By Elizabeth Wroten
Soft Censorship and White Supremacy
On 15, Oct 2018 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten
Last year the other librarian I worked with purchased the book The Journey by Francesca Sanna. The story follows a family from their home country, where a war has broken out and the father has died, to a new country. Along the way they encounter unfriendly border guards, a wall, a smuggler, and an ocean they must cross. It’s certainly a nod to Syrian refugees and North African refugees fleeing to Europe, but it’s also reminiscent of immigrants from Central America and Cuba. It’s not a warm fuzzy story, but it also isn’t without hope. It’s the kind of book that can open up conversations. Prior to this I had purchased a copy and read it to my daughter and we talked about a lot of things that are going on in the world right now.
While the book was being processed with another immigration story by a parent volunteer she raised concerns about both books being too scary for children and something she would never have shared with her own children. I came into the conversation late in the day and am unclear if she didn’t want us processing the books at all or if they needed to be put into a higher reading level section.
When I spoke to the parent I explained that I could respect that she would not want to choose to read the book to her children, but that I did want to (and had read) it to my child. My point being, there are families and teachers in our community that do want these types of books. She also kept fussing over the possibility that a parent who wouldn’t want it read to their child might still find it in their child’s backpack. So I explained that it was not appropriate to remove it from the shelf or hide it for those parents. It is a book that is written for children and is totally appropriate if you want to share those ideas with a child. Her own personal preference to shield her children from ugly truths about our world is her right, but it does not give me the right, as a librarian, to force other parents to make that choice by hiding or removing the book. Moreover our collection development policy allows us to purchase materials that support our curriculum, support our community and support literacy. This book hits all those points. The other librarian thanked me for talking to the parent volunteer.
I went ahead and processed the book and put it in the picture book section (a blue label). But I came in the following Friday morning to discover that the other librarian had changed it to a red label (early chapter book section). This made me extremely upset and uncomfortable and here is why:
- The color coding labels denote reading level not content. This book has a relatively low reading level and is clearly a picture book. The library does have a few red and yellow picture books, but they also have very high reading levels and are clearly written for older audiences (third grade and up).
- The (higher level) red and yellow picture books do not check out. They are up high on a shelf where the kids can’t reach them. They are tucked away. But mostly, by the time the kids can read chapter books, the teachers and parents do not want them to check out picture books and the kids have internalized that idea and almost never choose to read them.
- The picture book (blue) section has books that tackle slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, other immigration stories, gay families, residential schools and many other difficult, uncomfortable, and potentially controversial topics.
- The youngest patrons who check out books (Kindergarten and first grade) do not browse the shelves. The librarian pulls books and puts them out on the tables for them to select from. To keep this book out of those children’s hands is very easy: simply do not offer it as an option.
- Professional reviews of the book have placed this on many children’s literature award lists and note that the age range for the book can be as young as 3 up to about third grade.
- Finally, the other librarian consulted another non-librarian teacher about her opinion and made a decision based on that. She did not consult the upper school librarian. I also caught her consulting with an administrator who is the head of the diversity committee (and a not particularly woke white man). When I accidentally came upon them discussing the book they quickly hid it away, stopped talking, and he quietly slipped out of the library without saying a word to me.
With all those factors considered, they intentionally put a book that might make some families uncomfortable into a section where they know it probably won’t check out or be seen. This is called soft censorship. It’s not an outright ban of the book, but for all intents and purposes it renders the book unavailable. The library/school can still point at it say, “But it’s on our shelves! We’re not stopping kids from checking it out.” Yet, in reality, the patrons of the library, the target audience of that book, will never have meaningful or real access to it.
But here’s the thing with that kind of behavior and why I think I’m so uncomfortable with this whole situation. It’s white supremacy at work. Plain and simple. Those families that might be uncomfortable are going to primarily be white and immigration is almost never about white immigrants*, certainly not in this political climate we’re in. These books, and The Journey in particular, that make white families uncomfortable are about black and brown people. Hiding The Journey where children and families, for all intents and purposes, will not have access to it erases that difficult experience in favor of white children’s comfort. It places white children above black and brown children. Also this is how systems of oppression (i.e. white supremacy) work and are perpetuated, quietly and seemingly innocuously. As a librarian and a person fighting to stop white supremacy, I disagree with that soft censorship with every fiber of my being. It is wrong.
I went and spoke with the teacher the other librarian consulted and heard her piece. It was half the point I made to our parent volunteer. Not all families would talk about this topic with their child. I then explained the censorship issue with the book and she immediately told me that she agreed with the library/librarian standpoint, that it belongs in an accessible place on our shelves. I also consulted with the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom. They were incredibly helpful and supportive and affirmed that I was right to call this soft censorship. They wrote a letter to the head of the Lower School supporting keeping the book in the picture book section (you can see this in my Instagram photo of the book).
Picture books can be read by children whose reading is fairly well developed, but in reality they are books that are meant to be shared between a fluent reader (often an adult) and a child. This is the kind of situation where an adult can read this book and help the child understand what is happening. If a family doesn’t want to have that conversation, they do not have to read the book (although I highly recommend they unpack that impulse and ensure it isn’t actually upholding white supremacy). Nothing in the library is required reading. But there are families who do want to have these conversations and need resources and the library is there for them. There are also classroom teachers who are having these conversations with their classes and the library is there for them too.
I quit that job last year for a number of reasons. One of the primary reasons was because of how my daughter was treated when we applied to the school compounded by the headmaster’s incredibly misogynistic response to my speaking publicly about the incident and how it made me feel. He took particular umbrage at the language I used. You can read more about that here and here if you are so inclined. But during the long conversation I had with him in which he tone policed me and said some truly appalling things, he also told me if I was upset about this I wasn’t entitled to make the call about this book. Not only did he show his complete ignorance about what my job title and position was, he also showed an ignorance that is common outside the library community about the function of the library as a line of defense against censorship and social justice. (Although his stance toward white supremacy is unsurprising considering his level of bigotry in the conversation.)
This is why it’s vitally important that people outside the library community know about soft censorship and how it works and one of the primary reasons I’m putting this out there. I also quit that job because I do not want to work in a place that is comfortable soft censoring materials. In this day and age that is particularly dangerous. We know that children internalize bias incredibly early and we as educators and parents need to be very intentional in addressing the inequalities in this world. We need kids who know what is going on in the world and learn compassion and empathy so we can strive toward a world with equity and freedom for all. We also need parents that are willing to break down systems of oppression. If we wait until white parents think they’re ready to handle the material, it’s too late. Way too late.
*This not entirely true. There are plenty of kids books about Irish or Italian immigrants in the 1800s. Yet, while they are now considered white they were not at the time, which means those children’s books are not accurately representing that immigration experience, but that’s for another day.