One form or another “matrix of knowledge” is often presented at educators workshops, especially when the discussion is about diversity. These are the four quadrants of such matrix:
When I read Malinda Lo’s blog post on YA novel reviewing, I realized that many of the problems cited in her article come from the lower-right quadrant.
We can look at these quadrants in light of book reviewing:
- KK: One has a firm grasp of a particular knowledge and can readily access and utilize such knowledge. Most reviews are done by reviewers familiar with the content or genre in order to accurately assess the quality of the book.
- DKK: One sometimes is not consciously aware of possessing particular knowledge since such knowledge has become second nature. Most reviewers will not have to put in extra effort to notice typos in a finished book.
- KDK: One is consciously aware that one lacks particular knowledge or set of knowledge. In this case, research and inquiries are made and new knowledge is gained. Faced with a book where the main character has an unfamiliar medical condition will prompt any reviewer to do some research in order to assess the accuracy of the tale.
- DKDK: One is unaware of one’s lack of knowledge in a particular area. More often than not, one also believes that he/she actually has solid knowledge about the matters at hand. This often makes it difficult for anyone to obtain actual knowledge. In Lo’s “Perceptions of Diversity in Book Reviews,” most if not all of the examples cited in part 1 “Scarcely Plausible” and part 4 “Readers May Be Surprised” fit squarely into this DKDK box.
I have no doubt that the reviewers in Lo’s examples believe that they KNOW about peer cultures or that they really KNOW how potential readers will react, and thus evaluate the books accordingly: all based on the self-trust in one’s knowledge and also on an urgent sense of mission to be the gatekeeper, warding off culturally insensitive materials. But, as explained clearly by Malinda Lo, such heroic protection could result in damning certain books for committing crimes against cultural accuracy while in truth that the book might be indeed culturally accurate. Such as the demand of having a glossary, since it has been standard practices and requirements on books with “exotic” and “unfamiliar” (read: non-white) words or expressions and that lack of such glossary signifies inferior quality.
I myself have engaged in several discussions over the years on the portrayal of Chinese culture and characters in children’s and YA books. I always do this with much trepidation: since there is no way that I can truly be the spokesperson for an entire (and extremely complex) culture, even if it is considered MINE. (I am now even more aware of the differences between Chinese and Chinese American Cultures.) Take my post on Five Chinese Brothers for example. This old picture book is often criticized as racially insensitive (or downright racist.) I addressed this controversy back in 2008, in Examining The Five Chinese Brothers, mostly defending the illustrations by Kurt Wiese. I pointed out that if one examines the pictures carefully and accurately, without being influenced by an overblown sense of social justice, one can easily see how many of these cartoon faces have different features: nose shapes, eyebrow angles, even ear shapes and sizes. The well-intentioned critics usually claim that Wiese was being racially insensitive because he perpetuated the “oh, they all look the same; I can’t tell them apart” concept. These critics didn’t seem to realize that perhaps they themselves Don’t Know how to read cartoon/stylized lines of Chinese features. To me, all five viewable faces in the two pictures below are distinctly different — are they?
However, since posting about it 7 years ago, I have also come to realize how much I also DKDKed! My insistence to support the use of yellow for the faces is based on my personal experiences: as a Chinese girl growing up in a homogeneous environment, proud to be a member of the “yellow race,” and never having to contend with my ethnic identity. It is a highly biased stance (and I wanted to break the connection of Yellow=Undesirable, what an naive idea!) I disregarded the real experiences of Chinese and Asian American child readers. Just because I don’t find being labeled “yellow skinned” hurtful does not mean that there are not many who are indeed hurt. In this case, I believe that their views are more valid than mine.
Yes, I have to update my own mindset, bringing myself from the DKDK quadrant to at least the KDK quadrant and striving to listen and learn from others.
Since my pervious post in this series was about Africa Is My Home, I decided to look at reviews from 2 years ago when the book was first published. I found this review from Kirkus and decided that a discussion about parts of the review fits nicely here.
I have some disagreements with the review, but most can be chalked up to personal tastes and subjective views. I would not have classified this book as a “text-heavy picture book” but a “heavily illustrated historical fiction.” I don’t feel that Robert Byrd’s illustrations are “frequently cramped,” although there are definitely a few busy scenes: at the market place, in the court house, and on the Amistad. I (and my students) also don’t find the text befuddling in any way.
What made me wonder the most is this claim of one of the book’s several “flaws:”
“Its illustrations…offer minimal variety in the characters’ skin tones and facial features.”
The reviewer seems to say that it is quite problematic in depicting the people (adults and children) from Mende Land (Sierra Leone) with very similar skin tones: perhaps to the point that implies Robert Byrd’s lack of respect for the people depicted. Most racially sensitive folks believe that “not all Africans have the same skin tones” and that “no one should lump all all Africans as being the same.” We should treat them as individuals and as humans equal to everyone else. This is all I hold true as well. However, the reason we see distinctly different shades of skin tones in the States (or other non-African continents) is the result of the long and vast history of African diaspora and racial mingling. And in Africa Is My Home, the illustrator Robert Byrd shows his awareness of this in his illustration of the market place scene set in Cuba:
(note the two women shopping for vegetables/fruits)
Byrd, using water color and non-realism style,) depicted Mende Land children and adults with very similar skin tones. The variation, if any, is extremely subtle.
There are also some very similar facial features, for sure: The shape of the nose, the large round eyes with the whites showing, etc.
Curious, I searched for recent photographs of Sierra Leone children and came across many group photos such like this one from the BBC News Magazine.
And cannot quite bring myself to label Byrd’s choices as a flaw in the book.
If Byrd had made the skin tones and facial features a lot more varied for the Mende Land people, just like what he did for the Cuban market place scene, would the Kirkus reviewer then praise him for his cultural sensitivity, even if that might have been an even more inaccurate depiction? From where I stand, this well-intended criticism, aimed to point out “cultural insensitivity,” seems to lack cultural understanding itself.
Like I said earlier, I’m always really fearful when I hold different opinions about books regarding cultural references: since perhaps I am so off base. So, I’d love to hear from others who have better understanding of the topics addressed here and would love to be enlightened about anything that I Don’t Know that I Don’t Know!