Jack and the Bean Counters: A Woke Children’s Story

From The Wall Street Journal:

One of my favorite childhood novels recounted the story of a boy separated from his family and caught behind Japanese lines in war-torn midcentury China. I felt I was with the boy, Tien Pao, when he woke terrified in a sampan sweeping downriver toward the smoldering ruins of his village. Alongside Tien Pao, I watched a doomed train back into a burning station and heard the screams of its passengers. Together we crouched in the broiling sun, scanning throngs of refugees for a familiar face. Later, we flew in a plane over an aerodrome and I felt his jolt of joy as if it were my own when, far below, he saw his mother.

That Tien Pao was a boy and I a girl, that his parents were married and mine divorced, that his skin was one hue and mine another—none of this impinged on the thrilling immediacy of Meindert DeJong’s “The House of Sixty Fathers,” illustrated by the young Maurice Sendak.

The teacher who gave me that book widened my horizons and enriched my life. Would she still do so today? I fear not. Schools and the world of children’s literature have been seized by the notion that the most important thing about a book is whether children can “see themselves” in it. This is understood in a narrow and reductive way: The race, ethnicity and sexual orientation of the young reader must be matched by those of the characters they meet in books.

What began as a laudable idea—that children’s literature should embrace a variety of stories and all manner of characters—has morphed into monomania. Identity is all. Professional journals that catalog and review new children’s titles now make a fetish of highlighting the pallor or pigmentation of fictional characters.

Publisher’s Weekly, for instance, in its review of “Faraway Things,” a forthcoming picture book by Dave Eggers and illustrated by Kelly Murphy, finds it necessary to report a young character is “pale-skinned” and an older one is “brown-skinned.” A reviewer for Kirkus notes: “The captain has dark skin; Lucian and the others have light skin.”

Researchers from Columbia and the University of Chicago have brought race-labeling to a new level by enlisting machines to sort literary characters by color. Led by Anjali Adukia, an assistant professor at Chicago University’s Harris School of Public Policy, the team used artificial intelligence to sift through the past century of prize-winning children’s books to identify characters by sex, age and color. Released April 12, their study, “What We Teach About Race and Gender: Representation in Images and Text of Children’s Books,” brings an antebellum ethic of race consciousness to American children’s literature.

The research team examined two sets of novels and picture books: “mainstream” ones, which won the American Library Association’s Newbery and Caldecott medals, and “diversity” ones, which have won ALA distinction because they satisfy criteria related to race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or physical ability.

The researchers taught the computer to detect faces in illustrations, classify skin colors and predict characters’ race, sex and age. The machine also combed through 1,133 prize-winning texts for gendered language, mentions of color and references to age. Books in the “diversity” group were found, over time, to depict more characters with darker skin, while “mainstream” books showed characters with either lighter or “chromatically ambiguous” features. There is, the study reports, “a persistent disproportionate representation of males, particularly White males, and lighter-skinned people relative to darker-skinned people.” The study includes charts and graphs depicting gradations of human skin color that would make John C. Calhoun proud.

The AI findings are both dispassionate and shockingly retrograde.

. . . .

And what of characters that can’t be classified as either light or dark? They are a product of a practice the study authors disdainfully call “butterscotching,” which “some may argue sends an assimilationist message regarding the representation of race.” Others may argue it’s an invitation to universality. A good book doesn’t cut readers off. It invites them in, and it doesn’t care what they look like.

“The House of Sixty Fathers” won a Newbery honor in 1957, which means my old friend Tien Pao is somewhere in the team’s “mainstream” color charts. To me he was a living boy, but in the study he’s been flattened and denatured and reduced to a few demographic data points. It’s ghastly.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

From The Apartheid Museum:

From 1950 South Africans were classified on the basis of their ‘race’.

People were classified into one of four groups: ‘native’, ‘coloured’, ‘Asian’ or ‘white’.

By 1966, 11 million people had been classified under the Population Registration Act of 1950.

. . . .

Race Classification

Racial classification was the foundation of all apartheid laws. It placed individuals in one of four groups: ‘native’, ‘coloured’, ‘Asian’ or ‘white’.

In order to illustrate everyday reality under apartheid, visitors to the museum are arbitrarily classified as either white or non-white. Once classified, visitors are permitted entry to the museum only through the gate allocated to their race group. Identity documents were the main tool used to implement this racial divide, and many of these documents are on display in this exhibit.

Link to the rest at The Apartheid Museum

From Segregation in Action:

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Link to the rest at Resources, The Apartheid Museum

PG is aware of the dangers of a slippery-slope argument.

However, slippery-slopes arguments gain their credibility because slippery slopes have existed on many more than one occasion in the past. They are not imaginary creations, but rather descriptions of what is possible, some would say probable, given human nature operating in a wide variety of different circumstances in many parts of the world.

PG suggests that no culture or nation is immune to the potential dangers of slippery slopes.

1 thought on “Jack and the Bean Counters: A Woke Children’s Story”

  1. Fantastic article. Thanks for sharing.

    The color-mindedness of American society today saddens and worries me. In the mental health sphere, a diagnosis or label can be seen as a liberating experience. “Finally!,” we might say. “We have a name to what troubles us!” In that regard, a label is a powerful tool. Suddenly, a wealth of resources can be found to help us overcome our difficulty. However, as a blogger in that sphere for sixteen years, I have seen more and more people limit themselves by their label. At the worst extreme, it is used as an excuse for failure or as an end in and of itself. As if simply knowing I have ADHD or major depression disorder makes my world a better place. No coping strategies or hard work required. Now “neurodivergent” is the label of choice, but I have watched those on social media use it to segregate and, more specifically, elevate themselves from others, especially the neurotypical, which is to say, the normies, the mundanes, the muggles. A label is empowering only if it expands your world and understanding. Otherwise, it becomes an agent to separate us and keep others down.

    Reply

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