or removed as a way of informing the public about its ongoing battles against censorship. The ALA will compile a list every year of books with the most objections. The “winner” for 2012? That great spoiler of childhood innocence, Captain Underpants.

Last week, a North Carolina county school district decided to start the celebrations early by pulling Invisible Man from the curriculum and the shelves. Just so we’re on the same page, I’m talking about Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel about a man struggling to find his identity in a world intent on using and abusing him as a tool for personal and political gain, not H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel about an invisible man.

Invisible_ManInvisible Man would unquestionably make my personal list of top ten favorite novels. It’s a book that has proven itself more meaningful each time I’ve returned to it. It pulls off the nearly impossible feat of perfectly representing a specific moment in history (racial tension in the mid-20th century) while asking universal questions about defining oneself as an individual, not just as a part of a uniform group or ideology. This is all achieved through a lightly surreal lens which makes every magically realist metaphor indelible.

So needless to say, I think this is a pretty worthwhile book for high schoolers to read. It has the potential to carry a lot of personal significance, as it did for me, for young people looking to define their role in the world. It’s an easy book to digest with a lot of meaning to unpack, depending on what you bring to it.

It’s also a book about which one North Carolina education board member said, “I didn’t find any literary value.”

If you can’t find literary value in Invisible Man, you have no right to be ruling on what students should or shouldn’t be reading. It’s a criticism that I simply don’t believe. There’s no chance that board member actually took issue with Invisible Man‘s literary value, this was simply a matter of objectionable content. The book has sex, violence, and racism. You might be able to get away with one or two of these, but all three? Forget it.

The challenge to the book’s “literary value” is a cop-out. What good is literature if it can’t address difficult topics like racial violence and sexual politics? What good is education if you’re shielding 18 year olds from discussing these sorts of painful real-world issues through the lens of literature, where it can be analyzed and discussed in a structured setting?

 

Florida Approves Setting Different Academic Goals for Different Races

The Florida State Flag

In its official strategic plan, Florida’s Board of Education projected its goals for the next few years. The document set targets for the percentages of students the board hopes will be at grade level in the near future. But then it further breaks down those targets. By race.

Take a look below (or view the full document here):

 1.3	  Percentage of students  scoring at or above grade  level on statewide English  Language Arts, science,  and mathematics  assessments by subgroup  to reduce the  achievement gap   Current  (2011-12 unless noted) Reading:  • American Indian 55%  • Asian 76%  •	 Black/African American  38%  • Hispanic 53%  • White 69%  • Economically  Disadvantaged 46%  • English Language  Learners 33%  • Students with Disabilities  29%  Math:  • American Indian 58%  • Asian 82%  •	 Black/African American  40%  • Hispanic 55%  • White 68%  • Economically  Disadvantaged 48%  • English Language  Learners 41%  • Students with Disabilities  32%  2017-18 Goal  Reading:  • American Indian 82%  • Asian 90%  •	 Black/African American  74%  • Hispanic 81%  • White 88%  • Economically  Disadvantaged 72%  • English Language  Learners 72%  • Students with Disabilities  78%  Math:  • American Indian 81%  • Asian 92%  •	 Black/African American  74%  • Hispanic 80%  • White 86%  • Economically  Disadvantaged 78%  • English Language  Learners 74%  • Students with Disabilities  72%

Now you can see right there in the chart that this was driven by good intentions. In terms of raw percentages, Florida’s plan is an ambitious one, looking for around 20-30% boosts in each subgroup. And while the differences in projected percentages between the different subgroups is disturbing, the differences in the current percentages is much, much more disturbing. Clearly the people on the board thought that by pointing out the harsh realities of the achievement gap, they’d be better positioned to fight it.

Now, I can understand why you’d want to point out the numbers in the second column. Those are terrible numbers. 38% of African-American students in Florida are at grade level for reading. That’s tragic. What I don’t understand is why we need that second column. It follows up the first awful statistic with, “…therefore it’s OK if we can only get 3 out of 4 students up to par.” How does that help anyone?

The closer you look at the projections, the more troubling the discrepancies become. African-American students currently have a 9% higher rank than students with disabilities in reading, but the board’s goals are to bring the students with disabilities 4% ahead. What data could that possibly be based upon?

It doesn’t take a PhD in psychology to see how this could become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Ever heard of the Pygmalion effect? It states the greater the expectation placed upon a person, the better that person will perform. Conversely, the lower the expectations, the worse the performance.

The problem with this plan is that it doesn’t simply tell teachers, “hold everyone to a much higher standard.” The document says “92% of Asian students and 80% of Hispanic students should be at grade level for math.” So the teachers hear, “the Asian students will be better at math.” If the public school system sends out documents lowering teachers expectations of certain groups of students, the teachers will project those lowered expectations on to the student. And, according to the Pygmalion effect, students being held to lower expectations are more likely to underperform.

For the record, this has nothing to do with teachers, or even the members of the school board, being bigots. It’s an institutional form of bigotry. It’s setting up a system that places a lower value on the success of certain students. It’s just hard to see that when it’s buried beneath good intentions.

It’s Time To Stop Pretending Dumb Twitter Reactions Are News Stories

Olympic gymnastic Gabby Douglas holding her gold medal.

There was a very, very, very pointless news story last week regarding Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas’ hair. A handful of idiots took to Twitter to complain that her hair looked unkempt. Now any reasonable person reacts to this “story” by not reacting at all, because what an athlete’s hair looks like is about as important as what shoes a surgeon wears. In this case, a high and tight bun is standard operating procedure for gymnasts, so I really don’t know where the conversation came from in the first place.

Oh that’s right, it came from a handful of idiots. Turns out when you give everybody a voice through social media, idiots will say idiotic things.

What I don’t see is how that handful of easily ignored idiots got to dictate headlines. Tell me what’s wrong with the following real headlines:

“Controversy”? “Debate”? “Outrage”?

"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

You all do realize that for a debate, you need a point and a counter-point. All we’ve got here is a counter-point. Nobody is actively arguing that Douglas’ overly practical hairstyle is unacceptable. But the press, blogs, and other commenters are keeping this one-sided conversation going anyways. It’s blossomed into a full-on “debate” but the only people having the debate are the ones still acting like there’s something that needs refuting.

Check out this lead from NBC’s Today Show website (the first link above):

Just before the scoreboard showed that Gabby Douglas had won the gold in individual gymnastics last week, her mom Natalie Hawkins had only one reaction: relief. It was relief that came after ten years of training, after her daughter said she dreamt of being an Olympian, and after she let her daughter move away from home at 14 to chase her dreams.

The relief didn’t last long, as Hawkins soon found herself defending her daughter’s hair, which had been swiftly criticized for being both “unkempt” and “embarrassing” very soon after Douglas made Olympic history.

“The relief didn’t last long”? Give me a break, Today Show. I seriously doubt Gabby or her family give any thought whatsoever to this “controversy” beyond when you and other media outlets bring it up. This all grew out of a handful of Twitter posts. Don’t you all know how easy it is to ignore a dumb Twitter post?

Creating a news story from Twitter stupidity is incredibly easy. You can do it yourself. Next time any sort of news or sports event happens, just search for keywords that could be linked to the most offensive possible interpretation. You are bound to be hit with big pile of ignorance and failed wit. That’s what one story did after the women’s soccer match between Japan and the U.S. I’m sure you can imagine what the keywords were for that.

Now, admittedly, we ran a story back in the spring about Twitter reactions, regarding The Hunger Games and the casting of actress Amandla Stenberg as the character Rue. Actually, it’s remained one of our most popular articles on the blog. But, as the writer of that article, I’d argue there’s a difference between stories that ask broader cultural questions — in that article’s case, people judging a film based on how it matches up to their own imagination, not to the descriptions in the book — and stories that simply point out dumb people saying dumb things.

We’ll always have idiots. Let’s try to limit how often we give them a stage.

 

 

 

Racism, The Hunger Games, and Bad Reading Comprehension

Rue from the Hunger Games

Source: AceShowBiz.com

I’m sure by now many of you have already heard about the Tumblr page “Hunger Games Tweets.” It’s a collection of tweets by people griping about the casting of a character named Rue. You see, the film cast 13-year old actress Amandla Stenberg (see above). The tweeters targeted by the Tumblr page bemoaned the fact that the film version of Rue just had to be black. Which is confusing, because in the book she is black, in no uncertain terms. She’s described as having “dark brown skin and eyes,” and later, when the reader is introduced to another character named Thresh, we’re told that he “has the same dark skin as Rue.”

Plenty of whatever the online equivalent of ink is has been spent on this story — what it says about race in America, connecting it to Trayvon Martin’s tragic murder, etc. — but I want to focus a little bit more on what the Tumblr creator’s intent was. His blog has said, essentially, that the main problem is not poor reading comprehension. Rather, it’s that readers naturally assume that Rue, a portrait of doe-eyed innocence, must have pale white skin.

For the sake of this column, we’re going to ignore the insane, aggressively racist tweets. That bigoted nonsense isn’t worth anyone’s time. The more interesting ones are subtler. A number of the tweets say that Rue “should have” looked like some other literary characters, like Harry Potter’s Luna Lovegood or The Lovely BonesSusie Salmon. Notice the theme? Characters who represent sweetness, naiveté, and innocence (or innocent victimhood) are automatically assigned long blonde hair, big blue eyes, and very pale skin.

If you deconstruct this story even further, it asks interesting questions about how we read and how we imagine. When we’re not prompted with details, how do we fill in the blanks? If a story just begins in media res, with no description of the narrator, what do you assume he or she looks like? Do you picture yourself? Do you picture an “average” person? What does “average” mean? Is it, as this Destructoid article pointed out while criticizing modern video games, a middle-aged white man with brown hair and stubble? Or do just keep you mind blank about the specifics until some details can paint a fuller picture?

I’m not suggesting that defaulting to a white male protagonist is racist and sexist. But I do think it’s worth reflecting upon where our mental casting assumptions come from. It’s the classic chicken-or-the-egg question. Are fictional characters assigned certain racial archetypes because that’s what the audience assumes, or does the audience assume certain racial archetypes because that’s what their fictional characters have always looked like?

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