Tokenism is a surface correction for a deeply rooted problem.
We are book people in my family. Every January, we do a big book purge to make room for all the new delights we got for Christmas. Looking at our books one at a time, evaluating whether we should keep them or sell them, has given me a sense of what our culture values and what it ignores.
Which is why it kills me that our immense library of children’s books is dominated by boys, especially white boys. Did you know that all the crayons in The Day the Crayons Quit are (apparently) boys? Or that the boy in One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish gets to box goxes and sing in the shower with his ying while the girl gets to brush and comb the hair of a fancy pet or, just, like, tag along with the boy while he does awesome stuff?
The world of our bookshelves is not the world I want my kids to grow up in. I worry about my daughter, sitting in the shadow of all these books silently telling her that her story, at best, will have to fight its way through the clamoring of boys’ stories for anyone to notice it. I worry that my son will see so many white faces reflected back at him that he won’t know to value and respect the world views of people who don’t look like him or who have lived different lives than he has.
And I’ve worked hard to build a library of diverse books. I seek out books that star Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American characters; feature strong female and strong male characters; and depict settings around the globe, not just the northern parts of it. I choose books that were written by a diverse group of authors. And still—still!—our bookshelves are dominated by white America (and Europe). But the more diversity kids see in their libraries, the greater the chance they will read stories that challenge our culture’s default views about what is normal and what is “wrong.” So I keep on trying.
Textbook companies have been savvy to the market’s desire for diversity for at least the past couple decades. Back in the day, it was called “multiculturalism.” My school got a new math program when I was in eighth grade—so, um, 1994?—and oh how we made fun of its trying-too-hard multicultural cast of characters. I mean, the only white boy in the whole textbook was also in a wheelchair! Guffaw! Looking back, that math program was a textbook case (ha) of tokenization. School districts wanted to embrace multiculturalism, so textbook companies put pictures of black and Hispanic and Asian kids in their textbooks. And everyone was happy!
But changing the cast of characters in a math book was only a surface solution to a deeply rooted problem. Who wants to bet that the word problems in that math book still only reflected a suburban, middle-class life? Textbook companies have long known how to dress white normative culture in minority skin.
Anonymous Laborers in Educational Publishing
All of this brings me to my own experiences with educational publishing. Oh, yes, I have seen how that multicultural sausage gets made. That’s what I’ve been doing since getting pregnant and having babies: writing textbooks and teacher guides instead of teaching real students. My husband and I both work in the field, actually. I mean, really, educational publishing is where a lot of us lost post-MFA-types end up.
Anyway, a few years ago, my husband Jeff wrote some poems for an elementary school reading program. He’ll be the first to tell you that these aren’t his poems, per se, but instead are “work product.” So he wasn’t particularly distressed when he saw the book proofs, where the first poem was credited to him, the second to one Helen Chen, and the third to an Emilia Martinez (names changed to protect the imaginary, and also just in case he or his company signed a confidentiality clause). He asked his boss why he didn’t get credit for all of them. His boss replied: “Diversity requirements.” Just to be clear, here, there is no such person as “Helen Chen” or “Emilia Martinez.” Their words are my (white, straight, cis, male) husband’s; their names are pure fantasy.
Textbook companies have many such tools for creating “diversity.” Every big project comes with dozens of pages of gender and ethnicity guidelines, detailing what is appropriate and what is stereotypical. Often a master spreadsheet tracks the genders and ethnicities of every character and author in the program, to ensure equal representation. But the result is not diversity. It’s a one-dimensional textbook made shiny with a gloss of diversity, just like that old math program of mine.
I’m sure you’ve been fooled, too. Jeff and I are both in the business, and we were mildly shocked that the changing of names is pretty standard. That’s why white normative privilege is such a fucker. How can we tell real diversity—diversity that reflects a variety of lived experiences—from this fake kind when all we’ve ever seen is the same white, cis, male, hetero stories passed off as representative of the entire range of human experience? We need diverse books so our kids can see the entire range of human experience.
Sluefoot Sue: A Case Study in Surface Corrections for a Systemic Problem
Fast forward to last fall: I wrote three teacher guides for an educational publishing vendor. The big name publisher supplied the vendor with student editions of a series of textbooks, and the vendor hired freelancers (including me) to write new teacher guides aligned to the Common Core State Standards.
I knew the project manager, and she is solid people. In fact, my last project with her was a graphic-novel-cum-student-planner. When I submitted my outline, I asked why the guidelines required the protagonists to all be boys. She admitted she’d just assumed that’s what the client wanted but didn’t really know. So I pushed for at least one girl protagonist. I backed up my pitch with the 2011 study that found only 31% of children’s books have a female protagonist.
And then—tada!—we got a girl main character. Ooh, I thought. I can move the conservative behemoth that is educational publishing, even if just an inch or two. I will teach kids that little girls like soccer just as much boys, one comic book panel at a time!
So I set to work on this new project, writing a teacher guide based on a book about tall tales. It had two selections, “Casey Jones” and “Pecos Bill and Sluefoot Sue.” I’m just gonna skip right over “Casey Jones,” as that tale was sweet and age appropriate. OK, can’t quite skip entirely over it: why couldn’t Casey Jones have rescued a little boy frozen in fear on the railroad tracks? Why is it always the little girl who needs rescuing?
“Pecos Bill and Sluefoot Sue,” however. Hoo boy. Herewith, a brief summary of the tale as retold for fourth graders:
Pecos Bill is the greatest cowboy in all of Texas. One day, he sees a wild and crazy lady riding a catfish as big as a whale and shooting bullets through the bullets she just shot. That’s Sluefoot Sue for you, badass and unstoppable. Bill falls in love with Sue at first sight—admit it, you did too. So he asks her to marry him.
But Sue is no fool. She demands Bill prove his love before agreeing to marry him—as well she should. Sue decides a ride on Bill’s Widow Maker (seriously, the horse’s fucking name) will be sufficient proof. As soon as she mounts, Widow Maker bucks and jerks and bounces her up to the moon. She’s wearing a nice big bustle, though, so she just keeps bouncing to the moon and back. She’s having such a good time that she decides to keep going and become the first woman to go to Mars. Fuck yeah, Sue!
Bill’s a bit distraught by this turn of events, though. He’s just proved his love by letting this chick ride on his precious horse, and he is not gonna let her go to Mars without getting what he wants. Fortunately for Bill, he is a master roper. So he makes an endlessly long rope of rattlesnakes—rattlesnakes!—and lassoes Sue back to Earth. When she lands, Sue tells him how disappointed she is that she didn’t get to Mars. Then they get married and ride off into the sunset to have lots of other adventures. The end.
Let’s look at the many ways this tall tale is wildly backwards. Stripped of its folksy charm and tall tale characteristics, “Pecos Bill and Sluefoot Sue” is the story of a man who physically stops a woman from pursuing her own goals. He imposes his will on hers. And then he does “right” by her by letting her tag along on his future adventures.
From a “diversity” standpoint, I see why an editor chose “Pecos Bill and Sluefoot Sue.” Sue is amazing, a veritable tall tale hero in her own right. She is larger than life, she tackles problems with panache, she loves a challenge. She’s perfect! What a great way to get closer to that sought-after 50/50 proportion of men to women on the diversity spreadsheet. But damn, dude. Pay attention to what happens to her after she meets Bill.
I also understand that the textbook in question is about tall tales and that tall tales date back to a specific time period in American history that wasn’t so concerned about women’s rights. But surely there are other tall tales that don’t have this retrograde gender dynamic. Off the top of my head, there’s Annie Oakley, who was also a crack shot cowgirl, and Calamity Jane, a ferocious fighter and gifted nurse. In fact, there are other versions of Sluefoot Sue. In one, she bounces to the moon and stays there. In another she gets so tired of bouncing that she asks Bill for help. Of course, yet another retelling has Bill take pity on poor Sue, shooting her dead before she starves to death. At least they didn’t pick that version.
I cringe when I think of all the fourth graders who will read this tall tale. Certainly their teachers aren’t going to problematize the text because that’s outside the purview of elementary level English language arts classes. So then, this tale—where a textbook sidebar literally frames the conflict when Sue demands proof of Bill’s love as a “problem” that Bill has to “solve”—becomes an implicit model of how men and women interact: women’s whims and wishes are a problem that men have to dispel to solve.
It’s taken millennia for women to finally break through the patriarchy and get the world to take our stories seriously. And here’s this textbook, subtly reinforcing everything women are trying to change about the world: that women are subordinate to men, that men can and should do everything necessary to “get the girl,” and that men are always the stars and women their sidekicks. Fucking and I helped write it!
Learning to See the Invisible
Bill’s dominance over Sue is just another example of the insidious lessons our culture teaches without reflection. I don’t think an editor saw how “Pecos Bill and Sluefoot Sue” subverts Sue’s needs to Bill’s and ignored it. Rather it’s that men’s dominance over women is so common as to be invisible. Until writers and editors and curriculum developers learn to see how all literature communicates models of acceptable (and unacceptable) behavior on more than just a surface level—and choose texts with their eyes wide open—our children will learn these implicit lessons along with the explicit lessons on the features of tall tales, how to punctuate compound sentences, and how to cite text evidence to support their inferences. And we’ll keep paying the price as a society: violence against women and the oppression of minorities will continue to be the opposite of news.
In the meantime, I’m going to use my piddling position as employee of the middlemen to make the invisible visible. Shortly after finishing the tall tales teacher guide, I sent an email to my editor enumerating many of the above points. I don’t think that email is going any farther than her, though. She thinks I’m spunky—which, thanks, I guess. But the publisher will never see my well-reasoned argument against “Pecos Bill and Sluefoot Sue.” And, really, what were they going to do if they did? Pull the book from their catalogue? I doubt it. But maybe my email could have stopped the publisher from making a similar mistake in future textbooks.
My optimism points me toward a world where We Need Diverse Books and other campaigns agitate from the outside, flexing their collective voices and dollars, and I, along with other likeminded writers and editors, agitate from the inside, gadflying around editors and project managers until they finally see. Because I have seen that I can move the conversation, at least a little, away from “diversity” and quotas to engagement with the goals of diversity.
As long as I toil in the muck (and, oh, is it mucky), writing textbooks for students and their teachers, I’ll also be writing sometimes pointless—but sometimes successful—emails to help steer the textbook companies toward catalogues of textbooks that show boys and girls are equally heroic and that embrace difference as strength—not just a useful façade for making money. Hopefully my children’s bookshelves, when they grow up, will represent just such a world, in all its varied wonders.
Sarah B. Boyle is a poet, mother, high school teacher, and cog in the educational publishing machine. Her work has appeared in Entropy, Menacing Hedge, Storyscape, and elsewhere. She edited a series of essays on rape culture and the poetics of alt lit for Delirious Hem. She has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Find her online at impolitelines.com.