[I/D: Spread from 'Last Stop On Market Street' by Matt De La Peña & Christian Robinson. A grandmother and grandson walk along an urban street with graffiti and barbed wire fences. In front of them go a man in a wheelchair, a flock of birds, and a man pushing a grocery cart full of boxes and garbage bags. The text reads: "CJ looked around as he stepped off the bus. Crumbling sidewalks and broken-down doors, graffiti-tagged windows and boarded-up stores. He reached for his Nana's hand. 'How come it's always so dirty over here?' She smiled and pointed to the sky. 'Sometimes when you're surrounded by dirt, CJ, you're a better witness for what's beautiful.'".]
So let’s see… we’re smashing wealth inequality. In part 1, we learned how to start talking to our kids about economic privilege. In part 2, we’ve learned that poverty is not only a systemic (rather than individual) issue, but it’s also a key head of the Kyriarchy* Hydra that distracts marginalized groups from fighting against oppression.
In this installment, we’re focusing on the most subtle, harmful myth that perpetuates wealth inequality - Victims & Saviors! (And how to fight it.)
This is very, very important. Since you are also very, very smart, you’ll see how this pattern mythology creeps its way into the other heads of the kyriarchy and feeds into supremacy of all sorts.
This knowledge a tool you will use to smash all the injustice!
*[I really want an illustrative drawing of the Kyriarchy Hydra to put here. Maybe some toddlers vanquishing it. That alone could make a fantastic children’s adventure book. Or a really cool T-shirt.
Oooh - let’s make that our next patreon goal. Backburner!]
The Age Of Reason
Before we get started, we need a foundation - let’s talk about the Age of Reason* in child development.
So the idea goes - around age 7, kid brains undergo a Great Rewiring, similar to the rewiring that happens at 12 and again during the teen years. On a smaller scale, these rewirings happen in waves each year throughout early childhood, and you can blame them for the Terrible Twos and Threenager troubles.
Kind of like decluttering and renovating, you’ve got to make a mess before you build something new.
So Q just turned 6 in May, and he’s been going through the Great Rewiring. He’s been a mini-teenager, both desperate for validation with a fragile self-esteem, but also feeling compelled to push me away and establish his independence.
I can’t find the original quote here, but the gist is - before 6, a kid’s world revolves around their primary caregiver. They are connected and that line of ‘self’ and ‘other’ is blurred. At 6, the world starts to revolve just around the kid. It’s an exciting, dramatic time.
And I am SO HERE FOR IT. Because this great rewiring at 6 portends an exciting breakthrough around 7 - Q is going to hit THE AGE OF REASON ::dun dun DUUUUNNN:::
In short - this is when he’ll start to understand not only perspective, but he can see the complexity of change, the idea of multidimensional spectrums (as opposed to discrete categories and scales), and the fact that one thing can hold two conflicting properties.
He’s going from a black and white world to a full spectrum of seeing in color. The world now contains multitudes.
I’ll admit I’m not 100% positive this is a thing - but there’s some fun research to back it up, and there’s a reason my Catholic ancestors took first communion at age 7 - there’s a big leap in cognitive ability to use moral reasoning (which requires perspective.) It's been in my neat-things-to-consider toolbox before Q was born.
And then Q’s 6th birthday hit and he turned into that tumultuous, petulant, illogical mini-teenager. I did some (very basic math) and realized - if the Age of Reason is happening at 7, this means a Great Rewiring must happen first.
And we are in the midst of that. I’ve already seen hints of the new construction - Q explaining to his brother how 'Rot' (by Ben Clanton), the rotting mutant potato can be both legitimately gross AND adorably cute, depending on the eye of the beholder and our perceptions of cuteness. And R2 was like “wha?” (because he’s 4), and Q was like “WHOA THIS IS FASCINATING.”
Winnie the Pooh can be both a wonderful friend and Good Bear, but he’s also kind of an inconsiderate, selfish boor. That kind of thing.
That aside went on longer than I intended, but anyway, my point is - around ages 6/7ish, there is a point when many kids are ready to stop looking at the world in black and white and they grow fascinated with complex, conflicting concepts.
Not enough parents and educators are taking advantage of this - we should be growing our ability to reason in the gray spaces, because it takes intentional practice. This is the time to start dismantling simplistic pre-reason thinking, and start investigating the lies we’ve been sold about false dichotomies.
We can finally get past stereotypes!
Specifically today - the false dichotomy of victims/saviors and us/them.
*[Not the one by Thomas Paine, a different Age of Reason. Divorcing this from the religious connotations of Catholic church (I’m atheist/agnostic but was raised lapsed-Catholic), it’s a fascinating stage of childhood development. The wikipedia page about it is super problematic, but you can check out Bronson & Merryman’s ‘NurtureShock’ if you want to learn more about it - it’s a fun read.]
Cognitive Junk Food
Let’s discuss why the victims/saviors trope is toxic and the real-world consequences of promoting this binary narrative
The Good/Bad, Hero/Victim trope is embedded into every American fairy tale, every action cartoon, and all the suspenseful, exciting stories on TV that our kids love. This dynamic is thrilling and tasty!
That's because it's junk food for our brains.
These stories train us to think in binaries, to get lazy, to stop stretching ourselves, to fear uncomfortable things like unlikable heroes and victims who aren’t helpless. It also erases reality to suit oppressors, and trains us to comply with the entrenched popular narrative.*
*[I don’t see this kind of flat hero/others dynamic in books published outside the US. But that could be by design, since the really bland stuff isn’t going to make it across borders and into my library system.]
The Mental Vegetable Of Inclusion
Inclusion requires that complex moral reasoning Q is developing, but it’s not just enough to be able to do it - we need to practice it. Like running.
Many of us develop the cognitive and physical ability to walk around the same time. Some of never walk or run, and some of us are okay at it.
I am okay at walking, but not an expert. I fall down a lot. Some of us can do ultra marathons across the country, and the rest of us are like, oh my gosh why would you do that, ouch?
So having the ability to hit the Age of Reason doesn’t mean that a person necessarily uses those skills and nurtures that complexity. That’s why I mentioned that a steady diet of flat heroes and helpless victims is basically junk food.
Like eating kale, breaking beyond that binary narrative into inclusion is a little painful and cuts up your mouth a bit (just me?), but it’s super-duper good for you!
With the Mental Vegetable of Inclusion,* our brains grow big and fat, giving us plenty of inspiration to take action. We see the actionable ways we could improve life for everybody, including ourselves. Properly executed, fully integrating all perspectives, inclusion is a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats situation.
But also inclusion kind of sucks, and by it’s very nature, it isn’t always fun and it's a challenge if you're really doing it right. I mean - if we do it right, we include even the yucky people.
Even the folks we hate. Even our attackers.
We search deep to find compassion and listen to the perspectives of people who treat us like dirt, and we try to create a world where they are safe (but can’t hurt anyone) and can work toward their personal best and have human rights and such. It’s an idea that is easy to love, and really, really hard to practice. But it’s also like, BARF, the only way to build a kind and just world. ::scowl::
But before we can do all this, we’ve got to learn to recognize when we’re being sold a fake, junk-food narrative about inequality - between us heroes, those yucky mean people, and the people we’re trying to save from those yucky meanies.
We have to get our most curious folks in on this, because nothing overrides fear and hate and inertia like curiosity. Then, we re-wire our brains and train them to understand the complexity of this problem.
And THEN, if we can get super courageous, we can confront the uncomfortable truths and address the ways we, ourselves, benefit and feed off inequality.
Not everyone can do this, but if you’re here, you’re the pinnacle of curious folks who are willing to dig into complexity where no one else will, eager to confront your own bias, and willing to do that work and take responsibility.
You’re fighting for an inclusive world through something most people don’t even realize is complicated (the influence of kids books) and have the foresight to see its wider potential in a generation of revolutionaries.
And you’re going the extra mile to read this over-wordy deep-dive into dismantling wealth inequality.
So, I think it’s safe to say that if anyone is equipped to handle this, it’s you.
*[The Mental Vegetable Of Inclusion would make another spectacular T-shirt.]
Familiarity Breeds Concern
Binaries and black-and-white thinking is inherently divisive. Identifying an ‘us’ means creating a ‘them.’
Protecting our own is rooted in our survival, and it’s the reason our genes didn’t die out long ago.
This increased empathy-by-proximity is the reason I’m still shaking off the effects from the Boston Marathon bombing. It happened less than 9 miles away and narrowly missed killing people I love. But it also only killed three people and happened over five years ago.
Yet, I can go days without thinking about the inhumane destruction of loss, after loss, after loss, of Syrian casualties. Even though there have been hundreds of thousands of casualties and it started before the Marathon bomb and continues to this day. The children who die in Syria are every bit as valuable and important, and their deaths are as great a loss to the world as my own kids' death be.
Location, familiarity, common genetics, shared interest in animal-shaped teacups, every part of our identities contributes to a sense of ‘us.’ If it impacts 'us,' we don't just know about impact - we feel it.
Humans aren’t going to grow out of community identities anytime soon - nor should we. It’s what will pull Earthlings together in solidarity against the impending Martian invasion of 2036 (be prepared!)
The problem is, when we divide into groups of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ it gets easier to hurt ‘them.’
Even if we’re not actively engaged in battle - it’s easier to look away when people far away are hurt. I feel for Q’s heartbreak after being dumped by his kindergarten girlfriend. I don't care (or know) about a Kardashian divorce.
It’s easier to ignore the pain and suffering of people who are farther away and seem nothing like us.
Knowing and accepting this - it’s time for us to re-define our sense of ‘us.’
We can comprehend that air has weight even if we can’t see it. We carry around little rectangle robots that can warn us of an impending flash flood.
We are ready to evolve beyond the physicality of local and genetic communities. We can open our concept of ‘us’ to all humans, even if we aren’t Facebook friends.
It's time to move our definition of 'us' beyond physical proximity, personal similarity, and DNA.
Self-Identifying In A Toxic Dichotomy
So let’s take a look at how stories vault saviors above the riffraff (victims, villains, faceless bystanders).
With the exception of anti-heroes (so, nothing in kidlit), the savior can do no harm. They act in honor and courage, they are fearless. When they make mistakes, it’s easy to dismiss it as an out-of-character blip.
In contrast, the riffraff are victims of their own nature. Fearful, worthless, lazy, anti-social, or helpless, they fail to be heroes.
When they read these stories, who do our kids identify with? How many of us saw through Ariel's eyes as little kids, even though an average 6-year-old behaves more like a vindictive, bombastic Ursula?
Did you watch Looney Tunes, thinking, “I wish I was the one tied to the train tracks. I’d just be sitting there for like, hours. Waiting and sunburned.”
No! We identify with the heroes!
We design stories so the reader can be thrilled, and it’s thrilling to see ourselves as the one taking action. Also, no one is going to buy a story that reminds them of how boring and helpless they truly are.
We view every part of our lives as the heroes of our own story, and we carry that into every movie we watch and every book we read.
This is dangerous, and we’ll come back to it, but for now, just remember that our tendency to always view ourselves as the main protagonist is not always good for us, particularly when the protagonist is a 1-dimensional savior.
Why Binaries Sell
Ignoring folks who like to play the victim for attention (which is, in itself, another form of playing ourselves as a heroic protagonist), no one wants to be the pathetic, sunburned victim tied to the tracks. It’s boring. It’s disempowering. It’s scary - because we are more likely to be victims than saviors.
Even when we ARE victims, we self-blame and cope by assuming we had some modicum of control.
"I could have avoided this. I shouldn’t have given him my real address. I shouldn’t have rolled my eyes. I was basically asking for it."
We blame the victim, because in binary stories, the victim is responsible for the violence against them. How did they get themselves into this mess? What were they wearing? Who were they taunting? From rape victims to welfare mothers, suspicious foreigners to undocumented immigrants, the onus always falls on the victim.
As a bystander, we want to blame the victim because we don't want to feel the horror of how vulnerable we really are.
That will never happen to me, because I'd never try to walk home alone. I didn’t cross a border without the right papers. I didn’t fail to practice abstinence. I know not to sass the wrong guy.
Even the villains are secondary. Boys will be rapey and villains will be murderous, am I right? It's hard-wired! So we blame the victim.
This is the part that sucks -
The popular narrative of heroes and victims doesn’t survive because it’s true, or because it’s helpful. It survives because it’s simple click-bait comfort - it's junk food.
Victims and Saviors is an easy story to write, and even easier to consume. It sells books, it sells tickets.
It’s a narrative that doesn’t demand anything of us, because we’ll always identify as the good guys, and the good guys win.*
Refusing to buy into this binary narrative takes a lot of work - painful, brain-racking work that doesn’t ever end. It forces us to turn our blame inside out, do the hard work of forgiveness and acceptance. Accepting that sometimes shitty things happen and there is no justice (unless we bust our butts for it - and even then, most of the time, it doesn’t work.)
And this is the part that rocks -
This binary narrative can be unlearned, if you’re willing to let your curiosity override your fear. We get stronger, and smarter, and happier just by searching for and destroying this narrative.
In this way, expansive thinking can be a wonderfully selfish thing to do, with a side-effect of helping others.
We can set humanity on a path that replaces the binary narrative with a better one - beyond outdated concepts of ‘us’ and ‘them’ as soon as kids are cognitively ready to accept complexity.
We can teach our kids that contrary to the dominant narrative, progress does not march forward into a happily-ever-after on its own. We have to work for it.
We'll the pain of this work later, in part 5 - but for now, just hang with me on this - smashing the sweet lies we tell our kids hurts, but it hurts in a good way that will make them stronger, safer, and happier in the long run.
This next generation of luminaries can let false dichotomies die with our generation.
*The Disneyfied good guys win narrative isn't a universal human story. In many Indigenous stories and countries outside the US, many popular stories are bittersweet, tragedies, or outright horrific (think of how we twisted the gruesome Danish tale of The Little Mermaid into a cutesy musical with singing crabs).
Let me tell you about this book Q made last year during kindergarten. I try not to curate our highlights for public consumption (because I fail at soooo many things and pinterest culture is killing women), but I’m super proud of this, and it pertains.
Q and R2 refer to themselves as ‘THE BROTHERS!’ It’s a group-identifier, and a rallying cheer.
Always a full-caps shout. Always with fists and exclamation marks thrown high in the air. THE BROTHERS!
And so, Q made a book at school about THE BROTHERS!
“THE BROTHERS!” Q narrates, alongside a set of stick figures with arms raised, “They stand up!”
“They stand up, and they reach for things the other brother can’t reach!”
THE BROTHERS! go on to stand up for so many things, but they always stand up together. They STAND UP! against “people who hate the autisms.” And they STAND UP! and eat ice cream (because there are no chairs.)
I’ve been milking this sibling solidarity and shared identity for everything it’s worth, and it’s SUPER effective.
When they get into a fight, the first thing we do is listen to grievances. Beneath them, there’s always a transgression with a story each Earthquake has told himself.
“He tripped me because he’s mean and wants to hurt me.”
“You gave R2 the bigger piece of cake because you love him more."
The story is the thing that causes anger and sadness, not the physical act of tripping over each other.
The stories they tell themselves are the knots we untangle. Throwing insincere apologies at each other and promising to watch where they step won’t solve the big problem. This fight will continue until they re-assess the stories they carry.
To do that - we redefine that narrative. What’s our wider, shared story? Something we all believe, based on our core values?
Well, we all believe in the power of THE BROTHERS! We all believe there is nothing better than these two standing up together in cooperation, this identity of power and connection.
We reaffirm what THE BROTHERS! are, and what they value. THE BROTHERS! care for each other, and want to stay together forever to be courageous and eat ice cream. How does fighting over cake affect the entity of THE BROTHERS!? Is this behavior going to make THE BROTHERS! stronger, or weaker?
Being a part of THE BROTHERS is more valuable than the screeching remote dinosaur they’re fighting over. It’s more valuable than the lustful allure of vengeance.
When the Earthquakes remember that the person they’re angry at is an extension of himself (one of ‘us’), it’s easier to forgive and let things go.*
It’s easier to remember that, as a reflection of himself, that brother is a complex human with limited bandwidth, who probably needs to pee and is overdue for a nap.
Over the course of 2 minutes or so, the Earthquakes see themselves as lonely individuals fighting over scarce resources - enemies. By the time we re-affirm the values and missions of THE BROTHERS!, 'me vs. him' turns into ‘us.’
This conflict turns into something that connects them and makes them closer. It makes them stronger and better at resolving the next fight.
What if, for grown-ups who are cognitively capable of expansive reasoning, could redefine ‘us’ beyond genetics, race, and social identity to uhhh... all humans?
Or even all mammals? How much easier would it be to choose a salad over the delicious smell of cheeseburgers if we viewed cows as one of us?
9 out of 10 times, I will choose eating a salad over eating a cousin.
A shared sense of ‘us’ is exactly what you need to stop fighting and start cooperating. It’s easier to deescalate a flight and identify hyperbolic thinking when they remember transgressions are a shared problem for THE BROTHERS! to overcome - not one-way attack on a victim.
These daily squabbles (hourly? more than hourly? SO MANY SQUABBLES!) are not just a tumult of big feelings and screaming, but an opportunity to build something better.
But let’s remember that the Earthquakes are still young. While THE BROTHERS! is a helpful, healing construct, we’re also risking that beautiful thing turning sour if I consider my job as a parent done.
What happens when THE BROTHERS! encounter THE SISTERS! in a fight over a playground slide?
That sense of solidarity and inclusion needs to be constantly nurtured and expanded. We need to take advantage of that cognitive leap after the age of reason.
Can THE BROTHERS! form an inclusive solidarity with THE SISTERS! as THE KIDDOS! and work in cooperation?
Or does their sense of ‘us’ solidify and harden, turning THE BROTHERS! into something simple and flat, like THE GOOD GUYS! (necessitating BAD GUYS out there, somewhere, who probably need to be destroyed.)
*[By forgiving and letting things go, I’m not talking about accepting toxic behavior. I mean not suffering twice for a wrong done to them. There’s a Buddhist story about this in Zen Shorts (Jo J Muth), but you can find a quick online version here.]
3 Simple Steps To World Domination...err..Revolution!
So as I mentioned - unlearning this binary of good/bad & saviors/victims isn’t a selfless act - it makes us stronger as we battle. It forces us to practice cooperation and compassion.
We get stronger and smarter and happier, just by practicing inclusion. And there are MORE benefits for our own self-interest!
Re-calibrating conflict into an opportunity for cooperation turns us from helpless victims into agents of action. It’s empowering.
When we don’t get the bigger slice of cake, all is not lost. We aren’t resigned to an unjust world of self-pity. We are an equal part of this network, and as a partner, we have both the capability and responsibility to mend the rifts.
As a member of THE BROTHERS!, each Earthquake is no longer allowed to play the passive victim. THE BROTHERS! stand up, after all. They take responsibility and fix things that need fixing. Their anger, their voices matter, but they need to be channeled into a source of fuel that runs the greater whole, not into a vindictive shove.
This sense of belonging helps us identify the things we can control. We no longer have an excuse to give up. What threads can we pull, however small, that will lift our brothers up? Which threads are we hanging on to that are pulling our brothers down?
Use sunk-cost fallacy to our advantage! How do the actions we take destroy this beautiful thing we’ve worked so hard to build? Is losing all this worth punching him in the face?
As we mentioned in part 2 - there’s a formula for inspiring people to take action. This is kinda a big deal and the whole premise behind my subversive work running BFL:*
Knowledge: Understanding the importance and scope of a problem.
Urgency: Feeling a sense that we must take action now.
Capability: Feeling that we have the ability to change things.
Give your kids just one of these, and they will brush it off as not their problem. Combine any two, and it freezes them with despair (re: white guilt, rich apathy).
You’ve got to have all three of those, together, to inspire people to take action.
This is a heady mix for a kid who still doesn’t know how to tie their own shoes, an exhausted parent, or overworked teacher.
But that’s what identifying the myths of Victims and Saviors in everyday books does for our kids.
They can learn that they’re being sold a lie. They’ll get angry about it. They’ll want to show off what they know and spread the word. And they have the ability to re-define this narrative, to STAND UP! and refuse to buy it, refuse to perpetuate it, refuse to divide the world into victims and saviors, good guys and bad, and us and them.
*[Psst: This is my plan for world-domination...I mean, 'Smashing the Kyriarchy:'
Share the knowledge of social issues and injustice +
Create a sense of urgency (before implicit bias sets in, our kids hurt someone, etc.) +
Give grown-ups the capacity to raise kinder kids (with easy books).
x Thousands of kids and families around the world
x a thing I'll tell you about in part 7
= World Changing Revolution. BOOM.]
Eat Your Vegetables
We've covered the importance of identifying Victims/Savior tropes, I think you have a general sense of urgency in addressing it NOW, and now on to giving you the tools and capacity to fight it.
Feeding our kids Mental Vegetables of Inclusion!
Here are the books we need more of:
- Stories that blur the line between ‘us’ and ‘them'
- Stories with flawed heroes
- Stories that show a victim with power, beyond passivity. Victims play a role in their own rescue, or actively rescue themselves.
These books are very hard to write. They’re even harder to market. This kind of thing doesn’t fit into a blurb, there's no shelf for 'blurred lines and flawed heroes' in the picture-book room of your local library.
Aaand since the Mental Vegetables of Inclusion are bitter and chewy, it’s hard to get parents to read them to their kids.
Most parents don’t want to read messy books that dislodge the popular narrative. What if they grow up to be outcasts and get picked on?!
They don’t want stories that reassure kids they are still accepted and loved even when they do terrible things. What if they mistake unconditional love for permission?!
They don’t want stories that ‘confuse’ kids about false binaries. What if teaching my kids about gender fluidity turns my boy into a girl?!
They don’t want to read stories that encourage them to talk to strangers. What if they become polite to strangers?!
They don’t want books about disabled kids who say “Screw you, your pity is violence that kills us.” What if this shows my disabled kid they are fine the way they are?! What if this hurts my non-disabled kids feeeelings?!
And they don’t want books written for Indigenous kids that alienate settlers, or about Black kids being unapologetically Black. What if my White kids realize they are not the most important people?! And it hurts their feeeeelings?!
This includes me. I’m still learning to sit with discomfort, accepting cultural values that run counter to my own. I’ve had to get over my distaste of South American & Latinx surrealism, the raw, violent undercurrent in Indigenous stories fables, and the disquieting feeling that I’m out of my league when I read a book that wasn’t made for my US-settler-centric gaze.
Sexism, violence, dishonesty, statutory rape, self-interest, aggression - all of these are things I feel very black-and-white about (I think they are all horrifyingly bad!) And all of them are things that are acceptable and even valuable to people across the globe.
Fighting for inclusion means encompassing conflicting cultural beliefs. Stripping down our opinions and judgements and assuming, just for a little bit - that maybe I'm wrong and they're right. There are entire countries of people (smart people!) who hold opposite views on these and that doesn’t mean my values are objectively better for humanity.
See? I’m approaching the age of reason! It’s very uncomfortable here. Care to join me?
The dichotomy of Rich kids and Poor kids, or even the 1% and 99% or whatever, is a false division that oversimplifies and obscures our broken economic system.
These discrete categories are not only logically false, they flatten real problems (and real people) into caricatures. Nothing reinforces the othering of ‘them’ (which makes it easier to hurt ‘them') like simplifying a group of people into a stereotype.
These divisions label people with immovable, stagnant identities. The popular narratives are:
1. Rich folks,
2: Poor folks,
3. Poor folks who yanked on some bootstraps and became rich folks, and
4. Rich folks who lost it all and are now poor.
If you've been fed the popular narrative long enough, you might even have an emotional reaction just reading these labels. For me, my knee-jerk reaction runs out like this:
1. Lucky jerks!
2. Awww...poor things.
3. Good for them!
4. Foolish saps!
These are all discrete categories that suggest economic status is both stable and attainable, and that our initial impressions and feelings towards these make-pretend groups is justified by any logic or common sense. (It's not.)
The truth is that poverty is not a fixed attribute. We drift in and out of poverty over surprisingly short periods of time, and poverty looks different for every family.
Being ‘poor’ isn’t just an issue of having low/zero income and living in a pile of dirt.
Working poor families can make more than families who I'd consider wealthy, but their actual living expenses are much higher (yay gentrification!), or less stable. As we know from parts 1 and 2 of these posts, wealth isn’t just an issue of income, or even net worth - it’s an issue of instability, insecurity, and lack of power and choice.
The misleading labels of Rich and Poor lends itself to a story that parallels Saviors and Victims.
We fit these economic labels into the binary narrative we've been raised with, and it’s impossible not to form a preference. Which do you currently identify with? Which would you rather be?
Wait. Before we discuss this, let's investigate a wiggly, infuriating thing about humanity.
We all aspire to be heroes - but we all tend to see ourselves as average.
I attended high school in a small, wealthy town filled with white kids who skied every weekend and wore $90 sweaters. I once witnessed a heated discussion between three girls over who had more houses - they couldn’t decide whether summer houses counted.
(As you can imagine, given my three after-school jobs and the fact that I couldn’t afford lunch, this fostered the slow, simmering rage of injustice that fuels BFL today.)
A teacher once asked my class to raise their hands if they believed they were upper- or upper-middle class (aka, wealthy). The one kid who bought 20 tickets for all of his friends to attend a Dave Matthews concert hesitantly raised his hand.
The rest of those tanned white hands, calloused from hours of lacrosse, field-hockey, and music lessons stayed down.
The teacher asked who’s in the middle class?
My hand, along with everyone else's went up.
That’s the moment I realized that my understanding of average was not the same as the spring-break-in-Paris understanding of average.
No matter how wealthy we are, we never see ourselves as having ‘made it.’ We’ll always feel insecure.
That’s by design, and it’s how our culture, based in scarcity and materialism, fosters a toxic lie that keeps people scrambling to climb higher even if it means pushing other folks down. If I had a home, a car, and access to clean running water and wasn't rich, and those spoiled brats weren't rich - then who is?
So - almost all of us identify as somewhere in the middle or lower. Even folks in the top 10% of net worth compare themselves to the top 5%, and so on.
Just to be clear, I am well aware that I am much wealthier than 90% of humans on this planet.
My wealth is predicated on being born in a wealthy city in a wealthy country, having opportunities made available by my citizenship, the color of my skin, and maintaining a marriage to a college-educated white dude.
I didn’t get here through hard work or tugging on bootstraps. I got here by cartwheeling through the system on stepping stones laid out in front of me.
I’m also aware of the instability of it all. Would I still be married to this dude if I wasn’t so dependent on his cishet whiteness, his respect-inducing height, his ability to navigate networks I can’t access?
Right now, and generally, I adore my partner. But during the rough patches, I stuck around because leaving means I could no longer piggyback on his privileges.
If I didn’t live in constant fear of raising my kids as a single disabled mother and repeating the history of my own childhood, if I wasn’t dependent on him for survival - our relationship might have dissolved many times over.
Wealth is security. It’s access to choice. Even within families, wealth isn’t evenly distributed.
The nebulous concept of being rich or poor defies caricatures and it’s hard to pin down. The only thing we can be certain of is that wealth and all the freedom and security that comes with it is unevenly divided. To me, it's unethically divided and humanity is in a state of crisis. To my partner - things are not great, but overall things seem fine.
This inequality feeds racial injustice, disabled injustice, sexism, and all those other heads of the hydra.
Superiority of Saviorism
Thanks for bearing with me while I meander my way to how Victims & Saviors is connected to systemic wealth inequality.
You made it to my point! (Which is right here, in this section.)
We associate wealth and saviors with education, beauty, security, charm, comfort - so many good things!
Oh yeah and we kinda have a weak association that wealth fosters spoiled, entitled behavior and suspect wealth and power numbs us from compassion.
But that’s easily overcome. We could do better, if we were the wealthy parents. Our kids could be the good kind of rich. Spoiling and anti-social behavior can be trained out with the right nannies. The other stuff - the good stuff, feels intrinsically linked to wealth.
We want to identify with wealth. We want to be the benefactors who amass power and distribute it to the poor. We want to be saviors.
In that wanting, we foster idolatry.
To be wealthy, to be a savior is…to be superior.
Just kidding. You knew I was going to make this all about supremacy the while time.
Gladiator Battles & American Dreams
When we idolize and strive to identify as a savior (even passively, just by hoping), we see the saviors as better. Harder-working, disciplined, courageous.
Conversely - how do we view victims?
They’re passive, they’re dependent, needy, and maybe a little lazy. Maybe kinda dirty and dusty from being kicked around. Pathetic.
As we discussed earlier - the victim isn’t entirely devoid of agency. Victim-blaming means they did get themselves into this pickle, after all.
To be the victim of poverty then, is to be led astray through personal weakness, a stubborn refusal to work the system.
But oh! There’s that trope of the noble poor, the purity of asceticism!
Let’s clarify on that: No one who has actually starved (not fasted, starved), no person has searched for shelter to protect their children from exposure, suffered through an aching tooth, pregnancy complication, or a UTI without medical care - these folks have not found integrity in poverty.
There’s integrity in choosing poverty - sure. There’s honor in generosity, in distributing wealth, in sacrificing so that others can survive.
It was an easy choice for Siddhartha Gautama to choose to abandon his wife and newborn to live a life of asceticism specifically because he could go back to his palace and eat a sandwich anytime he got tired of his adventure. The Buddha had a wealth of choice, and he carried that with him even as he fasted and abstained from luxury.
The idea of the noble poor doesn’t benefit the poor. It benefits the rich. It makes us feel good. We’re good guys - we’re not discriminating, we like poor people!
And like all White people who can’t be racist because they like Black folks, it’s not that simple. In fact - it suggests the opposite. It suggests that by virtue of extending a dignified air to those who suffer, we’re naturally generous and above it all. The good and gentle benefactors.
Liking poor people, believing there is something character-building about the struggles of the noble poor, suggests that poverty has a higher purpose. It does not.
Remember those dangerous dichotomies of good and bad?
Living outside for a year doesn’t make someone good. Goodness (which isn’t even a thing), worthiness, and a right to integrity isn’t tied to struggle. We all deserve human rights, respect, shelter, food, and medical attention whether we struggle through poverty nobly (education and hard work) or in disgrace with things that are much more attainable, like heroin.
The stereotype of the noble poor exists to reassure the wealthy.
The poors are going through a trial and will be stronger for it. They’ll thank us for locking them into those sweatshops, eventually. (The ones who survive, anyway.)
This concept of social darwinism (key to the American dream) perpetuates the myth that we build a better country by creating obstacles for marginalized folks to leap over, and only allow the strongest to survive.
This is just nonsense. Humanity doesn’t grow stronger by throwing everyone into a gladiator pit and letting us all duke it out.
Poverty is expensive. It’s expensive for the people paying weekly motel fees and eating takeout every night because they can’t afford a security deposit on an apartment with a kitchen. Poverty multiplies itself in debt.
Poverty is also expensive for the wealthy. Shoplifting takes a huge chunk of commercial profits, after all, and that’s an industry borne of necessity. Most of us don’t want a black-market career that can land us in jail, and no one prefers feeding their baby black market baby formula.
It’s more expensive in the long term to rush kids through underfunded schools and spit them out with no marketable skills, where they have to rely on welfare and food stamps and end up in prisons (which we pay for!) WHY ARE WE PAYING FOR PRISONS, AND NOT SCHOOLS?!
Because we’re reactionary and short-sighted, and because the kids who end up in prison are ‘them.’ Not ‘us.’ If we were poor, we’d be the good kind of poor. Noble.
This feeling of instability, ironically, isn’t just for those of us who live with financial insecurity.
The obscenely wealthy (however you define that) are also terrified. They’re waiting for this unsustainable system to collapse, and for the pitchforks to break down their gated communities.
It’s expensive to lose a powerful segment of our workforce to unpaid maternity leave, disability, and racist hiring discrimination. It hurts us all, and yet, we let this happen.
Poverty sucks everybody. (But it definitely sucks much more for those with less, and exponentially benefits those with more.)
We’re composed of social animals, and yet America is obsessed with independence, grossly undervaluing interdependence.
We’d all be stronger together. We’d be stronger as an ‘us.’
All of this is a foundation that you need to know, deep down in your soul.
Victims and saviors paints a thrilling adventure of daring adventure that we gobble like cheap fries. Our saviors are the wealthy - those generous, superior folks who share with the pitiful, poor victims. We all play the parts of victims, and we all play the parts of saviors.
So many of us feel so good about band-aids. Read a book about poor people (just how they exist, not how we do anything to help), donate $5 to a shelter, and we get to be saviors!
We’re teaching our kids how to be saviors. It’s insidiously transactional. We put a coin in a box and in exchange, we get a relieved feeling of satisfaction. We buy our way out of wealth guilt.
This is the popularly accepted method to solve poverty in our society.
You see how this isn’t working, right?
Saviorism doesn’t disrupt the power dynamic that built wealth disparity - it feeds it. It’s a dirty bandage thrown over an infected wound.
Since saviorism doesn’t disrupt power, we find ourselves constantly throwing money at problems. And we feel drained. We will never have enough, or give enough, and this sense of not-enough-ness just builds and builds.
Oh wait, wait - let’s not confuse throwing money at problems with supporting organizations that are disrupting inequity. I’m a big believer in experts and efficiency, which is why I live in such a ridiculously expensive city with super public schools. The teachers here are way better at dealing with my screaming children than I am. My time (and sanity) is better spent on changing the world in other ways (like BFL!) This community is a team!
While our culture frowns upon people who make change and make a living at it, I actually have no problem with people getting paid to do good. (Obviously, since that’s what I’m trying to do with BFL.)
It makes way more sense to hire a cook who can efficiently feed people in a homeless shelter than to waste time training hapless day-volunteers.
It makes way more sense to pay teachers a living wage than have cancer researchers leaving the laboratory to home-school their kids.
Some folks work as investment bankers for evil corporations and if we're lucky, donate millions to good causes. Teachers shape millions of minds and can't afford a dentist visit. WHAT THE HECK.
The world takes all kinds, but I’m kinda in love with the idea of getting paid a living wage while also making the planet a better place.
SERIOUSLY. WHY ARE WE PAYING FOR PRISONS, AND NOT SCHOOLS?!
::Deep breath:: ...We’ll discuss the difference between band-aid fixes versus revolutionary disruption in a later post.
For now, let’s just sit with the idea that playing the hero and paying for temporary fixes because we failed to build a proper infrastructure is not sustainable and screws us all.
A Widening Gap In Power
Let’s go back to this really uncomfortable thing I don’t want to talk about, but it’s the only thing I can think of that illustrates my point - my partnership.
This sounds very conservative of me, but handouts keeps victims reliant on saviors, and perpetuates the divide.
But it’s true! We can’t maintain an unequal power dynamic and hope that the billionaires will spread the wealth to everyone and choose fair labor practices out of pure altruism.
There are also those nagging studies that suggest that the more powerful we get, the less compassionate we become. I didn’t fact check these, but if it’s true (and it sure feels like it) - YIKES.
Being dependent on handouts - or in my case, dependent on my partner for housing, food, the safety of my children, and everything - means I operate under the benevolent power of my partner.
He’s a wonderful guy - I have no reason to think he’d intentionally take advantage of this. I even have the illusion of power.
I can suggest we pack up and move to Montana, and I genuinely think he’d be game. I can ask him to shave off all his hair and tattoo a dancing bear on his scalp, and he’d probably do it. The problem is, this is a power he gives me, and not a power I can protect or defend if he ever chose to take it away.
If I need tuition to go back to school, or a second car so I could work outside the home - he’s the one with the final decision.
He’s the one who has a decades-long resume of employment while I stayed home to repair our fixer-upper, pack his lunches, and raise his babies. He’s the one with the retirement account, the wealthy white family ties creating a safety net, and he’s the one who looks better on paper in a custody battle.
He has a wealth of social and financial currency, and everything I have relies on him really liking me.
My partner doesn’t feel superior. He feels the pressure of limitations and helplessness like everyone else. But we’ve had to do many years of breaking down the invisible ways his assumptions leave me with invisible labor to compensate for.
He was not raised to listen carefully or tread softly - it just wasn’t necessary for his survival like it was for me. But he’s had to make a concentrated, 24/7 effort in adulthood, learning to listen carefully and tread softly so he doesn’t squish me like a bug.
He insists that there are not consequences to saying ‘no’ to him - but that’s still something I have never felt powerful enough to test.
And if, hypothetically, he stopped liking me so much - what are my options?
An unequal power imbalance, a reliance on benevolent saviors will always feed into a broken system. Saviors suck power from victims, even if Saviors have genuinely good intentions and are trying to level the playing field.
So, I’m super lucky in that my partner isn’t a monster. But with this power dynamic, kindness doesn’t really matter in the long-term. Over time, like we discussed before, we normalize and start to think of our status, and our behavior, as average.
Those who rely on saviors must think circles around everything - just in case. This is how we raise our girls, our disabled kids, and our children of color to police their tone, to stroke the egos of their benefactors, and assume risk in voicing dissent.
Good intentions or no - bit by bit, the victims who use a sweeter tone and step more carefully are the ones who thrive.
Over years and generations, this reinforces a subtle, but interwoven sense of normalcy - superiority for saviors, and an atmosphere of fear for victims.
After generations, the saviors start to internalize that sense of entitlement. New generations are born into it, and that fragile sense of ‘us’ and cooperation is forgotten. The mandate of heaven replaces reality, and those in power start to believe they are here because they deserve it by virtue of inherent superiority.
Hence: White supremacy. Patriarchy. And so on.
So we’ve got to try something else. We’ve got to disrupt that system and find ways to shift real power - not just the temporary illusion of it.
This is HARD. This means - for those of us with power - not just giving, but giving up. Not in a resigned way. In a way of open sacrifice.
And that damn kyriarchy means even if we're multiply marginalized, we still have power over someone else in other ways. So we've got to break glass ceilings from below, even as we're chipping at glass floors from above.
Giving up means - passing on opportunities that we shouldn’t have even if we really, really, want them. Example: Uber-successful white author Rick Riordan refusing to write books on non-white mythology when his fans request them. Instead - he steps aside and uses his fame to promote femme & trans authors of color. (I love this Rick Riordan SO MUCH.)
Giving up means - giving credit to those we oppress instead of using what they've taught us to sound smart. Not starting a new project to help those we oppress, but choosing instead to support work that's already in place, paying the people from marginalized groups who are already doing the work, linking to them, signal-boosting them. Even if we think we could do it better. (and yes - that's why I won't write a children's book.)
Giving up means - paying those people for education when it benefits us, even if we can't turn a profit from that education. (And yes, we do that at BFL.)
Giving up means - not inserting ourselves into a conversation with the assumption that our perspective is unique or welcome, and instead, just sitting with discomfort when a person we have power over expresses big feelings, even in a way that we find distasteful or disagree with.
Giving up means - listening to people we’re oppressing, and taking action in ways they want us move, not just in the ways that feel good to us.
Giving up means - stretching ourselves just a little more than we feel comfortable with, in order to gain a wider sense of empathy for those who have less.
Giving up means - ripping our hearts open and examining the stories we tell about ourselves - stories of being inherently superior, as the heroes and saviors of our world. It means recognizing that our ‘goodness’ (again, not a thing) and accept the scary reality that wealth stability/instability is not a fixed trait.
That’s very painful work.
These types of giving up - they don’t look like the classic m.o. of saviors, and there’s a good reason for that. That’s not saviorism - it’s cooperation, and it’s founded in a shared sense of equality and us-ness.
Creating A New Narrative
So with all of those complex topics knitted together and tied into a tangled bow, how do we extend that to the lessons we teach our kids?
Welp, we’ll just have to disrupt the way we frame our own stories.
- We’ve got to get adamant about the idea that the Victim/Savior dichonomy is toxic, the same way we point out when a book is sexist or violent. We remind our kids - over and over - that there are no such things as good guys and bad guys, as victims and saviors.
- We teach our kids that poverty is not a fixed trait. It means we have to do something painful - we have to stop buffering scary stories and realizations with “Don’t worry, this won't happen to us.”
Not only could one cancer diagnosis or job loss happen to us in the future and rip away all the security we’ve ever known, it is happening to us. Because ‘us’ means all of us. Our human family is suffering. It sucks to let our kids feel that, but they have to - otherwise it’s too easy to turn away. We’ll deal more with this conversation in part 5, but for now, just accept that being really honest with kids is scary and painful, but I'll show you a way to get through it together later.
- We teach our kids that no matter how much good they do, no matter how much they give - they are not saviors, and that’s okay. Don’t buy into the hype of heroics. Disrupt the idea of giving as an act of extreme goodness. We are a social animal. Giving should just be baseline, it should be assumed. Generosity is not heroic - it’s human.
- I’m preaching to the choir on this one, but tell your friends, because we have a dangerous self-pity problem tied into a culture of violence.
The poor incels, the poor men, the poor TERFs, the poor blue lives. For those who are oblivious to their privileges, it’s so easy to equate a woman’s daily fear of being attacked with an incel’s hurt feelings when he can’t get laid. It’s easy to equate the chosen risk of wearing a badge and the unavoidable risk of driving while Black.
For the times when our kids are feeling sorry for themselves, when they feel misunderstood, silenced, and starved for attention - go ahead and validate those feelings. Snuggle them and let them know they have every right to those feelings. But don’t let them equate that pain with being oppressed, as victims, whose only respite would be getting what they want, just because they feel entitled to it.
Reality In Stories
We need books that value reality.
Not to be confused with non-fiction or dreary sad-sap stories. We need stories that teach kids how the world works and how they fit into it.
Reality gives kids perspective about their privilege in a way that doesn’t make them feel inferior or superior. Foster a sense of gratitude if they have shelter, food, and the stability that comes with living in an interdependent community with support, because that's where wealth lies.
Teach kids the difference between need and want. We foster intellectual empathy, and expose them to a wide spectrum of economic experiences with complex characters who have agency and dimension. (Well - dimension in a picture-book character is hard, but agency is do-able.)
The following books blur the line between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ and dispel myths about poverty (they’re not poor from laziness, they’re not pathetic) and treat people with less as equals.
The protagonists are complex - wrestling with feelings of fear, scarcity, and selfishness, who go on to accept their limitations. There are no victims - there are only survivors. There are no saviors - there are only everyday people exercising a realistic bit of empathy and courage.
None of these books paint poverty as a character-building social necessity (no noble poors), nor are those with less completely helpless and passive.
Self-pity transforms into responsibility as the stories progress, and giving isn’t an act of charity to boost a character’s ego - it’s a release and a ritual that benefits the giver as much (or more) than the receiver as a normal part of living in humanity..
For quick reference, all our recommended books can be found in our reading list over here: http://www.booksforlittles.com/poverty
Those Shoes is the most popular book in this list - BFL'ers relate to it and see many of the issues we discuss above in the story. We take a wider perspective of need versus want, reframe what we lack into what we can afford to give up, address the social urge to fit in, and validate feelings of longing.
It’s pretty straight-forward, so I don’t need to tease out all the literary themes. They kind of whack you over the head.
But you should discuss with your kids why the white author chose to portray the protagonist as a poor black boy with a grandmother-as-guardian, why the wealthy bully has a Jewish last name, and what stereotypes the author brings to this story through her own lens.
This is not a perfect book, by any means, but it’s useful both for the overt lessons you need to introduce kids to and the way it contrasts to ‘Last Stop On Market Street,’ below.
Shelter pings our basic human need to belong. We need safe shelter and a community. Lacking that leaves us open to real danger. The Earthquakes have BIG FEELINGS when we read this book, and there is a lot of hiding under the covers and clutching each other for warmth.
But despite that - it’s not as harsh as it seems, and the parts that hurt our hearts are tempered by the adorable illustrations of anthropomorphic animals and the warm ending.
We talk about scarcity when we read this story - how feelings of not having enough can cause our sense of reality to distort, and cause our priorities to go out of whack with our inner values.
We see how people who usually do good can make selfish decisions that hurt others when we are afraid.
This story prods at us to question who we see as ‘them’ and ‘us.’ We see that conflict is an opportunity to build relationships, and that with a little graciousness, we can all take care of each other. Interdependence can make us a little safer and stronger.
We think about what stories we tell ourselves, and what stories we inherit from tradition, that need to be questioned. When is it okay to open the door and invite in a stranger? Why is fear our standard reaction to strangers? Who counts as a stranger? What are we afraid of, and what are the actual risks?
When we’re feeling afraid and like we don’t have enough, how will we decide whether to open our doors and let someone in?
The Last Stop On Market Street
The Last Stop On Market Street is almost impossible to read with kids under 4. Both of the Earthquakes were like - why even... what is this?
BUT - it kind of explodes into awesomeness as the kids pick up on the subtler themes as they get older.
What I love most about this story is that we are not passive victims of our circumstances. We are literally going places. We can acknowledge our wants, our envy, our feelings. And then we can turn to someone wiser, who has a breadth of experience (like a grandma), to ask questions.
Contrast this with the way ‘Those Shoes’ placed a kinda sad, rather helpless, Black grandma, with the steady wisdom and stoic, logical comfort of the active Black grandma in Last Stop On Market Street.
(I’ll let you guess which one of these was created by a Latinx author and Black illustrator, and which was created by two white folks.)
This book is a process - CJ, the little boy, goes from asking why he doesn’t have all kinds of things - to why other people don’t have all kinds of things.
Grandma questions him back and provokes him to question is assumptions. There is no pity, no inferiority - just difference.
The makers convert CJ’s self-pity and navel-gazing into gratitude and responsibility for the wider community. It reminds us that there are no saviors, no victims, just people who are each responsible for doing what they can to raise up all of us.
So Many Terrible Books
On to the problematic books! This is the part where I air all of the pent up NOPES I store up during my book research, so I have SO MANY THINGS TO SAY.
I know this is your favorite part, and when it comes to Victims & Saviors, the world is our fetid ocean full of rancid oysters. Settle in.
Only Rich White Men Can Save The World (aka Bodhisattva and the Turtle) - This is a bizarre book in SO many ways. I am bursting at the seams to tell you all the things wrong with this story, but for now - we’ll focus on one line.
At this point in the story, an ancient turtle has saved this white dude’s life, and provided him with a ton of sage advice. The white man turns to the turtle, and says:
“If I ever become a fully awakened person, I will be your teacher.”
Which is just the most white-man thing to say ever. By virtue of his existing, he assumes he can go study Buddhism for a couple years, then come back and surpass the wisdom of this turtle (who is just a racially coded version of an Asian Buddhist) and gift him with his enlightenment.
Instead of say, asking what he can do in return for the turtle’s kindness (Turtles! They don't know what's good for 'em!), he promises to come back and be this creature’s savior. This creature who has gained wisdom from like hundreds of years of lived experience.
That one line just perfectly sums up colonialism, white supremacy, and the patriarchy.
Inspiration Porn For Allistic Egos (aka In My World) -
A couple of autism ‘experts’ (not autistic people) decided to write a book about how inspirational autistic people are, and how the reader (presumed non-autistic) should pity and accept them.
Except - by ‘accept,’ I mean, try very hard to break them out of their natural ways of thinking, like jimmying open a locked door, and rescue them from the torture of being in their own brains, where they are comfortable.
You can just feel the self-congratulatory ‘Aren’t we wonderful people?’ savior vibe the makers send, thanking themselves for making a book like this without consulting any actually autistic people to see if it feels opportunist, victimizing, or condescending.
Also, the idea of non-speaking autistic people being ‘locked in’ their own minds in need or rescue is a dangerous and condescending stereotype that needs to die.
The Gift Of The Wealthy Gaze (aka, I See You) -
A white boy keeps noticing a homeless woman, wandering pathetically through the streets below his apartment. After like, a year, he gives her a blanket. Everyone is so proud of him.
That’s it. That’s the whole story. Savior rewards for everyone!
The White Man Who Ended Racism in 1939 (aka, Sweet Land Of Liberty) -
Marian Anderson worked her entire life to build a career as one of the most famous singers in US history. She was a powerful agent of change. She worked. Her. Ass. Off. to become a famous voice of the civil rights movement. She was the 1930's Beyonce.
But you wouldn’t know that based on this book. Instead, we learn about white accomplice Oscar Chapman, and his life leading up to the moment he generously places Anderson on the steps of the Lincoln memorial for a famous moment in US history.
If this is the first and only story you ever read mentioning Marian Anderson (which is easy to do! I hadn’t heard of her before this book!) you’d think she was just some random lady who received the generous help of a heroic white savior, and struck a footnote in history thanks to his kindness.
You can’t tell, because we are communicating over the space-time continuum using internet magic, but I am giving you a look that portrays how I feel about this ally-cookie nonsense.
By The Benevolence Of My Oppressors (aka ‘The Hard Times Jar’)
Thank goodness for migrant labor.
Not just because it means I can buy apples dirt-cheap year-round, but also because child-laborers are offered the opportunity to leave their communities and get a Quality White Education (QWE) from benevolent white teachers with arbitrary rules and fickle kindness.
When this poor Black girl is offered admittance to a QWE, they ask only one thing of her in exchange for their kindness (in addition to her not getting too upset about the unspoken racism, hostility, and condescension she must face from other students every day), and that is DO NOT TAKE BOOKS OUT OF THE LIBRARY!
Demanding that a chapter book be read over the course of a year because she can’t take it home for one night is completely reasonable. You can’t trust Black girls to take something home and not wreck it. (/sarcasm)
But steal it she does, because this is unspoken, but come on - she just can’t help herself! All that melanin! (/SO MUCH SARCASM)
Luckily, the white teacher forgives this little girl, and the moral is - she’s learned her lesson thanks to the patient kindness of her teacher, who didn't even call the cops or kick her out of school. What an angel.
Because it’s totally standard operating procedure for white teachers to forgive and forget. No Black student has ever had cops called in beat and drag Black girls from their desks. (I kid, this is normal.)
This book was written on the real-life experience of the author - a Black woman. This makes me so sad in ways I can’t even explain. I try to imagine living in a world where this kind of behavior from a teacher is seen as kindness, this incident of basic human decency as the pinnacle of white benevolence. I am angry, and sad, and struggling to hear her message despite my own feeling of entitlement that everyone should expect better. No words.
Thank Goodness For My Little White Savior - (aka, My Two Blankets)
A little girl recently immigrated to a primarily White country (I’m getting British vibes from the illustrations) is so sad, lost, and confused. So pathetic!
A victim of her circumstances, she doesn’t know the language, and can’t even begin to think of how to learn a new language (immigrants can't learn the common language on their own?) Luckily, a bossy white girl befriends her and on like, their third playdate, she starts demanding our protagonist learn English.
"The next time I saw the girl, she brought some words for me. She made me say them over and over.”
The protagonist has nothing to offer in exchange for these forced lessons. How could she? She’s so pitiful! This sounds like a healthy relationship of peers (/this post cannot contain all my sarcasm).
Somehow this book manages to narrate the story from the generically-pan-African protagonist and still center the white perspective. Lines like, "Sometimes I sounded funny and we laughed.”
What? No. Just... no.
This is the author’s only book, and I bet you can guess what the author does for a living. That’s right! She’s a literal white savior!
From her bio: "Irena Kobald is multi-lingual Austrian immigrant to Australia, who teaches aboriginal children in Australian outback communities.” She demands brown kids learn English as her job and laughs about how funny they sound. Oh. ha. ha ha. ::sob::
Centering The Experience Of Dogs Because They Matter More Than Disabled People (aka ‘Rescue & Jessica, Looking Out For Sarah, Anna & Natalie + 40,000 other books centered on a service-dog-narrator)
SPOILER - the narrator was the service dog THE WHOLE TIME.
Basically - what we assume about kids is:
A. None of them are disabled, and
B. Kids would never read a book centered on the voice of an actually disabled person.
Because we see disabled folks as victims, and no one wants to slip into that skin, it would make our children feel uncomfortably vulnerable!
It might remind us that disabled people are people!
No, much better to center the voices of their service dogs, because we can identify with them easier than actual humans with disabilities.
Also, the dog is always a savior, and the pathetic disabled person would have stumbled off a cliff and died long ago without this smart animal to keep them alive and give them a reason to keep living.
This dog probably eat its own poop and drinks from the toilet bowl. But it's more competent than a disabled person. (/MORE SARCASM.)
Disabled Folks/Girls Are Such Burdens (aka, The Snow Rabbit, every adventure, comic, and movie, particularly with disabled villains and sad-sack token disabled victims.)
If you’d like to write a story about reciprocal kindness that publishers want, here’s the easiest way to do this.
Step 1: Create the archetype of a helpless innocent victim. Wheelchairs are great for this, but a sad brown immigrant, feminine boy, girly girl, or a young child works, too. (I want to give bonus points if you combine these, but everyone knows you can’t be both brown and disabled in kidlit.)
Step 2: Then get them like, stuck in the snow, or a railroad track or something. Because they forgot wheelchairs have a hard time in a snowy forest (which is believable, because being disabled makes you incompetent and forgetful in stories.)
Step 3: (Optional) Hopefully, there will be a white/non-disabled ally who is placed in harms way and struggles to help, but fails, if they’re not a white male. This multiplies the suspense, because they're not just endangering their expendable selves, they're endangering real people!
Step 4: Pretty much any old savior can save the day. Make something up. Like a giant rabbit the size of a Prius (The Snow Rabbit). Or a flying 8-year-old in a purple cape with a phD and a sad pet wombat. (The Great Katie Kate). Or whatever, doesn't have to make sense.
Hope Poor Folks Find Those Boostraps One Day (but don't offer any, that would be cheating,) (aka Yasmin’s Hammer, everything by Eve Bunting)
The author of ‘Yasmin’s Hammer’ is really into helping the noble poor (this is from her author bio:) “Her interest in equal rights and social change often leads her to write about people struggling on the margins of society to improve their quality of life.”
In the front matter, the author thanks a long list of translators, academics, linguists, and lecturers. But she doesn’t thank any of the actual brick-chippers whose voices she appropriates for the story. How gracious!
She goes to a place full of poor folks, talks about them with other academics and writers (but never with the people she’s writing about) and then writes a weird story about them. She doesn’t ask what their challenges are, or how her readers can help them. She just kinda uses them like a sideshow. So readers can read the stories and felt like they did something important. Awareness!
Since they’re ‘on the margins of society’ and nothing like us we don’t have to be too concerned. They’re doing what they do, and eventually, they will improve their quality of life. That’s good, because I have time to read this book, but I’m busy this afternoon and don’t have time to do anything about what I've learned.
The 4-year-old brick chippers can handle this, they’ve got bootstraps - I read this one girl’s family bought her a book, so she’s all set.
A Good And Nebulous African Cause (aka Jumping Jenny) - Jenny is coded as hyperactive. She jumps a lot. It’s disruptive.
Now, we could just accept that she’s hyperactive and give her some gross-motor stim toys, or sign her up for soccer, or channel her energy into something that works within her community, but instead, we’ve got to turn it into white saviorism.
Jenny only earns her self-worth and acceptance within her community when she turns her jumping into a fundraiser. She’s raising money for Ugandan schools! So far have been able to research, the author doesn’t actually send any of her profits from the book to Ugandan schools. (People get loud about this, I’m pretty sure it’d be plastered all over the internet if a cent was sent to Uganda.)
She just talks about fundraising for Ugandan schools. Which makes readers feel really good about all the white students sending money to underfunded Ugandan schools, knowing someone out there is taking care of this inequity - without actually having to send real money to underfunded Ugandan schools.
And the author gets the benefit of using that need for her own benefit* as a plot device that sells books, without having to send a penny to Uganda! Win-win!(?)
We’re The Good Guys (aka ‘Most People’)
Warning about salty language below, included to prove a point:
Consider this line: "Most people are good people.”
Which means what? Some people are bad people? What determines who is 'good,' and who is 'bad?' The author goes on to draw some strange, arbitrary lines in the sand on that. (Spoiler alert: I'm one of the bad guys.)
To label 'us' as good implies a 'them.' Identity groups can't exist in a vacuum. When we create a 'them' - the bad apples spoiling the world, it gets easier and easier to other them. It gets easier to ignore them. It gets easier to look away when they hurt, and it gets easier to kill them when 'we' feel threatened. It's easy to click away when 'illegals,' 'thugs,' and 'inmates' are struggling for survival.
It gets harder when we drop the bad labels and realize we're talking about fathers, daughters, and grandchildren stuck in prisons and denied basic human rights.
Beyond the problematic mindset, the author draws a line between good and bad in weird place. On the page reading "Most people are very good people." We see a biker letting an elderly woman board a bus ahead of him. So the bar for 'good' peaks at basic human decency and manners?
Later, we see "Some people do bad things. They yell bad words. They lie and steal. They bully and hurt and destroy.”
Oh, DO 'they?’
Luckily humans are not complex, multidimensional creatures. People who let old ladies board the bus first don’t ever swear. Whew.
Fuck that - and fuck the separation of bad decisions into something only 'they' do. Everyone does bad things sometimes - separating someone who does a 'bad thing' - like the kid shown stealing an apple (has he eaten today?), or cursing so loud the neighbors can hear does not eject a person from the category of 'good' people. Good and bad dichotomies Do. Not. Exist.
I curse like a sailor. I don't smile when I see babies (another weird guideline for good guys) - does that make me a bad seed? And if it does - oh for goodness sake, why even bother? Something about this tugs at me. It makes me want to go knock things over and blow raspberries at strangers out of spite.
The line "There is a seed of goodness inside of them, waiting to sprout” is pure bullshit. This author tells us there are bad guys running around doing evil stuff just for shits and giggles, as if they aren't trying to do their best to survive given the education and resources available to them.
After calling for an imaginary line of all the 'good' and 'bad' people to show how very many people are unassailably 'good' - I have to wonder - what would this author do to get rid of the baddies once he's rounded them up? Imprisonment without trial? Forced sterilization? Capital punishment? War? Genocide?
Because all these things START with the mindset this author holds - there are good guys, and there are bad guys. There are saviors, and there are villains.
Bullshit. No thank you.
Giving Before We Get
*The author of Jumping Jenny using the plight of Ugandan school children to sell books brings me to a thing I keep meaning to write, but I am having a hard time clarifying, because I don’t want to feed into saviorism.
For BFL, I write about inequity, and (eventually, hopefully, might) profit from my work. If inequity didn’t exist - you wouldn’t be supporting my work.
Which means I (eventually might) profit from oppression, if that makes sense. And it’d be super silly of me to say, “I’ll give back to the communities whose backs I’m standing on, and the people who educate me only after I reach X dollars of income.”
That’s why BFL donates to system-disrupting organizations FIRST, and then I will pay myself in the future, if possible.
Once I’m making a living wage, I’m hoping to donate 10% of my income to these kinds of organizations. But right now it’s like 30%, simply because 70% all of our patreon/affiliate income goes to expenses and the rest goes to donations. (Pssst: tell your friends to subscribe to these awesome posts).
It’s important that we view this support (which is also YOUR support) not as saviorism, but as cooperation. Together with these organizations, we’re fighting to rip down the kyriarchy and retire.
Uhh. I think that's it. Did I miss anything? Have any thoughts? The comments on Patreon are broken, but feel free to email me at [email protected]
Next Up - Intersectionality
Next up in part 4 - we'll be talkin' about why poverty disproportionately impacts marginalized groups.
Unless something explodes over here, I'll have that ready for you on the last Saturday of August. Meanwhile, have an awesome summer!