Reading & Literacy

White Characters Still Dominate Kids’ Books and School Texts, Report Finds

By Sarah Schwartz — December 01, 2021 6 min read
Teacher reading book to diverse group of children in the classroom
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Educational materials don’t reflect the diversity of the nation’s schoolchildren, a new report finds—and many works that do feature characters of color reinforce stereotypes.

The research review, published by New America, a left-of-center think tank, analyzed more than 160 studies and published works on representation in children’s books, textbooks, and other media dating from the mid-20th century through the present. The report draws on quantitative and qualitative studies, dissertations, institutional reports, and books.

“Over time, what the research shows is that we’ve made progress as far as having more gender-balanced representation, though ... that gender representation tends to be from a binary perspective,” said Amanda LaTasha Armstrong, a research fellow in New America’s Education Policy Program, and the author of the report. “We’re also having more representation from communities of different racial and ethnic groups, but there’s still a very clear disparity.”

This review comes at a time when there’s increased national attention on what children are reading in school. Over the last year and a half, conversations about race and gender in assigned readings, library books, and textbooks have loomed large in classrooms and school board meetings across the country.

After the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, the ensuing protests for racial justice prompted some teachers and school systems to rethink the make-up of their classroom libraries and syllabi, including by adding more books by and about Black Americans and people of color. Other schools had already taken on this work of diversifying reading lists in years past.

But in recent months, parents and school board members in some communities have mobilized in attempts to ban books that address race and gender, claiming that these books are divisive or sexually explicit. Titles such as The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel have all faced recent challenges.

A slew of state laws restricting how teachers can discuss racism and sexism in the classroom have also affected schoolbooks. In Tennessee, for instance, the legislature passed a law that prohibits teachers from saying that any individual is inherently racist due to their race, or that individuals are responsible for actions taken by members of their race in the past. In one district there, parents challenged an autobiography of Ruby Bridges on the grounds that it violated the state’s law by teaching that “white people are bad” and “America is unjust.”

But Armstrong said that featuring books that represent a diversity of experiences and backgrounds is about supporting students, and that it’s crucial for creating strong learning environments. The report notes research that has shown that books and stories that represent students’ identities and experiences can foster student engagement in their own learning.

“It’s really about having a fair representation, or authentic representation, of American society, American people,” she said.

White, male characters still dominate children’s media

Over the past decades, children’s media has changed, Armstrong said: More races and ethnicities are represented in children’s books now, and male/female gender representation has moved closer to equal.

Even so, the review found that white characters still dominate children’s media. This holds true within picture books and children’s literature, but also within many school textbooks. Characters of color are underrepresented compared to the demographics of U.S. youth (a little more than half of all schoolchildren in the country are children of color).

Female characters are also underrepresented, though there has been an uptick over time. Still, girls of color may be left out: One cited 2020 study of books that won the Newbery Medal, an award for children’s literature, found that only 20 percent of Black characters and 25 percent of Asian American characters were female.

There is less research on transgender representation in books, though the report cites one study on books with LGBTQ themes that found 14 percent of primary characters and 21 percent of secondary characters were transgender.

It’s hard to know how these disparities translate to U.S. classrooms—are the racial and gender breakdowns in children’s media as a whole reflected in curricula and classroom libraries?

A separate study suggests that classroom libraries, at least, have become more diverse over the past year.

A forthcoming paper in Management Science from researchers at Carnegie Mellon University looked at requests for classroom books on the crowdfunding site DonorsChoose.org in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s death. The study found a sharp uptick in requests for books by and about Black Americans, but also in requests for books about Latinos, Asians, Muslims, and Jews.

More than 90 percent of these projects were fully funded, translating to $3.4 million spent on books that reached more than a half-million students.

Some books present multifaceted portrayals of characters of color; others, stereotypes

When people of color and women are present in children’s media, how they’re portrayed varies widely, the New America report finds.

History textbooks don’t often cover Black Americans’ resistance to race-based oppression, outside of the context of the Civil Rights movement. Textbooks also portray attacks on Black people “as if they are isolated events.” In descriptions of the colonial period, Native Americans are often shown as racially inferior to white colonists. Other racial groups are mostly missing from U.S. history textbooks—one study found that Latinos are generally only referenced in relation to immigration and labor movements, for example.

Children’s books show a different picture. Surveys looking at these books have found many examples of multifaceted, positive, and affirming depictions of people of color: books about family and community life, books that accurately portray lesser-known historical events, books that feature characters with a variety of experiences and perspectives.

Some of these trends are the result of relatively recent changes; for example, a 2018 study found that fewer books depict Asian Americans as “foreigners” than in years past. Other studies found that books about characters who shared the same racial or ethnic identity as the author—often called “own voices” stories—presented more positive portrayals.

But books with stereotypes still abound. In stories about Native Americans, Native peoples are often described as aggressive, and traditions from different tribal groups are often mixed together. Some books about Asian Americans uphold the “model minority” stereotype. Stories about Native Hawaiians often exoticize their culture.

Portrayals are also often one-dimensional. A 2018 study from researchers at Bates College in Maine found that races and ethnicities were slotted into different themes in children’s books. For example, most books about experiences of oppression featured Black characters. And while a lot of books about culture and heritage featured Latino characters, there weren’t as many biographies about Latino figures.

Diversity within racial and ethnic groups also isn’t always explored. For example, Armstrong said, most Asian Americans in children’s books are East Asian, without much representation of South or Southeast Asians. That portrayal can frame readers’ perception of who counts as “Asian American,” and who doesn’t, Armstrong said.

“We still need to do a lot of work in terms of having more diverse representation, and in seeing how different communities are represented in the American story,” she said.

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