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What Banning Books in Schools Says About Who Matters in America

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January 8, 2014

I got into a lot of trouble as a teenager. But this time was different. It was spring of 2008. I was sitting by our desktop, my father was getting a cup of water in the kitchen. I don’t remember exactly what we were talking about but I remember distinctly saying “I don’t like people, I’d rather read.” My father’s face after I made this statement was…distressing. My father will gladly tell anyone how I distress him with the things I say, but this proclamation, me preferring the company of books over people was beyond distressing to him. It’s not that I don’t like people, I just like books better. Any time I have to socialize, I agonise over the fact that I’m losing hours I could spend reading. Nine times out of ten, I’ll pick a book over an actual human being. I can’t help it, I was born this way.

Imagine my outrage when I read on the guardian that book bannings are on the rise in schools. People who go out of their way to prevent others from accessing books they find objectionable are the worst. Book bans are a terrible idea. They are offensive and a violation of freedom of speech, I think. Book bans offend me in a way that nothing else does. I was raised on books. I happily lost my childhood to the Harry Potter series. In middle school, I cut off communication with a girl who once promised to give me a hard-to-find copy of a certain Baby Sitters Club book only to renege on her promise a week later. I learned about sex from reading erotica. I asked out my current partner because he reminded me of Marcus Flutie from the Jessica Darling series. Books are my life and to think that someone, somewhere is denying anyone the chance to discover things about themselves in the pages of whatever book is very very upsetting to me.

It comes as no surprise that the books that seem to end up on the banned list are the ones about race, sexuality and written by people of color. From the guardian article:

The Kids’ Right to Read Project (KRRP) is part of the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) and says in November alone they dealt with three times the average number of incidents. To date in 2013, KRRP investigated 49 book bannings or removals from shelves in 29 states, a 53% increase in activity from last year.

Acacia O’Connor of the KRRP said, “Whether or not patterns like this are the result of co-ordination between would-be censors across the country is impossible to say. But there are moments, when a half-dozen or so challenges regarding race or LGBT content hit within a couple weeks, where you just have to ask ‘what is going on out there?’”Among the books which have been complained about were Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Alice Walker‘s The Color Purple, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Isabel Allende‘s The House of the Spirits and Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima.

This is  maddening on so many levels. One, books about race and sexuality are desperately needed because we don’t talk about race and sexuality enough in our society. It sucks that I had to learn about my body and sex through books because there was no one around at school or home and certainly not at church that I felt safe enough to talk to. It was pure luck that the books that had the most influence on me ended up being sex positive.

Yes, there are some books that have some very poisonous views about racial and sexual minorities but banning those books is not the solution. Often times a lot of book bans are done under the guise of “protecting the children” yeah right. Like how forcing women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term is about “protecting women.” I love how bigotry and ignorance is always couched in protection.  When kids grow up reading only books by men, white people and/or white men they internalize the message that only men/whites write books. And when they do encounter books by people who aren’t white and/or male, they tend to dismiss those books. There’s a reason  why Wikipedia thought it was a good idea to remove women authors from their list of “American Novelist” and instead create a separate list “American Women Novelist.” It’s the message we get, from a young age, that only the voices of men (white men) matter.

We read the writings of white men in school, we read the writings of white men in church, we read the writings of when we talk about how America came to be. By the time we are adults, we are inundated with the message that white male voices are the norm. Everyone else is niche. White male voices are regarded as the norm so much that even bookstores and libraries segrate books. There is the general fiction section, then there’s the “women’s fiction, African American fiction etc.

As a queer woman of color, on the rare occasions that I find myself in books, I’ve been reduced to tears. I was a ball of tears the first time I read Audre Lorde’s “Sister Outsider.” Finally a book that spoke about my experiences from a woman who looked like me. I was so grateful I could not stop crying. We like to boast about how America is a melting pot. But we’ve seen time and time again that that melting pot  doesn’t extend to representation in books or movies. And that’s sad. We need to see ourselves in books because it matters.

It’s  important for black and gay kids to read about black and gay kids and read from black and gay authors. It’s just as equally important that white straight kids read about other kids who are not like them. Opening your mind to ideas and people who are different from you is a terrific experience, kids should be encouraged to do more of it not being prevented from it. The ignorance and discomfort of adults shouldn’t deprive children from learning about the complex, diverse and sometimes cruel world we live in. Our children deserve better than that. When it comes to books, kids need guidance not shielding. Stop banning books, please and instead maybe direct our attention to banning things that actually need to be banned, like broccoli. Broccoli is awful.

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