Be the change, books, Literacy

On Blind Spots and Doing Better When We Know Better

Three years ago, I wrote a blog post detailing my journey with the book When We Was Fierce and in particular the journey with realizing that a book I had marveled at and called a must read was being critically reviewed by others. While at first I was embarrassed by my enthusiasm and not knowing better, in the blog post I wrote about the growth I had when I put away my own embarrassment and instead approached the moment as a learning opportunity, simply put; when I knew better, I could do better. It is a journey I have tried to continue on ever since.

Since that post, I have tried to be more in tune with critical reviews. I have tried to read new or old books that come my way with a broader lens trying to step out of my own lived experience to discover how others may view a book. How others may be potentially harmed by a book. How others may have world view shaped in a an inaccurate manner because of a book. While the voice in my head has gotten better at alerting me to potentially problematic texts, it is far from perfect and it is a journey I continue to be on.

I share this because this week I published my best books of the year so far list, a list I try to carefully put together in order to help others find books that may heighten their reading experiences. It is also a list for myself to look back upon as I celebrate the incredible works put out in the world that have deepened my own children’s’ reading lives as well as my teaching experience. This morning, I woke to a tweet sent to me by a colleague highlighting a potentially problematic book on the list.

My response: Thank you, I will definitely look into it. Which I did.

Dr. Laura M. Jimenez (@BookToss) had written a great post detailing problematic aspects of the book Stonewall: A Building, An Uprising, A Revolution by Rob Sanders and Jamey Christoph. This book was on my best of the year so far list and a book I had really enjoyed, even contemplating how I could use it as part of our upcoming historical research unit where we will write from the perspective of an object. While I had read the book and the voice inside my head had noticed how there didn’t seem to be a broad acknowledgement of the trans community, I had put aside my concern rather than followed up on it, despite having also read the book The Stonewall Riots: Coming Out in the Streets by Gayle E. Pitman that had explicitly discussed the broad community anger and how this went past the mostly gay men present in the inn on the first night of the riots. Dr. Jimenez discussed those concerns and then some in her blog post, and also received a reply from the author, Rob Sanders, which I really think you should read.

After reading the blog post, the concerns with the book were crystal clear so I pondered why I had I put aside my concerns? The answer? Because I really liked the book AND also because of my lack of knowledge. While I had a minor concern, I didn’t follow up on it and instead chose to highlight the book because I thought that it would be great for others to read. End of story.

And this is what I want to write a little bit about, because those two things, dismissing our concerns and not knowing better, are exactly why I think many, especially white, educators keep problematic books in classrooms and home collections year after year. I know the emotional attachment is what makes me sometimes try to mentally finagle a way to be okay with a book in our collection that may do potential harm. Even though I know better. Even though I end up not placing it in our library because I know better. But how often do we, and especially us white educators who live within the dominant lens, simply not know better? Or how often do we dismiss the criticisms because we somehow think that having the book will surely alert students to their own concerns and then be able to navigate potential problems within it?

But here’s the thing, if I, as a 39 -year old educator who has taught for nearly 12 years and reads hundreds of books, as well as reviews of books, and critical discussions of books every year cannot figure out on my own that a book is problematic, then how can I expect my students to do so?

Because they won’t, not unless we teach it, not unless we discuss our own mistakes when it comes to reading and highlighting problematic texts. This is why I use the book The Secret Project by Jonah and Jeanette Winters in my classroom. While I had the book at first because I loved it and had already read it aloud to my classroom, after I read Dr. Deb Reese’s post on the problems with it, I re-visited the book with students and we discussed why we had not ourselves caught these problems with the text and instead taken it at face-value. It led to a larger discussion on what else we miss when we don’t know more, or the blind spots we all walk around with and how to shrink them.

This is why we must do better when it comes to vetting our own collections and also being okay with admitting it out loud. I know that there are a lot of emotions attached to books and their creators. I know I don’t want to hurt other people when I distance myself from their work. I know that many educators, me included, like to think that I know enough to carefully select books that will not present problematic, inaccurate, or full on harmful stories to my students, but that is simply not right. Even though I have grown and gotten better, I have so much to learn still. I will, probably despite my best intentions, continue to embrace books that because of my own lens, my limited perspective, I cannot see the problems in until others point it out.

So what can we do when we realize either through our own investigation that a book is problematic or when someone else points out harmful representation or stories?

Say thank you when someone points it out. We cannot grow if we don’t know what we need to do better on. That is why recognizing when someone offers you an opportunity to grow and acknowledging it as an opportunity to grow rather than getting defensive is always the best way.

Get over our own feelings. Is it embarrassing to screw up? Absolutely. Would I rather do well? Sure. Do I learn from these interactions? Every time. However, when our response is one of incredulity or dismissal we are not really growing, we are certainly not focusing our energy on what we should be focusing on, which is the conversation surrounding the text or illustrations rather than our own feelings. (I am listening to White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and this is part of what she discusses).

Read the criticism, seek to understand it, and ask questions. I always read or listen to what is being said and then try to find other voices who are discussing it as well. If I am not sure why something is being discussed the way it is, then I ask questions. That is why I love being connected to others because social media gives me a quick way to reach out.

Take action outwardly. Whether it is publicly acknowledging your screw up if you have recommended it, or spreading the word by amplifying the discussion happening, do your part. It is often isolating to be someone pointing out critical aspects so knowing that there are others who will back up your words and calls to action is powerful.

Transfer the knowledge. Teach this critical skill to students by also connecting them with book reviews blogs so that they can be adults who have access to information, so that they can notice their blind spots, and also try to see whether a book may be harmful or not. Make it a part of your already embedded curriculum units so that it is not a stand-alone lesson but instead one that is addressed in many different ways. After all, isn’t teaching critical analysis one of our main teaching goals?

Take actions personally. Remove the book altogether or use it to discuss blind spots like I have done with a few books, but do something, rather than just push it aside because “no one will know that you still have the book.” While that may be true, this is also an incredibly twisted way of looking at the process. While it feels very strange to throw books in the garbage, almost sacrilegious, yet sometimes, that is where certain books belong. Don’t just say you will do something, actually do it.

Try to do better in the future. While I definitely catch more problematic books before I recommend them than I have in the past; as evidenced by this post I still have a lot to learn. All of us do. But the good news is that through social media we can easily learn from others as long as we are willing.

Finally; say thank you and support those doing the work. Thank you to those who tirelessly advocate for better representation within the book industry. Who repeatedly point out when texts or illustrations are problematic. Who take the heat that comes their way over and over again when others accuse them of being in a “mob” or even sends them death threats. Because of people like Dr. Reese, Dr. Jimenez, Edi Campbell, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Valeria Brown, Chad Everett and the fearless educators, authors, and activists involved in #WeNeedDiverseBooks #OwnVoices, #DisruptTexts, Reading While White, LatinX in Kid Lit, and #DiversityJedi I have grown as a reader of books and that matters because the books I share are used within my own classroom, as well as recommended to others on a global scale.

So what did I end up doing with Stonewall the book that started this whole blog post? I removed it from my best books of the year so far list and with the encouragement of Dr. Jimenez wrote this blog post to make my thinking visible. While I love the missing parts of history that the book represents, I cannot use it as an actual representation of what happened that night, there is too much missing.

And that is where I start my summer vacation. Knowing that I have so much to still learn about others and from others. Not a bad way to start my summer as I try to grow as a person and as an educator. I now know better, so hopefully I can do better. Can’t we all?

7 thoughts on “On Blind Spots and Doing Better When We Know Better”

  1. It takes bravery to acknowledge and accept challenges to our initial responses to literature. I had a similar challenge to my enthusiastic response to “My brother’s husband” and I think part of it is we each approach a story with our limited world understanding and it takes others with different perspectives and world views to help us open our eyes to alternative interpretations.
    Have you read Kathy Short’s keynote on “the dangers of reading globally”? https://muse.jhu.edu/article/723529. I will need to broach this with our Language and Literature team next year, as there are a few books on our middle school lists. It is perhaps not so much a case of removing them as teaching them differently and acknowledging our flawed and limited understanding of very complex global issues.
    There is a similar “battle” going on with the diversification of the GRA – and I for one was someone constantly asking for this, and that has been addressed – but the impact has been that many North American educators are recoiling as the books don’t fit neatly into their idea of a read aloud, just as previous books didn’t fit into global educators ideas of a global book.

    We live and we learn, if we remain open to learning.

    1. Nadine, thanks for sharing that article. There was a lot to think about and a lot of good ideas. In a class where everyone chooses their books, helping each of reader gain a more complete perspective on a book is a challenge, but I like the idea that they don’t necessarily have to pair the book with another full novel. Instead, picture books, articles, and other short texts can do the job. It also provided some great ideas to help me confer with students about some of the books they read.

      For anyone else interested in the article, I couldn’t read the full text at the link above, but the University of Arizona, where the author Kathy Short is a professor, has a free PDF available available at their library’s online repository. I was able to read the article here: https://repository.arizona.edu/bitstream/handle/10150/632442/The_Dangers_of_Reading_Globally%2c_final_draft.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

    2. Also, one thing I forgot. I agree that the article doesn’t make the case for not reading the books it talks about. Instead, it makes the case for helping readers evaluate what they read and helping them understand how their background affects the way they respond to the work.

  2. Thanks for this post! My team was just discussing this issue as we refined our Summer Reading lust. We like to offer a broad range of diverse books, but after a valid parent concern, we realized we needed to vet our selection process for the reasons you mention in this post! Thanks —- I will be using your ideas to reassess my classroom library this summer!

  3. Thanks for posting this. I just read an article critiquing the wordless picturebook Unspoken by Henry Cole. I am grateful that I am at a point in my evolution as a literacy educator that I can read the critique, think about it, and make the decision to pull it from my collection without feeling embarrassed or defensive.
    My new challenge as a coach is how to support other educators with this. I watched a teacher present yesterday and use Unspoken as a shining example. I have no judgement, I know she has not read what I read and doesn’t know what I know, but I shied away from starting a conversation with her about it. It’s because the first time someone challenged a book choice of mine in that way (It was SkippyJon Jones, circa 2009!) I remembered feeling embarrassed and defensive. I didn’t want to make her feel that way. I don’t actually know how she would have reacted, but I errored on the side of not making her feel bad. I’ll be thinking about this and what I might do going forward.

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