Children's Book Explores Racism And 'Whiteness'

Jan 22, 2019

Anastasia Higginbotham is making a career out of creating children’s books that explore tough topics. Her acclaimed series “Ordinary Terrible Things” includes titles like “Divorce Is The Worst.” “Death Is Stupid” and “Tell Me About Sex, Grandma.” Her latest might be the most ambitious yet.

Anastasia Higginbotham speaks Sat., Jan. 26, at the Pittsburgh Racial Justice Summit (Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, 616 N. Highland Ave., East Liberty, and 11 a.m. Sun., Jan. 27, at White Whale Bookstore, 4754 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield.

“Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness,” published in September by Dottir Press, challenges kids as young as 8 (or even younger) to face up to how white people – unthinkingly, or even with the best intentions — perpetuate racism.

The book is done in Higginbotham’s signature collage illustrations, featuring recycled materials on brown paper bags. It tells the story of a young girl whose parents try to shield her from news of the latest police shooting of an unarmed person of color. “Not My Idea” walks readers through a journey of awareness of how differently nonwhite people are treated and see the world.

Higginbotham says that no matter what parents do, kids will be aware of racism and racist violence. But she emphasizes that fixing racism isn’t the responsibility of racism’s victims. “Racism,” she writes, "is a white person’s problem, and we are all caught up in it.”

“The need for this book isn’t just palpable,” wrote Elizabeth Bird in her review of “Not My Idea” for the School Library Journal. “It’s a drop in a void that’s been left gaping for far too long.”

Higginbotham visits Pittsburgh to discuss the new book in two appearances this weekend.

The author and artist, who is white, grew up in Washington, Pa. She’s now based in Brooklyn, where she teaches self-defense and writes for publications like “The Believer,” “The New York Times” and “Bitch.”

Last year, “People” magazine named her one of its 25 Women Changing the World.

The title of “Not My Idea” references the fact that because children did not invent white supremacy, they shouldn’t feel required to defend it. Higginbotham came to the project through the racial-injustice curriculum at the Brooklyn Free School, which her kids attend.

In the book, the child protagonist’s mother says, “We don’t see color” and “Our family is kind to everyone.” But as Higginbotham points out, we all do in fact see color – and simply believing yourself free of bigotry is not the same thing as fighting racism.

“It’s so much more than just feeling outraged about racism, it’s so much more than just not condoning racism,” she says in a phone interview from her home in Brooklyn. “You really have to work against racism, and understand your own, and understand how it operates through institutions before you have a really effective impact on undoing what should never have been done.”

First steps including recognizing white privilege – the fact that our culture treats white people better than it treats others. (Higginbotham doesn’t use the phrase in “Not My Idea,” though she does use the term “white supremacy.”)

“I need to understand as a white person how much trouble I’m not having in order to better understand and appreciate what people of color, specifically black people and indigenous people in this country, are saying when they’re describing their own experiences, which are very, very different,” she says. “And there’s much more peril involved in ordinary activities, in ordinary daily life.”

The concept is illustrated with images of a white child and an African-American child in a shop: A security guard ignores the white kid while keeping a sharp eye on the black kid.

Because white people are the ones who perpetuate racism, they’re the ones who must dismantle it, Higginbotham says.

“For centuries now, we have allowed the entire burden of understanding race, and navigating racism, making peace with it, fighting against it, all of the things, to fall heavily on the shoulders of black and brown children,” she says. “It’s time we trust white children to carry some of that themselves, and are very much a part of it, and can be part of the healing, part of the transformation from a very racist society to an anti-racist and racially just society.”

The change would benefit everyone, she adds. “Justice just feels better,” she says. “It makes things easier.”

Higginbotham has spoken about “Not My Idea” nationally. In Pittsburgh, she speaks at the annual Pittsburgh Racial Justice Summit; her talk is Saturday, at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, in East Liberty.

On Sunday morning, she visits Bloomfield’s White Whale Bookstore for a reading and talk.