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Using Books to Teach Children About Microaggressions

Back in 1990, I was starting 7th grade in a new school in a new town after my family had relocated earlier that summer. I was an avid reader, but I never saw a book on the shelf that would help me understand this scenario: 

Boy: “Where’s your towel?” 

Me: “What?”

Boy: “Yeah, where’s your towel?” Cue lots of snickers.

Later, as I was getting off of the bus, another boy quietly said, “They think you’re Muslim.” 

I am white and was raised Catholic. I do have olive skin tones and tan very easily. The town I had moved to is home to a large mosque, which means a handful of students at my school were Muslim. Being new to town and admittedly unexposed to other faith traditions, I didn’t even know what being Muslim meant. My parents had to explain that asking about my towel was in reference to the hijab worn by some Muslim women. 

While I may have lacked the knowledge to understand the substance of this interaction (and that boy lacked the knowledge to realize skin tone is not an accurate way of determining someone’s religious faith), I knew without a doubt that this line of questioning was meant to cause pain. While I could shrug it off as a misunderstanding, you can imagine the pain comments like this cause Muslims; to have their faith traditions be likened to a bathroom accessory. This is a microaggression.

I recently read Ijeoma Olou’s incredible book, So You Want to Talk About Race. In it, Olou states that microaggressions are “small daily insults and indignities perpetrated against marginalized or oppressed people because of their affiliation with that marginalized or oppressed group.” She gives these examples: 

“That fiery Latin blood.” 

“Did you grow up in a teepee?”

“Why do black people give their kids such funny names?”

“Is that your real hair? Can I touch it?”

“You don’t sound black.” 

She also states microaggressions come in nonverbal form as well, such as clutching your purse tighter or crossing the street when you see a black person walking toward you. These are such important words and actions to learn about. Teach our children about. Take ownership of. Call each other out on. 

(Recognize the importance of step 1 above; to learn about these issues. Many white people are very naive and/or uninformed about this topic. Olou’s book is a great starting point.)

One of many ways we can do this is to point out examples of microaggressions in books that we are reading with our children. While the example might not always be directly stated by a character, an author might show the microaggression by the thoughts and actions of a character in response to one. Books give us a unique window into why microaggressions are so harmful, because unlike a movie or tv show, we often more personally connect to characters in a book.

  1. First, start by teaching your children what microaggressions are. In doing so, you might have to refer to some stereotypes your children aren’t yet aware of about marginalized people and cultures. It might feel like you are reinforcing the stereotype, but instead, you’re acknowledging the stereotype and showing them why it’s NOT ok. You need to teach them to challenge assumptions so that they know how to use words and actions to address stereotypes when they see and hear them. If you have younger children, or you feel unprepared for these discussions, this article about teaching first graders about microaggressions from Teaching Tolerance is a great resources. It also includes some really helpful book recommendations.
  2. Second, when a character uses or is a victim of a microaggression, discuss it. Why was it wrong? Why did the character say/use it? How did the character who was wrongfully attacked feel? What would you do if you witnessed this? This is the “doing the work” part that the majority of us need to do in order to be allies and stop systemic racism. Because reading is an act we do mostly in private, it gives us space to process this information without feeling defensive or ashamed. It also allows us to practice for when we are called to act in the real world. This willingness to discuss the hard questions is what ultimately moves the needle toward changed behavior.
  3. Third, apply examples from your reading to real life. If you realize you were the giver of microaggressions (knowingly or unknowingly), take ownership and discuss your errors with your children. They need to know that 1) it wasn’t ok, and 2) you’re human. We learn from our mistakes. Use resources to help you in your conversations if you feel you aren’t prepared, but your kids will appreciate your honesty.
  4. Finally, recognize when a book contains microaggressions in such a way that we should no longer be encouraging children to read it. Teachers, this is important. Many of the beloved “classics” are so full of microaggressions that they are extremely harmful, not only to students of color who are justifiably offended by the content, but also to white students, who are being sent a message that it is acceptable behavior. We’ll devote an entire post to this topic soon.

I’m in my 40s now and 7th grade was a very long time ago. So why is it that I can recall that scene on the bus like it was yesterday? As a white person, I’ll never know what being the recipient of microaggressions on a regular basis feels like, but that conversation on the bus was a window into it, in the same way that books provide similar introductions. Let’s commit to doing the work with our children to identify these hurtful actions. 

*This post contains Amazon affiliate links that support this website, as well as a link to Ijeoma Olou‘s personal website/book purchase page, which supports her work. Please also consider purchasing books from your local, independent bookstore, and/or a black-owned bookstore.

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Easy and Affordable Rewards that Encourage More Reading

For many parents now working from home, or struggling with safe childcare options, or just dealing with the aftermath of kids who have already been stuck at home for months before summer even started, this time period likely presents many new challenges that most of us have never faced. Encouraging your child to keep reading can feel like one more daunting task on the never-ending to do list. We get it. We feel that way, too, sometimes. Honestly.

Some libraries are stepping up to the plate with fantastic virtual or socially distant summer reading programs. If you haven’t yet checked that out, please do so. My library has done incredible work moving their program online, and it has actually made my work-parenting balance easier this summer. Uninterrupted time to respond to emails while they happily read or do simple activities? Yes, please.

But if your library has not, or it is structured in a way that doesn’t work for your family, there are still simple rewards you can offer your child to keep them reading this summer (and into the fall and winter!)

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Where to Access Free Books for Kids During Covid-19

Depending on where you live, you and your family are likely well over a month into quarantine. Even the most prepared parent or caregiver is probably running low on new, fun books to read. Libraries and schools across the country are closed, most bookstores are closed (although many are offering curbside pickup or delivery, so do try to support them if you are financially able), and even Amazon deliveries are delayed understandably in order to focus on essential shipping needs. 

With many families facing very tight and sometimes dire financial circumstances right now, creative ways to get free books into the hands of children have never been more needed. 

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With schools (and everything else) closed and lots (and lots and lots) of extra time at home, a golden opportunity has been presented to us parents and caregivers. We have time to read. So do our children. Research has shown us that students are far more likely to read independently and successfully if given time and choice. That’s pretty much all we have right now, right?

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Books and Series To Read When Children Need An Escape

I had just finished reading Erin Entrada Kelly’s beautifully written book Lalani of the Distant Sea when I got a text from my sister about an assignment her fifth grader had just completed: 

He has to write an argumentative essay that names a word of the year, and then defend it. He chose “altercation.” And then wrote paragraphs about mass shootings, everyone fighting about global warming, the potential war with Iran, and immigration. Imagine at 10 years old, the word you think best describes the world is altercation. 

My dreamy thoughts from Lalani quickly came to a halt as I considered this. My sensitive nephew’s world view is just so different from what I remember mine being at age 10. While I could name the current president (Ronald Reagan), my primary troubles were saving enough money for more stickers for my sticker album or wondering if Friday’s episode of Full House would be a rerun. 

It’s not always feasible to offer our children opportunities to escape the current events of both their immediate world and the larger, global world.

But books can be that temporary vacation from reality and offer us (adults and children alike) a much needed respite from the constant barrage of pain and suffering.

Whole worlds are awaiting us between the covers of books. As a long-time advocate of realistic fiction as a tool to develop empathy and understanding, I’ve recently found myself drawn more to fantasy. It’s like my brain and my heart simply need to disconnect from our reality from time to time. 

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Over the course of my adult years, I’ve dipped in and out of a few book clubs. One of the reasons I love participating in book clubs is that it inevitably inspires me to read books I might not otherwise select myself. Such is the case with Renee Watson’s Piecing Me Together. I typically enjoy reading young adult books, but I’m not sure I would have stumbled upon this title without the encouragement of my book club.

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I was a journalism major, graduating in 2002. Thousands of miles away, at the exact moment I was practicing how to craft compelling, accurate newspaper headlines and write engaging magazine articles, Mark Zuckerberg was inventing Facebook in his dorm room at Harvard and changing how we get our news forever. I often wonder how drastically different my journalism education would be if I was a student now and not pre-social media.

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Family Favorite Reads from 2018-2019

The 2018-2019 school year is in officially in the books for our part of the country and nearing the end for most everyone else. As classroom teachers helped kids collect memories for yearbooks and best of lists, we wondered what books members of our families will remember most. And be sure you’re following us on social media this summer: we’ve taken the #bookaday challenge and we’re sharing book recommendations each and every day! (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter)

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