Australia

Children's books must be diverse, or kids will grow up believing white is superior

Children need diverse influences. Source: AAP

Children develop their sense of identity and perceptions of others from babyhood, and 75 per cent of Australians grow up with an implicit bias against Indigenous people.

Global support for the Black Lives Matter movement isn’t only about standing up against the injustice done to George Floyd, or Indigenous Australians in custody. People are also standing up against the entrenched racism that leads to a careless approach towards the lives of people who aren’t white.

Research shows 75 per cent of Australians hold an implicit bias against Indigenous Australians, seeing them negatively, even if this is unconscious. Children absorb this bias, which becomes entrenched due to messages in the media and in books, and continues to play out at school and the broader community.

Making sure children have access to books showing diversity is one step in breaking the cycle that leads to entrenched racism.

Children develop bias from an early age

Children develop their sense of identity and perceptions of others from a very early age – as early as three months old. Because of this, young children are particularly vulnerable to the messages they see and hear in the media and in books.

Research over many years has shown books can empower, include and validate the way children see themselves. But books can also exclude, stereotype and oppress children’s identities. Minority groups are particularly at risk of misrepresentation and stereotyping in books.

First Nations groups are commonly absent from children’s books. Excluding the viewpoints, histories and suffering of First Nations Peoples can misrepresent history, and teach kids a white-washed version of the past.

A world of children’s books dominated by white authors, white images and white male heroes, creates a sense of white superiority. This is harmful to the worldviews and identities of all children.

Sharing stories through books

Evidence shows sharing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories helps break down stereotypes and prejudice. And this, importantly, helps empower Aboriginal children and improve their educational engagement and outcomes.

But research suggests many classrooms have books that are monocultural literature, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander books are notably absent.

There are some encouraging signs, with an increase in the publication of books by and about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. We are also seeing bookshops and publishers reporting a rise in demand for books on race and racism.

Children read in China.
Books can empower and validate children’s identities. But they can also make them feel inferior.
AAP

This can also help adults become informed about Australia’s colonial history. Reading these books can help challenge their own unconscious biases and misunderstandings.

The challenge for teachers and parents is to access suitable children’s books and share them with the children in their care. We can use these stories as a foundation for conversations about culture and community.

This can help to drive change and support reconciliation.

Other ways of sharing diverse stories

Creating Books in Communities is a pilot project run by the State Library of Western Australia that helps create books with families about their everyday experiences. These books represent the families’ culture and language.

Projects like these are another way we can recognise and extend the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Another project, On Country Learning, involves children and teachers learning through culture alongside Aboriginal elders. A preliminary review of the program shows it enriches teacher knowledge and motivates all children to learn.

Reading and listening to the stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples can help teachers gain important knowledge and understanding. This helps them effectively engage with and teach Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

And it helps them teach all students about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, histories and cultures.

To see real and lasting change children need everyday story books with heroes and characters that reflect their diverse backgrounds. To help this happen we can support groups such as the We Need Diverse Books Movement and LoveOZYA , which actively call for and promote diverse books for young people.

Affirmation of all children’s culture, language and identity at this pivotal time in world history is critical to the future of all our children.

Parents and teachers can source Aboriginal literature from websites such as: Magabala Books, IAD Press, Aboriginal Studies Press, Fremantle Press, UWA Publishing, BlackWords, Batchelor Institute Press.

Helen Joanne Adam is a senior lecturer in literacy education and children's literature at Edith Cowan University. She receives funding from Herbert & Valmae Freilich Project ECR Small Grant Scheme.

Caroline Barratt-Pugh is a professor of early childhood at Edith Cowan University. She has received funding from the Western Australian Department of Education and the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries and is a member of Early Childhood Australia.

Libby Jackson-Barrett is a senior lecturer at Edith Cowan University. She receives funding from: Office for Learning and Teaching; Froebel Society; Wirrpanda Foundation.

Robert Stanly Somerville is head of teaching and learning at the Kurongkurl Katitjin Centre for Australian Indigenous Education and Research at Edith Cowan University. He does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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