Allie Jane Bruce is a librarian at Bank Street School for Children in New York City who co-founded the blog Reading While White. Her direct and honest approach to white anti-racist work inspires me! Posts like “On Safety Pins, Advocacy, Whiteness, and our field” and articles in Children and Libraries and School Library Journal illustrate her dedication to confronting Whiteness in her self, the children she teaches, and the larger library and publishing community. She is also an Education Liaison for We Need Diverse Books.
I chatted with Allie in December. Here’s what she said…
You state in your article “On Being White” that you didn’t start describing yourself as white until adulthood. Can you describe the process that led you to realize you were white?
Realizing it and volunteering it are two different things. I was in 10th grade when I first realized it. A teacher was giving a standardized test in math. In the interest of collecting data, he did a messed up thing where everyone who was White had to raise their hands, everyone who was Black had to raise their hands, everyone who was Hispanic (the term used when and where I was) had to raise their hands, and everyone who was “other” had to raise their hands. I didn’t want to be white because I thought it was bad and uncool, so I raised my hand for “other”. Then he came around to all the “other” kids to find out what kind of “other” they were. Most of them were biracial; I said, “I’m Jewish.” The teacher was like, I don’t know if that’s an option. A White friend of mine – who I’m still friends with – just cracked up. He said, “Allie, who do you think you’re fooling? You are White.” Since then, I have stopped trying to deny it.
I didn’t actively describe myself as White until four or five years ago when Anshu Wahi, my friend and colleague, the Diversity Director at my school, sent me to a People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond workshop. After that I started actively describing myself as White. I have done the workshop several times and plan to do another.
What about the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond workshop was so impactful?
It’s two and a half days long. This type of anti-racism work is not something you can do in an hour or two, especially for white people who have been comforted and protected in thinking we are not part of problem. Re-educating us that racism is a White person’s problem takes time, and the experiential piece of sitting with that realization is so important.
The content. Everything presented about the structures of power are very specific and fact-based. We hear from sociologists, historians, experts in the field, and people trained in the history of racism. The trainers have a lot of experience facilitating with an anti-racist lens. They know when someone in the workshop is reinforcing White supremacy, and they name the problematic behavior. In two of the workshops I’ve been to, people have left and not come back. It’s usually an action of White fragility and the trainers are never surprised.
How do you notice Whiteness in the library you work in?
The most obvious example is in the books. Children’s literature is overwhelmingly White. The 2015 numbers were 14% were books about people of color, many of which were written by White people. Being a White person in a predominately White field affords me many advantages. And my White students get the advantage of a having a librarian who shares their race. If a White kid is celebrating a holiday, they know that I will know about that holiday. If White kids return a book late, it won’t reflect on their race. If a White child is struggling with reading, they know I won’t attribute it to their race. White kids have a wide range of books to choose from. It’s the air we breathe.
I go into more specifics in my article “On Being White“. But if I hadn’t written that article, I wouldn’t have been able to come up with examples so quickly. It is easy to forget the specific examples of White privilege. The system is designed to make it difficult for us to remember. But it is a lived reality for so many people of color.
You wrote in a response to a comment on Reading While White: “It’s harder to look inward and say, How am I the problem here? What behaviors do I need to change in order to stop being the problem?” Can you give some examples of behaviors that you’ve changed?
One thing is getting more comfortable naming race and whiteness when I’m doing read alouds. Anna Hibiscus is one of my favorite books for this. I say, Ok so Anna’s father is Black and her mother is White. It’s always really awkward at first because the kids know you’re not supposed to name this stuff. We have to get better at being ok with awkward – we don’t have to avoid it.
Another thing is when there’s problematic stuff in a read aloud. I read
The Watsons Go to Birmingham to fourth graders. There’s a scene where the dad is trying to be funny and put on a show for the family. He imitates another person who he considers dumb and inferior. In this scene, he describes Flint, Michigan being so cold and full of Chinese people who only eat whales and seals. What do I do? Not read it? No. I have a conversation with the kids and point out what’s problematic – What is the message here? Why is that message not ok? – It’s sometimes hard to do.
For that one, I want to have conversations with kids about how even if you’re imitating someone who says insensitive things that you may not believe – you are still repeating a stereotype that can be hurtful for a Chinese kid. Throwing another culture under the bus even if you’re villainizing an ignorant person is not ok. And what about me as a teacher? – I’m repeating the dad, repeating this. I will ask kids – What should I do in this situation? They always have insightful things to say.
Wow, that sounds complex and such an incredible learning environment for your students. You are awesome!
My gut instinct is to just edit problematic parts out but that’s not a solution. I’m sending kids out in the world where they are going to encounter stereotypes without knowing how to respond to them. I can’t create a stereotype-free world. All I can do is have a conversation with them and leave them with actions. It is hard because every conversation looks different. I can prep a lesson plan but four different classes will have four different conversations. It takes a lot of time and energy, but it’s incredibly rewarding.
What sustains you in doing racial justice work? Do you have a community of people to support you in doing this work? How do you fight burnout?
Not doing it alone. I’ve learned all of this stuff from other people. I didn’t try to start Reading While White by myself. I organized a group of other people who are tremendous. My colleagues on the blog – Nina Lindsay, KT Horning and the whole crew have been doing this work for a lot longer than me. They are the role models whose shoulders I stand on.
I also learned to let go of the need to be perfect. Not everything will be a success and that is truly ok. Opting out of the culture of perfectionism.
Yes! Perfectionism is a white supremacy culture trait.
That mentality is so toxic. When someone – Reading While White or anyone – offers a criticism, we’re not doing it from a perfectionist mentality. We’re not saying you must burn this book because it is culturally insensitive. But often, people respond to us as if we have said that. If imperfections are somebody’s undoing then people who call out imperfections become the scapegoats.
The authors whose work is critiqued see it as an attack on their humanity because of our perfectionist culture. This is especially strong in white people.
Who are your librarian role models in this work?
Debbie Reese, Edi Campbell, Laura M. Jiménez, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Sarah Park Dahlen, and everyone on the “Kindred Spirits” blogroll on Reading While White. These are all incredible people who have been doing this work for a long time.
You co-founded the Reading While White blog in 2015, an amazing resource created by white librarians to “confront racism in the field of children’s and young adult literature.” What has that experience been like?
I was surprised at how we were perceived. We got and get a lot of love–heaps of really meaningful support, much more than I think we would if we were people of color examining whiteness. That’s one side of the coin. The other side is, by some, we were immediately labeled as undoers, unwarranted criticizers, and my favorite, “a cesspool of negativity”.
People love diversity, but anti-racism…not so much. When you review a book and say, “This is not ok” – as opposed to – “We love everybody and everyone is valid in their views on race”- you get a reaction. That reaction was a factor in our month-long push to review #ownvoices books in September 2016. We wanted to turn the limelight towards people of color, to use our platform and microphone to take the spotlight off of us, and to help put money and resources into the hands of writers of color. Both critiquing problematic representation and advocating books written by writers of color are two aspects of our advocacy.
How do you see Reading While White in the story of anti-racism in children’s literature?
Honestly I think this is a very small step on the part of White people in the field. White librarians and authors get a lot of love and attention. And we have a lot of power, all of which is disproportionate when you consider how many women people of color and Native women have been doing this work for much longer and haven’t gotten that kind of love from the field.
While the blog does face opposition, we have also been lauded. That’s a piece of the story that doesn’t fit well with me. When you read narratives of racism like To Kill a Mockingbird or Cry, the Beloved Country, the White savior is central to the narrative. There’s something about a White person ending racism that is just a co-option of the racial justice movement. I want to work hard – it’s a tension – to undo the power that we have and the oppression that we enact and participate in everyday. I don’t want to co-opt the narrative and make that story about me and my blog when it’s really not.
That is the difficulty, isn’t it? How can white people work towards racial justice without unwittingly reinforce white supremacy by centering whiteness? How do we reconcile this?
Living in the tension, being willing to be uncomfortable knowing that the work I do is going to be imperfect. I go back to the foundation of where a lot of white anti-racist work comes from, an excerpt from Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X. A White woman asks Malcolm what she can do about racism;he tells her she can’t do anything (292). He later wished he could tell White people to go “out on the battle lines of where America’s racism really is…in their own home communities…Let sincere whites go and teach non-violence to white people!… Working separately, the sincere white people and sincere black people actually will be working together” (384).
Appreciations: Thank you to Allie for taking the time to share her experiences.