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Depicting Hate: Picture Books and the Realities of White Supremacist Crime and Violence

by Katie Sciurba - 2020

Background/Context: Since the 2016 presidential election, hate-based speech, crime, and violence have been on the rise in the United States, (re)creating a need for adults to engage children in dialogue related to white supremacy as it exists today, instead of framing it as a problem that ended with the civil rights movement. Following an incident of racist vandalism at her home, the author of this article (a White mother) conducted a search for picture books that could serve as vehicles to discuss race-based hate and whiteness with children like her young Black son.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This study draws upon Critical Race Theory, Critical Whiteness Studies, and Critical Multicultural Analysis to explore the emancipatory possibilities of literacy education. Given that children’s literature has the potential to engage young readers in transactions that promote critical literacy, this study focuses on the following research questions: 1) To what extent do picture books set in a post-civil-rights era United States address explicit and physical acts of white supremacy or hate directed against Black people’s bodies, families, or properties? 2) How might such picture books aid parents, educators, and other adults in their attempts to raise children’s awareness about white supremacy/hate?

Research Design: The first part of this article, which documents the author’s search for children’s picture books about explicit and physical acts of white supremacy/hate, utilizes first person narrative. The second part of this article consists of a multimodal content analysis of five texts, all meeting the following criteria: 1) written and illustrated in picture book format, 2) include child characters, 3) set in the United States, 4) set in a post-civil-rights era, 5) include an incident of white supremacist crime or violence (a physical act directed toward a person or property), 6) depict/address an incident directed against a Black individual or group.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Findings of this study point to the need for more picture books that challenge whiteness in its overt and covert forms, particularly in contemporary contexts, in order to provide children with opportunities to engage critically with current issues that have emerged in this heightened era of white supremacy and hate-based crime and violence. The picture books that do address white supremacy, in its current manifestation, tend to include stories about White police killing and shooting Black individuals and the protests that follow such incidents. Yet these stories, as well as one about an incident in which a group of White gang members physically attack two Black children (Ntozake Shange’s Whitewash), are not equal in their level of explicitness about what occurs, their identifications of the White perpetrators involved in what happens, or their demonstrations of how the incidents are rooted in white supremacy. Accordingly, educators and other adults will often need to fill in significant “truth gaps” in order to raise children’s social consciousness related to whiteness and racism. One of the primary recommendations presented in this piece is to accompany these picture books and picture books like them with discussion questions related to the stories that are and are not told in the texts, as well as to facilitate conversation with children related to power and agency as exhibited by the Black characters. Most important, educators and other adults should remain cognizant of the fact that, while books like the ones in this examination may help to address traumas and help facilitate testimony related to race-based hate, children should have opportunities to construct and express their own understandings of textual relevance on this topic.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 122 Number 8, 2020, p. 1-44
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23355, Date Accessed: 1/15/2021 12:56:21 PM

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About the Author
  • Katie Sciurba
    San Diego State University
    E-mail Author
    KATIE SCIURBA, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Literacy Education at San Diego State University and Director of the SDSU Literacy Center. Her research interests center on the intersections of young people’s identities and their reading interests, as well as on representations of race, gender, and socio-political issues in children’s literature. Her publications include “Journeys Toward Textual Relevance: Male Readers of Color and the Significance of Malcolm X and Harry Potter” (Journal of Literacy Research) and Smoky Night and the Un-telling of the L.A. Riots (co-authored with Jerry Rafiki Jenkins, Journal of Children’s Literature).
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