This children’s book author is teaching her readers about white privilege
Anastasia Higginbotham never expected to become a children’s author. It wasn’t until relatively recently that she realized the little handmade books she’d made all throughout her life to process events and experiences she herself hadn’t been prepared for could also be valuable to kids. Higginbotham created the “Ordinary Terrible Things” book series to “demonstrate a way for kids to cope with change and loss by making meaning out of whatever broken, ragged, or unraveling life circumstances they face.”
Higginbotham has covered topics including death, sex, and divorce. Recently, she told the FBomb about her newest book, Not My Idea, which tackles racism and white privilege, and is available now.
The FBomb: Why did you decide to write this book?
Anastasia Higginbotham: My children go to an alternative school that has a mission and curriculum focused on social justice. It was a pretty white space, however, until the school made a concerted effort to address race, racial inequality, and racial bias. My son started at the school right when they invited a number of black educators to come in and do that work, and it had a tremendous impact on my understanding of myself as a person with a lot of privilege.
I was familiar with white privilege before, and my whole career has been organized around social justice, but I had never really focused on my whiteness and my experience of being white in social justice movements. A lot of things started to shift for me. Racism became an issue that was not outside of me.
The FBomb: How did you approach making the concept of white privilege understandable to young kids?
Anastasia Higginbotham: First I read everything; I read James Baldwin and Michelle Alexander. I listened to Nina Simone, and interviews with people about what whiteness is and what white people’s responsibilities are.
[Race] is [a] fake [construct] but it has real consequences, so I had to do a deep dive into my own past and conditioning as a white child. I connected to my own memories of being a child and learning about whiteness and about racism. I thought about my relationship to my race, my assigned color.
I put [the book’s main character] in an environment that was familiar to me and would be familiar to my readers; an environment in which a white child is conditioned to see themself as apart, separate, from conversations about race and the issues of racism — of being a bystander, helpless, maybe sympathetic, not condoning racism, but still separate. That’s the difference: As soon as you stop seeing yourself as separate, when you realize you’re on the oppressor side of what’s happening, that’s a terrible thing. So [the book asks readers] where do you want to be? If this is what you were born into, what choices do you want to make? What role models are available to you?
I included the story about Juliette Hampton Morgan, who was a white librarian in Montgomery, Alabama. When she would ride the bus in the 1950s, she saw that white bus drivers would collect the fares of black bus riders, but drive away and leave the black bus riders without their fares and rides. When that happened, Juliette Hampton Morgan would pull the emergency chord and raise hell. She might have embarrassed the bus driver or not; he either would or would not open the door again. But she made her point. And that’s a wonderful role model for white kids. To me it’s so important to show a child that disruption can be an act of love.
The FBomb: What do you want white readers to take away from this book? And what value do you think children of color can find value in it?
Anastasia Higginbotham: I want white kids to know that they are being lied to about this false superiority. I want them to know that they’ve been tricked into being part of a system that was not their idea; no one asked their permission to set this up and you need no permission to tear it down. White people need to do more consciousness raising and we need to do it with our kids, but I also want white families who do want to be part of dismantling white supremacy to feel validated that they do care. I think it’s important to tap into people’s willingness to reckon with the truth and to face our own parts in upholding it, even if unconsciously, or enjoying privileges without considering what we have been involved in.
I can’t speak with any authority about an experience I’m not having, but what I’m learning now by witnessing black and brown children read the book and connect and relate to it, is that there is value because it puts racism in its place. The book makes racism a white person’s problem and lifts the burden off of black and brown children to always be fighting and always be exceptional and reading books about the terrible things that have been done. I made a book that would allow white people to take the burden off of black children and black families to always be explaining [racism]. I think there’s something validating about that.
The FBomb: This book is the newest addition to a series called “Ordinary Terrible Things.” Your past books have covered the very topics many adults try to shield their children from, including death, sex, and divorce. Why did you decide to write a series of books on these topics?
Anastasia Higginbotham: We may perceive these topics as “adult,” but they’re actually things that are happening to children, too, because they are so ordinary. The death of a loved one can happen to an animal or pet, a grandparent, or a family member who was too young and wasn’t supposed to die. Over half of all marriages end in divorce; we are all touched by divorce in some way. Every child is in some way exposed to the mixed messages our culture sends about sex and sexuality being shameful but also supposedly great. Those contradictions are very confusing. I like to challenge myself, and certainly the series challenges its audience, to see those things as kids’ topics.
The FBomb: Why do you think adults are so afraid to talk about these ordinary subjects with kids?
Anastasia Higginbotham: The expectation is often that kids will get over [these events] because they’re so ordinary, but I think that many adults still have injuries and pain around those experiences of confusion and loss. I think adults are averse to discussing those things with kids because we could have used a little more conscious attention and care around those ordinary, terrible injuries when we were children; many of us didn’t get much validation or compassion or support for coping with those events when we were children.
Now, as grown-ups, we’re afraid to see our kids go through [the same things]. It’s a little scary to see your kid experiencing the kind of pain and helplessness that you remember. I think we rush to shield our children, when [these events] actually present an opportunity to get to know them better. We should allow ourselves to find out what it’s like for a child to consciously connect to their own instincts and observations and go through something that we didn’t get to go through when we were kids.
The FBomb: How do these books help adults have these kinds of conversations with their kids?
Anastasia Higginbotham: The children in the books aren’t told to cheer up. They aren’t offered any spin on how they should feel about what’s happening. But the books do illuminate and surface for the young reader a number of emotions they may be feeling. They might see facial expressions they recognize, and the little body of the child on the page may mirror something they feel in their own body. I’m trying to foster those connections. I want the child to turn towards themself, towards their own experience, rather than give them a meaning of the experience they’re having. I keep trying to draw their attention to the reality of their own experience, the truth of their own experience, and to what it feels like to be them.
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