Kakie Fitzsimmons is an award winning author and blogger. She is also co-creator of the award winning Bur Bur
and Friends children’s book series. Bur Bur and Friends uses a cast of characters who help kids plant seeds of self-esteem by teaching them about sports, outdoor exploration and active play. The characters are multicultural and based of real life children, including her own. She was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she currently lives with her son.
Briefly describe the impact racism had on you as a young person.
Someone I knew as a young child was incredibly racist against African Americans and made it no secret. I recall a time when I was about 8 or 9 and visiting this individual. We were watching a game show and a contestant, who was black, made a guess at a price of something. He shouted loudly with disdain; “Stupid N-word!” I was confused and mortified to hear such hate come from this person’s mouth. This was someone who was supposed to be a role model for me. When I asked adults about his use of the N-word and the hate that came along with it, the topic was swept under the rug.
I grew up in a new suburb that was predominantly white. I didn’t seem to notice the absence of different races in any of my schools until I was in junior high. I recall being at a school concert in 7th grade and someone told me one of the students had a parent who was black. I knew that student had brown skin, but in my own naïveté it had never occurred to me that having two parents of different races was even a possibility.
As an adult, when I read the book, “I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children in a Race-Conscious World: A Guide for Parents and Teachers” by Marguerite Wright, I learned that race tends to be discussed at a younger age in black families than white. It helped me understand that back then, much of the white culture I came from didn’t really know how to have the conversation in a way that created a teachable moment for young children. As a result, they ignored it
Has your personal experience of racism impacted your professional work as a writer?
In addition to having a biracial son, I have also done a lot of non-profit advocacy work in the Hispanic community so the answer is yes; racism has impacted my professional work as a writer.
I became a children’s book author along with my friend, JoAnne Pastel because we didn’t see many books out there that showed a group of characters that represented our kids (who are biracial), and their friends. The tagline for our company is “Growing kids through diverse learning experiences,” So I keep that in mind when I write. The word diversity isn’t just about race. It is about social styles, tolerance, learning styles, ways of learning, communication styles and so much more.
When I blog about learning and teaching tolerance as a parent, my hope is that others can get insight from my experience. I share teachable moments for myself and my family.
When I write about teaching my son black history, my intent is sometimes misunderstood. Others assume I am doing it because he is African American. I am writing not just because it is his black history, but because it is OUR history as Americans. In primary school, we weren’t taught much about black history other than Abraham Lincoln set the slaves free and through watching movies like “Miss Jane Pitman and “Roots.” I don’t think there was much documented history for academics at the time.
My writing on this topic as a parent are observations that have personally affected me. I am cognizant of racism and prejudice because I have experienced it blatantly and subtly. I couldn’t ignore the time my son saw a movie during black history month and something became real for him. That was the time he turned to me and said; “Why are they doing that? “ Followed by another question; “Am I black?” despite the fact that we had discussed it in the past. It caused me to write a blog post called: Discussing Tolerance and Differences in Biracial Families
I have to share when a child says they are fearful of getting shot because they are black, or that they feel weird because they are the only brown person on a team. I have friends of multicultural children who took their kids to the park and assumptions were made that they were nannies for their own children. Experiences like this are real and although they may catch us off guard, the important part is that we create teachable moments and a forum to have the conversation.
In what way can literature be used to combat the effects of racism and promote tolerance?
The word racism isn’t pretty. It has all kinds of negative connotations behind it and I believe it is misunderstood. We need to find a way to help others understand the differences between racism, prejudice and discrimination because sometimes they get all looped into one definition and it is more than that.
I think literature is one method that can be used to create understanding of the past and how it brought us to where we are today. We need people to share real examples in academic, fiction and non-fiction literature so it becomes real. We have to use literature to ask questions that challenge and expand critical thinking. We can use it to facilitate conversation about people who have experienced racism in the past and those who still deal with it in the present.
The truth is there are people who are afraid to share their experiences of racism for different reasons. Perhaps they don’t want to draw attention to themselves. They may be concerned they will be labeled as someone who “just makes excuses and blames everyone else,” or “can’t let go of racial issues from the past.” They could be labeled by others in their own race or not.
We hear people talk about how far we have come in the area of racism, but we can’t ignore there is more progress needed. We need to discuss ignorance and racial undertones that exist. We need more people of all races, religions, cultures to step forward and share their experiences, good and bad. Literature is one tool that can facilitate discussions.
Racism isn’t something that can be resolved by one person. But it does help one person at a time. So the question is how do we take literature and move away from the negativity of everything without minimizing how it has impacted us. So the discussion about racism needs to include conversations around honoring and embracing cultural diversity and acceptance.
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