Briefly describe the impact racism had on you as a young person.
I have a strong mother, a woman with a strong faith and personality. When I was seven she taught me to defend myself… by threatening to beat the crap out of me if I ever came home in tears again (bullying). Her argument was, “I can’t always be there. Learn to defend yourself.”
That clashed with the “present the other cheek” lesson learned in Sunday school. License to protect myself was all I needed to hear.
Racism. When you are a girl, or a woman, it’s hard not to also include gender discrimination, difficult not to avoid dealing with the implications behind the label “weaker sex.”
How did racism impact me? My neighbor, 14, grabbed me by the neck and threw me against the wall, whispering things that I won’t write here. I punched and bit. I was 10.
When I moved to France, classmates innocently asked if I wore skirts made of straw in Cameroon and if I walked around half-naked like they had seen on T.V. And other questions of the same caliber.
In an area known for its far-right movement in France, a White kid, in a swimming pool, stared at me for a few seconds like he’d just seen an E.T. and called me “Niger.” Then he fled.
Has your personal experience of racism impacted your professional work as a writer?
Definitely. In the case of the boy at the pool, I’m convinced until this day that he repeated something he’d heard adults say, maybe his parents. The questions my classmates asked were genuine. They didn’t know better. Otherwise, I never encountered problems with kids regarding racism. Like the saying goes, “children don’t see race.” I believe that.
My mother exposed us at an early age to all types of cultures. She worked as a flight attendant. Every time she would go to a foreign country, she would bring us back children’s books. My siblings and I grew up reading folktales and modern stories not only from our continent, but also from Russia and China, just to quote a few. That exposure broadened my world as a kid, exposed me to various ways of thinking and made me feel comfortable when I met people from other cultures. I’m also convinced that it taught me respect and prevented me from developing a racist behavior or philosophy.
In Africa, children are raised and taught to look after the youngest. Storytelling is one way to do so, and is at the core of our cultures. Stories and books showed me a world of possibilities. Strong characters, characters who went up against their life’s circumstances, who refused to give up, to sell off their pride and sense of identity, inspired me. When I was a teen I started volunteering with children in crisis, and today I’m still involved with associations helping abused kids both in the USA and abroad.
In my work with children, as a nanny, an intern or a volunteer for the non-profit organization I support, I started using stories as a way to empower children, expand their horizons and promote understanding across cultures.
In what way can literature be used to combat the effects of racism and promote tolerance?
I believe that children’s book writers such as Mitali Perkins and many others showcase how literature can be used to promote tolerance. Her latest book Bamboo People and the work of writers promoting cultural diversity in their work are often the voice of kids whose existence needs to be acknowledged, and whose lives could and would be so inspiring and enriching to others, adults included.
That is one of the reasons why multicultural books are so important: they create a bridge; they offer a platform for reflection, discussion and resolution, while entertaining, in most cases. I’m convinced that cultural diversity in children’s books is one of the most efficient preventive actions against racism, with effect long lasting effects in the household, the school, and the streets…
I was empowered by stories with pro-active kids, as well as stories about kids from the same culture as mine. America is a mosaic of cultures. I think it is a yet untapped source; a facet not exploited enough by the publishing industry, though so needed. Stories don’t need to be about the various cultures, but those culturally diverse characters being part of a great story empower kids more than we fully realize, in my humble opinion.
Nathalie Mvondo is a student in socio-cultural anthropology who resides in Northern California, a children’s book writer and a blogger (Multiculturalism Rocks). She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), of the Association of Children’s Authors and Illustrators of Color (ACAIC), and a contributor for the blog Color Online and for the MultiCultural Review–an official publication of EMIERT, the Ethnic and MultiCultural Information Exchange Round Table of the American Library Association.
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