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Mitali Perkins: "My mother never showed her legs in public."

The only way we will begin to get past the elephant-in-the-room issue about RACE, in the classroom, is to read Mitali Perkins’s, Straight Talk on Race: Challenging the Stereotypes in Kids’ Books
School Library Journal Magazine (April 2009) Illustration by Gene Luen Yang.
Mitali Perkins’s article is the featured, cover story on School Library Young Adult Children's Author - Mitali Perkins (photo Erin Balser)Journal magazine. Go, Mitali! It’s OH-SO-BOLD!

Mitali takes the issue of  RACE and rips it right out of her own closet! She also addresses the need to  "…spur the children’s book community to be more thoughtful and proactive about how and why we write, read, and talk about race."

"Our kitchen smelled of mustard-seed oil, turmeric, and cardamom. Bikinis? No way. A one-piece bathing suit felt too revealing (and still does). My mother never showed her legs in public, even when she eventually shelved her sarees in favor of jeans and long skirts. Dating? Fuhgeddaboudit. My parents’ marriage was arranged, and the clan expected the same for me."

Mitali also wrote a blog post, You’re A Bit Too Oversensitive, where she poses the questions, "So let me ask you — how young is too young to ask questions about racism while reading a story with kids? Have you ever done it? If so, when, why, and how?"

I do hope you will read the entire article [and comments], and also visit Mitali’s blog. 

As for myself, a mother of two biracial children, I too, grapple with this issue. What do you say to other children when they say, "That’s your son? He looks so white?" Huh?
My son, John Anthony and me
“In the black community, those who have more European features are put on pedestals,” says Davis. “People with straighter hair or lighter skin are often considered beautiful, while those with more African features are considered not beautiful.” It’s true within Asian cultures as well, where skin-bleaching cream is a best-selling beauty product and comments about the “fairness” of skin are flaunted in marriage ads."  (Straight Talk on Race: Challenging the Stereotypes in Kids’ Books by Mitali Perkins)

Well, after attending a diversity conference yesterday, I realize that I have some of the answers and strategies. Tomorrow I will share more from the NYSAIS Diversity Conference.


  1. Melanie Hutchinson says:

    Thanks for this- I good reminder- and I personally think the younger the kids- kindergarten and first grade are so ready. I will look forward to your ideas from the conference.

  2. Amy Bowllan says:

    Thanks, Melanie! This topic is so delicate but LONG overdue. Don’t you think? We touch on it, but do we really address it???

  3. Agy Wilson says:

    Grrr! I posted to the blog itself but it wouldn’t take my comment. Double grrrr!
    Mitali, and Amy thank you so much for starting this discussion! Though my ethnicity isn’t obvious, I grew up thinking that blond was better, Barbie Breasts were better, and my First Nation and French forebears were not nearly as refined as others.
    It is fascinating to me how often we can take something of value and convert it to shame (such as not showing one’s legs in public.) I think so much of this is fear based. Pat McKissack said something to me the EXACT moment I needed to hear it (WHAT A GIFT!)– Different is not wrong. I think the differences have become a way of separating us, which is partially what racial, social identity is about. But so much of identity and cultural are wrapped up in these (sometimes superficial) differences, it becomes harmful, making it easier to lessen those we want to control. The categoriesand compartments we need to keep our world sane, quite simply become stultifying

  4. Mitali Perkins says:

    Thanks for this post, Amy. Can’t wait to read the next one. I am so thankful that people are talking and sharing their thoughts. That was my hope.

  5. Christine T. says:

    Thank you for this. We won’t make much headway until those of us of ethnic persuasion use our considerable purchasing power to force publisher to change their mindset. Kids are forced to digest books put out by gatekeepers who make no effort to expand their horizons beyond their narrow life experience.

    If editors continue to judge the authenticity of character voices and situations through such narrow lenses, we’ll continue to be under-represented. Ethnic authors have been “trained” to write to stereotypes because if they don’t – they can’t get published.

    And if ethnic editors are too scared to acquire because they don’t want to be labeled, then we’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes. There’s an enormous untapped constituency out there who are hungry for something better than what we get. Seems like a marketing opportunity for an astute publisher and an editor with guts to break out of the stale mode publishing is stuck in.

  6. Amy Bowllan says:

    You make great points, Christine! Let’s hope they, the publishers and new thinking writers, are reading your suggestions.