1. Omission: In spite of the fact that many excellent multicultural books
are finally being published, omission continues to be one of the biggest
problems in literature for young readers today. Exclusion is one of the
most insidious and painful forms of bias; a group may be excluded from an entire
collection, or from the books selected for use in a particular library, school
district, school, or classroom. The implicit message is that the group
does not exist, is insignificant, or has made no contributions to society.
Erasure is destructive not only to the group(s) involved but to the larger
2. Illustrations: Stereotypes. A stereotype is an
over-simplified generalization about a particular group which usually carries
derogatory implications. Stereotypes may be blatant or subtle. Check
for depictions that demean or ridicule characters because of their race, gender,
age, ability, appearance, size, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic
class, or native language.
Tokenism. Is one person from the group presented as having
admirable qualities while all the others of the group are stereotyped? In
illustrations, do people of color look just like whites except for being tinted
or colored in? Do all people from parallel cultures look stereotypically
alike or are they depicted as genuine individuals with distinctive features?
Who is doing what? Do the illustrations depict people of color in
subservient and passive roles or in leadership and action roles? Are males
the active doers and females the inactive observers?
the Story Line: Bias may be expressed in blatant or subtle ways.
Check for the following forms of subtle, implicit bias:
Standards for Success. Does it take the white male behavior
standards for a person of color or a female to "get ahead"? Is
"making it" in the dominant white society projected as the only ideal?
To gain acceptance and approval, do people of color and females have to exhibit
Resolution of Problems. How are problems conceived, presented, and
resolved in the story? Are people of color considered to be "the
problem"? Are the conditions facing oppressed groups represented as
related to an unjust society? does the story line encourage passive
acceptance or active resistance? Are problems faced by people from
parallel cultures resolved through the benevolent intervention of a white,
able-bodied, middle-class male?
Role of Females. Are the achievements of girls and women based on
their own initiative and work, or are achievements due to their appearance or to
their relationships with males? Are females of all ages presented as
problem solvers with a life of their own, or is their role in the story only as
a support of male characters? Is it assumed that female characters will
marry and that this is their only or major interest in life? Is there an
emphasis on describing the physical appearance of female characters? Are
positive female characters portrayed as "beautiful" and negative
female characters portrayed as "unattractive"? Are older females
portrayed in a negative manner? Are older unmarried females ridiculed and
assumed to be bitter, unfulfilled, or boring? Are the images females of
all ages prettified? Are they afraid of mice, spiders, or snakes? Do
they have to be rescued by a male character?
4. Authenticity: Check for inaccuracy and inappropriateness in the
depiction of cultures and lifestyles. Are they oversimplified or do they
offer genuine insight into the character? Check for quaint, cutesy, or
exotic depictions. Is the portrayal of each group authentic? For
example, are Native people from one group shown wearing the hair styles,
clothing, or jewelry of another tribe? Does the book portray diversity
among Asian Americans or are they all lumped together, ignoring differences in
ethnicity, time of immigration, generations of life in the United States, and
location of origin as well as the fact that some groups have been in conflict
with each other at various times over thousands of years? Are recent
immigrants and people from the same ethnic group who were born in the United
States portrayed in the same manner? Are the issues facing lesbians
subsumed under those facing gay men resulting in distortion, erasure, and/or
5. Relationships Between
People: Do the white males possess the
power, take the leadership roles, and make the important decisions? Do
females, people of color, lesbians, gays, elderly, or disabled people function
in essentially supporting, subservient roles? Do girls and women have
strong friendships with each other or do they depend on males to define them?
Whose interest is the hero/heroine serving?
For many years, books showed only "safe" heroes-those who avoided
serious conflict with the white, male, able-bodied, heterosexual establishment.
Heroines and heroes should be defined according to the concepts of and struggles
for justice appropriate to their group. When heroes/heroines from parallel
cultures do appear, are they admired for the same qualities that have made
establishment heroes famous or because what they have done has benefited the
Consider the Effects on a Child's Self-Image:
established that limit any child's aspirations and self-concept? For
example, Asian Americans should not be portrayed as model minorities. Are
fat people portrayed in negative ways? Every person from every culture
should be portrayed as an individual with unique strengths, weaknesses,
interests, lifestyles, and beliefs.
8. Author's or Illustrator's
Background: Analyze the biographical
data available about the author and illustrator. What qualifies the author
or illustrator to deal with the subject? If they are not a member of the
group they are depicting, is there anything in their background that would
specifically recommend them as creators of the book? There has been
considerable debate recently regarding what has been termed cultural thievery.
Is it ethical for mainstream writers to appropriate the literature of parallel
cultures? Many people think it is impossible to write authentically from a
perspective one has never experienced personally. People who have been
silenced in the past do not take kindly to someone else trying to tell their
story now that those stories are finally being recognized as significant.
The publishing industry is still a world filled with scarcity: if an established
European American author submits a manuscript for a story representing another
culture, will there be room for emerging writers from that culture to compete?
These important issues and related questions are addressed in a special issue on
Multicultural Literature in the March/April 1995 issue of Horn Book, as
well as in other journals and books.
9. Author's or Illustrator's
Perspective: In the past, children's
books were written by authors who were white, members of the middle class,
heterosexual, able-bodied, and Christian, with one result being that a narrow
Eurocentric perspective has dominated children's literature in the United
States. For example, the abolitionists featured in the past were the white
members of the Underground Railroad, when in actuality, most abolitionists were
African Americans. Watch for books that present multiple perspectives.
Does the total collection present many world views ? Are readers
encouraged to consider a situation form several perspectives?
Examples of offensive terms include: "savage,"
"primitive," "conniving," "lazy,"
"superstitious," "treacherous," "wily,"
"crafty," "inscrutable," "docile,"
"backward," "bitter," "barren," "squaw,"
"papoose," and "Indian givers." Consider the effect of
the use of the color white as the ultimate in beauty, cleanliness, or
virtue (angel food); and the color black or use of
"dark" as evil, dirty, or menacing (devil's food). Watch
for sexist language that excludes or in any way demeans females. Watch for
sexist language that excludes or in any way demeans females. The generic
use of the words man and he were accepted in the past but their use today is
outmoded. The following examples show how sexist language can be avoided:
ancestors instead of forefathers; humankind instead of mankind; firefighters
instead of firemen; synthetic instead of manmade; chair or chairperson instead
of chairman; and she/he instead of he.
Date: Books on minority themes-often hastily
conceived-suddenly began appearing in the mid-and late 1960s. Most of
these books were written by white authors, edited by white editors, and
published by white publishers. They often reflected a white, middle-class,
mainstream point of view. Not until the early 1970s did the children's
book world begin to even remotely reflect the realities of a pluralistic
society. the copyright date may be one clue as to how likely the book is
to be overtly biased, although a recent copyright date is not guarantee of the
book's authenticity. Conversely, do not throw out all the books with old
copyright dates! Use these guidelines to examine each one. Use the
biased books as teaching tools with your students and colleagues.