Writer/Educator, Laura Atkins, shares her racism experiences.
Briefly describe the impact racism had on you as a young person.
I was very aware of race/racism from a fairly young age, as my dad (especially) talked about it, having participated in the freedom bus rides to the South in the ’60s, and working as a lawyer representing victims of discrimination. My own memory was that I wasn’t aware of race personally until, I guess, the sixth grade. Before then, everyone seemed to be friends with everyone else.
I realized in high school that we ended up in totally different crowds, and it seemed to break down by race and perhaps also by class. During my freshman year at Berkeley High (a school of around 3,000 people, and the only public high school in Berkeley), I experienced fear around groups of black girls. I probably looked like a wimpy and insecure freshman, and I would sometimes get pushed aside, along with comments like, "Get out of my way, white bitch." That made me aware of race in a negative way.
I didn’t experience this so much after freshman year, probably because I became more confident. Berkeley High was fascinating in terms of race issues, and we had one year where the students ended up having kind of race conversations/interventions in the courtyard. I really appreciated that, but was aware that we all remained, more or less, self-segregated. Ultimately, it was an incredibly valuable experience to attend such a diverse school, and although I had negative experiences, it made me aware of people from different experiences and perspectives, and opened my mind in lots of ways.
Has your personal experience of racism impacted your professional work as a writer/educator?
I’m sure it has. Being raised by my family with their politics and values has driven me to be more aware of these issue, and to want to contribute in some sort of way. That probably pushed me to move beyond the initial negative experiences in high school, and made me prioritize working with diverse authors/illustrators to try to develop/edit "multicultural" children’s books. And now as an educator, it all pushes me to try to work on areas such as children’s publishing and diversity, to consider which voices and experiences are being excluded or diluted. I am aware as a teacher of trying to make classes as inclusive as possible, but am not sure how effective I am. I value working at a university that attracts a diverse range of students, in terms of both race and class. That said, a lot of what I do isn’t directly driven by considerations of racism, and I’m sure there are times when I could integrate that more into my thinking/approach.
In what way can literature be used to combat the effects of racism and promote tolerance?
People talk about books acting as both a mirror and window (thanks mainly to Rudine Sims Bishop), playing an important roll in reflecting a child’s experience and also allowing access to different/other experiences. And I think that’s key. When we read books we inhabit their world, experience the thoughts and emotions of their characters. That kind of empathy is crucial, I think, in allowing all readers to experience difference while also recognizing the familiar. Children need to read all sorts of stories, reflecting different cultures, experiences, perspectives, in order to open up their view of the world, and of themselves within the world. I know these are platitudes, but as an avid reader myself, I know how being sucked into a book can open me up and carry me away. I am sure this has helped me to be more open-minded, and to appreciate learning more about people whose lives are different from my own.
Laura Atkins worked for seven years in the children’s publishing industry in the United States, mainly developing multicultural picture books. Books on which she worked have won a variety of honors, including the Coretta Scott King Award and a Bank Street Book of the Year Award. She is currently a Lecturer at Roehampton University in London at the National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature NCRCL), and a freelance Children’s Literature Specialist. Her publications include “A Publisher’s Dilemma: The Place of the Child in the Publication of Children’s Books” in New Voices in Children’s Literature Criticism (2004) and “Editorial Reflections: Cultural Expression and the Children’s Publication Process in the USA,” in Expectations and Experiences: Children, Childhood and Children’s Literature (2007).
"If we don’t keep talking about racism, we will never get rid of racism." -Amy Bowllan