The danger of Racial Stereotyping (essay)

Tugba Öztemir (24) studeert Engelse Taalkunde en Sociologie aan de Universiteit aan Amsterdam. Met haar essay The Danger of Racial Stereotyping [in children’s books] behoort zij tot de geëngageerde generatie studenten die zich hard maakt tegen institutioneel racisme in Nederland. Haar essay over raciale stereotyperingen in kinderboeken wordt daarom integraal aangeboden op het Spinzi platform voor publiekelijke inzage (ongeredigeerd). Niets van deze publicatie mag gekopieerd en/of gebruikt worden zonder te refereren naar de auteur.

Tugba Öztemir (1990)
“Institutioneel racisme is een onderwerp dat nu heel Nederland aan het wakker schudden is en ik wou starten bij het begin, de boeken die wij onze kinderen geven.” Tugba Öztemir (2015)

Essay: The Danger of Racial Stereotyping
Student: Tugba Öztemir
Racism in children’s books
9 June 2015

The Danger of Racial Stereotyping

Children’s books and children’s stories are media that provide information, realizations and role-models to the children who are perceiving and creating the world around themselves. The main characters or role-models provide information for children about who a child can become, what a child can become and who a child looks up to. The information provided should be as non-stereotypical as possible due to further consequences of image building in the mind of these children about other social groups. Unfortunately, racial stereotyping occurs often in children’s books. Racial stereotyping in children’s books has the effect of leaving unconscious wrong perceptions in the mindset of children about racially described social groups. These unconsciously perceived images and stereotypes, acquired through children’s books, about a specific social group can build on the already implemented stereotypical ideas of children and thus create the ‘Otherness’ feeling and nurse segregation. Describing a group in a story, as different from the dominant group is not an issue in a world which maintains to be diverse, however, creating a group to be ‘Other’ with the stereotypical images attached to it, builds further on the idea of this stereotype which also leaves a single story behind for the children. The danger of racial stereotyping is that it creates a single story about a social group and violates the fact that a group could contain more characteristics than the attached stereotypical ones. If children accumulate those singles stories about social groups, this will be their first encounter of a new culture who is shown to them in a biased way. The created single story perpetuates in the minds of the reader, having no room for widening one’s ideas about society and social groups. By exposure at an early age to racial stereotypical concepts or single stories, children learn stereotyped attitudes which remain with them and which stifle the appreciation of pluralism. In addition, while describing racial stereotyping and racism through these children’s books, racism has to be understood in terms of the history of slavery, social constructions, institutions and the everyday life. Therefore, in this essay, an analysis of some Dutch children’s books, containing racism or racial stereotyping, will be provided.

The single stories of racially stereotyped social groups such as the Africans, started in the Western literature.
For instance, John Locke, a white merchant and philosopher, who sailed to West Africa in 1561 kept a fascinating account in which he describes African people that he has observed. The references to the black Africans by Lock are derogatory as he talks about the African people as “beasts who have no houses,” and , “They are also people without heads, having their mouth and eyes in their breasts”(Lock:1689). What a white philosopher has written, with a bright imagination or not, can be open for debate for its creditability. However, the important thing here is that this writing is what represents the beginning of a tradition of telling African stories in the West (Adichie:2009). The moment when stories like the aforementioned are repeated and retold, a tone is set for the Western imagination about Africans. An element incorporated into this story telling mechanism is that of ‘Othering’ the group from the dominant group. In philosophy there is a tradition in which Othering social groups is scrutinized. This phenomenon of Othering people derives from Edward Said(1978) Said(1978) explains how the Orient (Africa and the Middle East) is seen and described through the eyes of the West as inferior, barbaric, sensual, spiritual etc, and how the descriptions of the West are accepted as the only truth. The eyes of the West(Occident) on the Orient are accepted as the only truth. The Occident has the power of telling someone else’s story and unfortunately making this story the definitive story. If one iterates one story about a group, over and over again, then this single story is gaining ground. According to Adichie(2009), the single story telling is interwoven with power relations. In this paper the power of the Occident of having a great say about the Orient will be interwoven with the racial issues as a single story that occur in the Dutch society. Adichie(2009) explains the single story as following:

That is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become, it is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story to become the only story (Adichie:2009).

Single stories in children’s books: My daddy lives in Africa and My daddy isn’t afraid of anyone
Recent children’s books in the Netherlands still contain racial stereotyping. For instance, Van Druten (2010) writes in
My daddy lives in Africa about a little biracial boy who is going emigrate together with his white mother to Nigeria and see his father again. The story commences with the boy telling about Nigeria and his dad. The following words are used: “My daddy lives in Africa, he rides camels and zebras.” One might say, well zebras and camels do occur in Africa so it is obvious that people will encounter them and might ride on them. However, the portrayal of a black African father with the animals he presumably rides is an example of racial stereotyping, the animals have connotations for the black people who presumably still live outside and still ride on those animals in order to survive. The book by van Druten is written in 2010 which makes it hard to believe that fathers in Nigeria still ride, if they ever did, zebras and camels. In addition to this portrayal there is an element which is not mentioned. The profession of the father or any other item of the father is no where described in the book. The father lives in Africa, and he rides camels and zebras and his son will soon visit him. Those are the elements described for children, which makes this book a biased single story: the story of an African father who is represented by the “exotic” animals. The Nigerian, year 2010, fathers with professions such as doctor, teacher, officer, are not considered to be important or appropriate when describing black African people. It seems that riding animals is more important to illustrate and describe when talking about black people. Adichie(2009) experienced a similar bias when she was describing African people, and she elaborates on this in her TedTalk:

I had a professor, who once told me that my novel was not “authentically African.” Now, I was quite willing to contend that there were a number of things wrong with the novel, that it had failed in a number of places, but I had not quite imagined that it had failed at achieving something called African authenticity. In fact, I did not know what African authenticity was. The professor told me that my characters were too much like him, an educated and middle-class man. My characters drove cars. They were not starving. Therefore they were not authentically African (Adichie:2009).

In her TedTalk, Adichie encounters how her professor has a single story about African people and therefore could not accept the other truths about African people. This example illustrates how harmful biased information in books or in literature can form and transform people’s knowledge. A second example of racial stereotyping and declaring single stories occurs in My daddy isn’t afraid of anyone by Schami(2003). The intention of the writer was based on good manners, like any other children’s book author, however, the information that can be gained from the readings and illustrations are unfortunately amplifying the African stereotype. The main character in this book is a little girl who does not understand why her father is so afraid of black people. Her farther provides his explanation to his daughter as follows:

Why do you think they are dreary? Because there are so many of them, they are everywhere and they are dirty and noisy. They speak languages that we do not understand. They look different. And blacks are by the way to dark. Everyone is scared in the dark. (Schami:2003)

These sentences are read for or by children and they will most likely remember this. The intention of the book is to prove otherwise, that black people are not scary, however this is never explained or said in the book, the book has an open ending and is hard to interpret for children what the eventual plot is. Later on, the book continues with describing black families as a birthday party takes place. During this birthday party, an African family living in Europe and celebrating their daughter’s birthday are illustrated with half torn off clothes and long arrows that are used for catching game. This illustrations intensifies the barbaric, unrealistic, stereotypical appearances of black people and their manners and presumed customs. The long pointy arrows, as illustrated in figure 3, are most likely not to occur in a household of African people. This illustration also intensifies the homogeneity in African groups as Godreau(2008) mentions in his study about stereotyping: “When depicted in groups, Africans appear submissive, bound in shackles or crowded together on a ship during the Middle passage, or in “banal celebration” dancing, singing, jumping, playing banjoes, while simultaneously ignoring heterogeneity within the Black population” (Godreau et al 2008).

tugba figure 1
Figure 1
tugba figure 2
Figure 2
tugba figure 3
Figure 3

In addition, the consequences of single stories will be provided. Single stories nurse the idea that the once perceived images about black people are the only truth. Those ideas can maintain and linger in the mind and affect the social cognition. A study by Evan&Tyler(1984) makes a contribution to the consequences of racial stereotyping. In this study a priming effect was measured by the leading terms “Black” and “White”. The researchers conducted their study in order to find if the racially biased labels that are attached to social groups had an effect on the social cognition of people and also an effect on their unconscious biased thinking. The data proved, as predicted, that stereotypical labels and imagery of social groups did form the ideas of people. The categorization of blacks often happened with negative labels compared to the categorization of whites. Evan&Tyler(1984) deliver a summary of their study:

As predicted, primes of black and white most facilitated response to traits stereotypically attributed to these social groups. Thus, there appear to be important similarities between the information processing of object categories and the representation and use of stereotypes in social categorization. In addition, responses to the positive and negative evaluative words suggest that positive traits are more strongly associated with whites than with blacks, and negative characteristics are more strongly associated with blacks than with whites.”(Evan&Tyler:1984)

Racial stereotyping plays are role in forming and creating social cognition. When one encounters from the early ages of one’s life the first ideas and imagery about other social groups, these will most like still linger around in the mind. The continuation of the stereotypical labelling of social groups during one’s life course, can only intensify the already biased stories. It seems that racial stereotyping has a great influence on social cognition. In order to clarify this, another consequence, cognitive dissonance, will be analyzed. In psychology, cognitive dissonance is of paramount importance due to the fact that is refers to the human state and its confusion about that particular state. This state of confusion and unease is created by gaining new, contradictory information about a certain idea or subject. The mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs or ideas, at the same time is called cognitive dissonance. Also, being confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs or ideas can result in cognitive dissonance. Leon Festinger‘s(1962) theory of cognitive dissonance draws the focus on how humans strive for internal consistency. “An individual who experiences inconsistency (dissonance) tends to become psychologically uncomfortable, and is motivated to try to reduce this dissonance—as well as actively avoid situations and information likely to increase it” (Festinger:1962). The reason why this cognitive dissonance is important in the debate of racial stereotyping is that the wrongly gained information about a social group during the course one’s life can clatter into the newly gained information about the same group. Cognitive dissonance can force one to avoid the uncomfortable surrounding, when his early beliefs are being disproved. One can prefer to have a blinkered view instead of accumulating the new information. The awareness of this psychological term should be taken seriously in order to eliminate the resistance of people who experience cognitive dissonance. McFalls(2001) has created a special manner of instructing new teachers on the danger of social group bias. She claims that teachers should be more aware of prejudice, bias and cognitive dissonance when teaching in class. Her research recommends the following:

Before admission to the college of education, students at a large, predominantly White public university in the Southeast are required to complete a state-mandated course on diversity issues. The purpose of this course is to introduce students to diversity and effective ways of addressing it in future classrooms as a result of changing demographics. Often, students experience resistance to diversity issues because their current understandings or beliefs may not coincide with the information presented in class. One psychological theory that can address this phenomenon is called cognitive dissonance. In the study reported here, the principles of cognitive dissonance theory are applied to an instructional strategy used to reduce resistance. The results indicate that incorporating cognitive dissonance theory into instruction on diversity creates an awareness of dissonance (i.e., metadissonance) and has the potential for reducing resistance to diversity issues (McFalls:2001).

The awareness created by this research aids people in widening up their horizon on diversity and racial issues and nurse appreciated for pluralism. Moreover, when one sets its eyes on the various consequences of racial stereotyping in children’s books, one would understand the importance of opposing the single stories about race and ethnicity that harm the world view of children who start building up their imagery world.

Skin Colour in Children’s books
Het Grote Voorleesboek voor rond de vijf jaar (The Big Book for children around the age of five)
, published in 2014, contains a story about Black Pete and his skin colour. In this little story, a girl named Knofje is waiting for Black Pete to show up because she wants to meet him. However, she becomes tired while waiting and falls asleep. During her sleep she thinks about Black Pete and his skin colour and how he presumably, achieved a skin colour like that. The following is said to children:

Natuurlijk komt hij door de schoorsteen. Daarom is hij zo zwart als roet. Echte bruine mensen zijn niet zo zwart. Die hebben een veel mooiere kleur. (Bos:2014)

He enters through the chimney of course. That is why he is so soot black. Real brown people aren’t that black. Those brown people have a more beautiful skin colour. (Bos:2014)

In this passage, the children are told that brown people (black people) have a more beautiful colour than Black Pete because Black Pete is carbon black. Notwithstanding the intension of the writer, these sentences prescribe that a certain brown colour is more beautiful than the colour black. Assuming that all black people around the world have the same tone of blackness. These sentences, claiming brown to be beautiful and black not, are harmful for children to accumulate social values. This skin colour descriptions in children’s stories bear heavy consequences for the ideas that children create about race and social groups. The question about why writers are not aware of racial issues when talking about skin colours in children books is questions that remains among social scientist.

In order to clarify the reasons why awareness is still not achieved on the issue of race, this essay will make use of the historical background of the Netherlands. Dutch social forgetting plays a great role in the socially constructed ideas about race and racism. Social forgetting is the ignorant attitude of today’s society in historical subjects which reaches back into present social problems. For instance, the ignorant attitude about social stereotyping, are often not taken seriously. The harms of racial stereotyping are not taken into consideration based on the little background knowledge people carry around about the race history and slavery history in the Netherlands. When depicting a social problem such as racism, background information on its existence and its history should be taken into account. Weiner(2014) was worried about the social forgetting of slavery and conducted research in its roots. She explains that the lack of slavery history in Dutch history books aids children and people in their disremember about slavery and the issues of race in the Netherlands. Her study provides the following reason for racial issues and racial stereotyping in the Netherlands:

A Eurocentric master narrative of racial Europeanization perpetuates Dutch social forgetting of slavery and scientific colonialism to both essentialize Afro-Dutch and position their nation squarely within Europe’s history of enslavement even while attempting to minimize their role within it. Findings have important implications for both The Netherlands and all nations with histories of enslavement as the discourses and histories presented in textbooks impact generations of students, who shape local and national policy regarding racial minorities, racial identities, and ideologies. In The Netherlands, this is accomplished through social forgetting, the distortion, marginalization or trivialization of slavery and its importance to the growth of the empire (Weiner:2014).

Muzzling the role of slavery that gained ground in the so called ‘Golden Century’ of the Netherlands and their Atlantic slave trade that built Europe itself, is trivializing the whole slave trade and race construction in that time. The history made ways into new societies that are build on the bases that were created long ago. Therefore, it is crucial to teach children the painful and crucial happenings of their history, which will invite them to form their own stories. The moment the slave trade is being trivialized, the concerns of black people about racial stereotyping and racism is hard to understand in a serious manner. Not only children’s books can start challenging this cognitive dissonance, also textbooks at schools can start with incorporating necessary information for children to build further on their social cognition and social life. The racist discourse should face an alternation in which the voices of the already marginalized social groups should be heard. Studies into Dutch textbooks have found an alarming amount of books where the slave trade history and its consequences are rarely or not mentioned. Foster(1999) explains the following about the changing course in providing slave history:

Until the 1960s, textbooks featured overtly racist discourse and depictions of Africans and whites represented as the paragon of racial progress which naturalized treatment of enslaved Blacks (and Native Americans), explicitly justified and condoned slavery, and heralded whites’ abolition of slavery as an example of their moral superiority without questioning why it took so long and ameliorates complicity with centuries of enslavement (Foster 1999).

Awareness has to be created among societies about the effects of social forgetting and societies should be able to accumulate new information on the racial issues in order to overcome the racist debate of making one another guilty. Throughout the years, the insufficient voices of the oppressed in the Netherlands was silenced an could therefore not overcome hegemony of a Eurocentric discourse that excludes race and racism from discussions of nationhood and citizenship. However, recently these voices are more listened too in the public debate and thus they are also gaining more ground. While the Dutch have recently begun to address their history of enslavement, they have been less willing to address the ways in which the discursive legacies of slavery continues to impact the lives of Afro-Dutch descendants of enslaved Africans and white Dutch in The Netherlands today. Moreover, it seems that a Eurocentric master narrative which is reflective of racial neo-liberalism, within the unique context of the Dutch history, creates social forgetting of slavery and scientific colonialism among inhabitants of the Netherlands. Racial neo-liberalism is a term coined by Goldberg(2009) a term in which he describes “a structural shift in racial governance which has become more apparent with the advancement of neo-liberalism, whereby the terms of race are increasingly ‘evaporated’ under the venture of anti-racialism as a replacement of anti-racism, while the institutionalization of racial governance is ever more entrenched and legitimated.” Goldberg(2009) explains that racial neo-liberalism has a duality of fighting racism and constructing institutionalized racism at the same time. This term, will have a leading hand throughout the analyses of the children’s books and their image building. Moreover, Weiner(2014) talks about the failures in history books that ought to provide children with crucial information about the history slavery, so that the impact of it on Afro-Dutch descendants can be understood in modern society of the Netherlands without belittling the problem. Weiner summons the following conclusion:

That which exists finds textbooks largely reflecting Eurocentric epistemologies in highlighting national colonialist projects while failing to address the impact of enslavement on the millions of lives of Africans stolen from their homes and enslaved for generations (cf. Cole 2004 for the U.K. and Araújo & Maeso 2012 for Portugal). Textbooks of other nations, including France, Denmark, Germany, The Netherlands, either depict slavery as primarily an American phenomena or remain silent on the subject (Broeck 2003; Deveau 2001; Small 2011). This omission is symptomatic of racial Europeanization (Goldberg 2009) and silences slavery’s role in establishing European social, political, and economic hegemony over the last half millennium (Grosfoguel 2011; Wallerstein 1984, 1973).

Due to silencing the role of the Netherlands in the slave trade, the inequalities established and experienced back then between the races has carried on in the inequalities, stereotyping and racism of today. For one to understand racism and racial stereotyping, a context bound research is obligatory. One has to know that the Netherlands played a prominent role in the history of global enslavement. However, the Dutch remain “ambivalent about their role in their complicity with the kidnapping, enslaving and exploitation of Africans” (Nimako & Small 2012; Nimako & Willemsen 2011; Oostindie 2009; van Stipriaan 2006) and there is little to no recognition today of the connection between slavery and continued inequalities experienced in every social institution and realm by Afro-Dutch in The Netherlands.

The factor of understanding the harms of racial stereotyping and inferiority have to be understood in their historical context. One cannot reduce racial stereotyping or racism to the point of only having some prejudices. However, racism is broader and its history dives deeper into social knowledge than one can assume. Racism has to be understood in the terms of the slavery history, the social constructions, institutions, such as school, and the everyday life such as children’s books. Given the long-documented role of education in shaping children’s conceptions of their nation, realities, and identities, the textbooks studied by Weiner(2014) reveal the racial neo-liberal foundation that children in The Netherlands today encountered and the one in which the current generation of Dutch children will be embedded. In the research of Weiner(2014) the alarming knowledge and the urge to change the discourse is clarified as follows:

Depriving students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds of accurate knowledge about racism, racial oppression, or contemporary consequences of slavery these textbooks and children’s books will have real consequences for all aspects of Dutch society. They likely constrain the ability of white Dutch people to recognize or address present-day institutional racism in Dutch society that contributes to persistent social, economic, and political exclusion for not only descendants of enslaved Africans in the Dutch colonies, but also contemporary immigrants from African nations (Weiner:2014).

Generally, when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place or social group, we regain a kind of atmosphere where we can open up debates and talks about the lingering pain in Afro-Dutch people that are caused by the slave trade, we can upon up our eyes to understand institutionalized racism and have a fair and honest debate instead of waving these people in the corners of ‘victimization’. A unilateral and stereotypical knowledge is toxic for the production of further knowledge that we provide to children and their world view. Children books, stories and textbooks should be used to empower and to humanize, not to stereotype or create the Other. New stories can repair broken dignities. We should consider that it will be a challenge for our children to break out of a stereotyped world view, however, the challenge is worth the effort.

Tugba Öztemir


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