DULUTH — Some staff and faculty at the University of Minnesota at Duluth — self-proclaimed “co-conspirators” — aim to strip libraries of racist portrayal in children’s books with the help of students.
The Anti-Racism Literary Advisory Council, also known as “A-LAB,” was established by UMD Elementary Education Assistant Professor Suki Mozenter in August 2020.
The council aims to analyze literature in elementary grades and replace books containing inappropriate and racist portrayals with inclusive and authentic stories, language and imagery.
“The (Kathryn A. Martin) Library Children’s Collection (at UMD) currently contains several problematic texts and it does not reflect the racial diversity that we would like to see in a collection of children’s literature. Thus, rather than just talk about the importance of representation, let’s do something about it,” Mozenter said.
Twenty students and three other teachers and education staff, Insoon Han, Kayleen Jones and Ariri Onchwari, brought together teacher candidates to examine the collections of local elementary school libraries and the Kathryn A. Martin Library.
Students identify problematic books and either replace them or post a warning sign with a commentary explaining its harmful portrayal.
“Most people think we can’t do anti-racism work with children. We can do it through babies,” said Ariri Onchwari, associate professor of unified early childhood studies. “Children need to understand color when they are concrete thinkers.”
On the third floor of the Kathryn A. Martin Library, the children’s literature section tucked away in the back right corner features a variety of picture and fiction books. Among them is a Dr. Seuss section.
Alongside Dr. Seuss’s many books was “If I Ran the Zoo,” one of six books that ceased publication in March 2021 for racist and insensitive imagery, according to the Associated Press.
“If I Run a Zoo” features an illustration of two barefoot African men, wearing grass-like skirts, with their hair tied above their heads. Their faces resemble monkeys, creating a dehumanizing image.
“The books you give them, who is there? The kids who look like them, and those kids who don’t look like them (the white kids), what do they do? Are they stereotyped? Onchwari said, “They are small, but they subtly receive these messages.”
Each A-LAB student works on a project to actively inspire immediate change on the shelves.
Second-year Unified Early Childhood Studies major Meghan Hesterman has teamed up with Laitzia Yang to conduct a college-wide survey asking UMD students about their personal experiences with children’s books. With this data, they will present implicit biases and underrepresentation to education leaders in the community.
“Sometimes these presentations in professional development can feel like kind of a checkbox and we don’t want it to be that way,” Hesterman said. “Anti-racism is not an additional component. It should be integrated into what you are already doing.
Hesterman said one of her goals is for students to become aware of anti-racist teaching methods and to advocate for diversity in the classroom.
“Young children are just little sponges, and books are like that window into worlds and communities they may not have access to,” Hesterman said.
Yang, Hesterman’s partner in the project and a fourth-year biology major, said she became a social activist while in college, which led her to apply to be part of A-LAB. .
“When I was younger, I didn’t feel represented in the books,” Yang said.
When Yang read children’s picture books, she longed for the blonde hair and blue eyes of the white characters featured, causing her to lose a sense of her worth and identity for most of her life.
“It made me feel ashamed, I always thought, ‘Why don’t they like us? Why am I different? Is there something wrong with me? It sounds so weird to say now, but I was just thinking, ‘I wish I was white.’ Why was I born Hmong?” Yang said.
The depiction acknowledges the existence of non-white students, Yang added, and contributes to a sense of self.
Hesterman, Yang, and Mozenter agreed that targeting children’s literature is key to combating racially insensitive stereotypes, and establishing a sense of belonging is crucial for early childhood development.
“We’re tasked with showing them what’s out there because they have a limited view of the world and society in the early elementary grades,” Hesterman said. “They just learn about other people, cultures, communities, society, their role in social groups and their identity. If you don’t have representation, stereotypes develop.
“Topics like this are meant to be uncomfortable,” Yang said. “It’s a learning experience of what we can do better and how we can move our community forward.”