My book is unintentionally racist. No, not my novel. That one takes place during the Civil War and is intentionally racist. It has to be to claim any sort of historical accuracy. I am talking about my children’s book, 10 Cheeky Monkeys. It’s a counting book that also teaches vocabulary words, and by happenstance because of current events portrays racism. At first I was content to sweep in under the rug and explain it away by evoking my white privilege of “You’re reading too much into it.” But quite frankly, I can’t do that anymore. I am revoking my white privilege and talking about the fact that it’s there. It isn’t something that I can do anything about at this point, I don’t have the money that it would cost to change it, but I can acknowledge that it is there instead of ignoring it.
You see, I’ve come to believe that one of the biggest problems facing us today in regards to race is everyday good people ignoring or not acknowledging racism when they see it. Or not even realizing that it is there, while meanwhile it is a constant thorn in the sides of people of color. Before the Civil War abolitionists had something to fight for: the abolishment of slavery. It was a tangible, worthy goal with easily recorded wins. Lincoln introduced the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War secured the last nail in the coffin lid of slavery. However, something that ingrained isn’t given up that easily. The slave codes were reworded and reworked and largely became the Jim Crow laws. I realize that this is an over simplification and what follows is also a simplification, but I don’t want to bore you with too much of a history lesson, so I beg you to stick with me.
Then came the Civil Rights Movement. Again, there was something tangible to fight against, something to direct the attack. Desegregate, overturn the Jim Crow laws, and end the violence and abject fear that was running rampant in the South. These goals were easily articulated and the wins were easily recorded. However, again, something that ingrained does not go away easily. And I don’t want to harp solely on the South here. There were race riots in New York during the Civil War. In fact, before the war broke out, one of the top proposals of the anti-slavery movement was to stick all of the freed blacks on a boat and send them back to Africa. They weren’t looking for equality, they just didn’t want slavery anymore. Same for the Civil Rights movement. There were plenty of people who were all for blacks having “equal rights,” as long as they didn’t move up north into their neighborhoods. Our country is entrenched in a history of racism, and while the Jim Crow laws were overturned, the sentiments remained.
Our problem today, is that with the advent of cell phone videos and live streaming it is much easier to broadcast the stories of a select group out to a wide audience. And to quote Fannie Lou Hamer, a large majority of the black population is “Sick and tired or being sick and tired.” They are sick of the constant, insidious racism that they encounter every day and tired of it being brushed aside like it’s no big deal. It is a big deal, and unlike the activists of the past, the activists of today don’t have anything they can point to, anything that they can definitively fight against.
Sadly, for some that focus has fallen on the police as it is their onerous job to mete out a lot of this injustice. There are cities in this country that make hundreds of thousands of dollars off their poorest communities from fines and tickets. Guess who has to dole those out? The cops. If they don’t, they lose their jobs. If they do they become the enemy of the very people they have sworn to protect. EVERY ONE is set up for failure in this system. Yes, there are a select few in blue who use their power and position to unduly harass and prosecute the black communities that they are supposed to serve. They are a problem and they need to go. Racism and bigotry have no business in uniform. But even with all of them gone, it is the system as a whole that needs an overhaul.
Even if a fairy godmother could come down and snap her fingers to fix the entire system overnight, we would still have a race problem in this country and the activists of today would still be lacking a handhold for their fight. It is the hearts and minds of the general populace that need to change. But it is a general awareness that is lacking amongst a large portion of the white population that a problem even exists. That is itself one of the biggest problems, and it is perpetuated every time we see or do something racist and let it slide, because, “What’s the big deal?”
The big deal is that this country abolished slavery 151 years ago, yet has still failed to systematically treat and address the black population as equal. Don’t believe me, go to Google and type in “Obama monkey.” That is the respect shown to our commander-in-chief. Yes, all presidents get made fun of, but that is not all-in-fun ribbing. Those images are racist. If you’re still skeptical that a problem exists, type in “Leslie Jones Twitter.” That’s just the blatant racism hurled at black people, the subtle, latent racism often sneaks by under the radar of whites. It makes me shudder that we have progressed so little.
So with that said, I am calling myself out. There is a portion of my book 10 Cheeky Monkeys that can be interpreted as racist. Here are the pages next to their inspiration.
I specifically asked my illustrator to add in the police car as a throwback to a piece I did in my portfolio when I graduated from college. I of course can’t find that to add a picture, but it would be of a white guy eating his pizza as fast as he can before the police can come and arrest him. Now here are the pages next to images that are more likely to come to mind with our recent news cycles.
Is it intentional? No. Does it eerily mirror events that are popping up in the news far too frequently? Yes. Do I personally feel that it perpetuates racist stereotypes? Yes. Do I accept that as the publisher of this book and the one who requested the illustration change, that this is my doing? Yes. Does that make me a racist? No. Does that make my illustrator a racist? Absolutely not. Good, well-intentioned people do racist things every day without realizing that they are doing so. That doesn’t make them racists. However, it is time we started noticing how our words and decisions impact those of color. It is time we unlearn our years of privilege and learn to do better. Myself included.