Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Why does it matter?

Have you ever noticed how many people look like you?  Or live in areas like the one you live in?  Or dress as you do?  Or eat the kinds of foods you do?   Why does that matter?  It matters because if you cannot find yourself in books, in social media, in advertisements  or on TV, you are invisible.
This school year, for the first time ever, white children make up less than half of the country's public school enrollment.   You would never know that fact by looking in the media centers or on the websites of the nation's school systems.  Why does it matter?
Several years ago I visited a potential school for my godson.  The school's focus was creating leaders for the future.  In the media center and the hallways we were surrounded by large photos of people who were past leaders and who had made our country great.  I recognized almost all of them and respected their accomplishments.  But as I looked at them, I noticed that every one was a white male of Western European origin.  I, as a white female, did not see myself represented.   Were none of my kind among the leaders who made my country great? My knowledge of history told me this situation was not true.   Did this school only prepare white males for leadership?
My godson is African American.  I saw no dark-skinned people among those folk who made my country great.  How could that be?  More importantly what would be the message my godson would have looking at those photos?  Would he conclude that African Americans had made no contributions to the greatness of our society. Clearly not true.  More significantly would he decide that his role going into the future could never be that of a leader because his people did not lead?
Why does it matter that the bookshelves of our school media centers only feature stories about white kids?  Why does it matter that of the 3,200 books examined by the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, only 253 were by or about African Americans, Asians, Latinos or Native Americans.  It matters because if all of our people are not represented in our media than none of our people is represented.  From many people, our country has made one people.  We are really the only country to have even approached doing that successfully.
We are in a vicious cycle.  Publishers say books by or about ethnic characters do not sell, so they do not publish them.  If these books are not published, people cannot buy them.
This is not an ethnic minority problem.  This is an American problem.   If we are to thrive in an increasingly non-white country and world, we need the skills and talents of all of our people.  Seeing ourselves in the media reminds us of what we can be.  It helps define who we are.  Seeing people who do not look like us in the media and in leadership and/or hero roles increases our understanding of other people. We are reminded that we all have a role to play in the future of our society. Leaders come from all ethnic groups if we let them.  Just as a healthy diet for our bodies embraces all food groups so a healthy diet for our society must include all ethnic groups to feed our future.

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