‘Why did he get all mad?’: Talking About Social Injustice in Multicultural Literature
by Jongsun Wee
Winona State University, Winona, MN
and Nicholas Wysocki
Winona State University, Winona, MN
Discussing issues related to social justice in multicultural literature can help our children develop an understanding of this concept. (1) These discussions provide a space where children can achieve several Language Arts and Social Studies goals, such as developing critical thinking and comprehension skills concerning social inequalities that require agency on the part of democratic citizens. These goals are important for children to achieve, but social justice issues are sensitive and difficult topics for them to understand, especially when they do not have much background knowledge of them. However, we believe both that teachers should make efforts to bring these social justice issues to their classrooms and that children are able to handle those difficult issues.
In this article, we show how third grade children talked about social injustice issues in the story, The Friendship (2) in small group literature discussions. The children who participated in this study did not have much background knowledge of inequality and maltreatment, which are part of black history in the United States. At first, some children did not notice the social injustices happening in the story, but through discussions, they were able to see the unfairness and inequality experienced due to racial difference. The findings suggest that teachers need to bring multicultural children’s literature with a social justice theme to their classrooms and to create a space and time for children to discuss them.
Multicultural children’s literature for social justice
Literature can be used to reflect on the forces that shape our cultural, social, and political identities; then, multicultural children’s literature can be introduced to children when learning about other people’s experiences whose cultural, social, and political identities are different from their own. The mirrors and windows effect in multicultural children’s literature (3) explains that children can see themselves (mirror effect) and also learn about other people’s lives (window effect) in literature. If we apply this mirrors and windows metaphor to learning about social justice, children can learn about themselves, as well as others who have been treated differently in their daily lives. Multicultural children’s literature can expose children to the stories of those who both experienced and challenged instances of discrimination. Teachers can use these stories to: 1) help readers discuss the impact of discrimination on cultural communities; 2) develop empathy with story characters, and 3) identify ways to challenge acts of discrimination occurring around them. (4) We believe that it is important for children to learn about social justice issues in our society including racial discrimination, so that they do not repeat the inhumane actions that happened in the past and become global citizens who take actions for social justice. In this study, we share how a third grade teacher utilized multicultural children’s literature and created opportunities for children to talk about social justice issues during language arts class.
In this study, we employed positioning theory (5) to examine the students’ positioning in a literature discussion. According to this theory, people’s positioning cannot be ignored in a conversation because people take certain positions when they talk to other people. Therefore, students’ positioning cannot be ignored in a literature discussion because they will take certain positions when they talk about the book with their peers.
Positioning is a flexible, changeable, and negotiable act; (6) therefore, people can take new positions in a conversation. Flexibility of positioning is important because people may stop making efforts to understand one another when new positioning is not negotiable. In their study, Bullough Jr. and Draper (7) examined the relationship among a student teacher, a mentor, and a university supervisor by analyzing how they position themselves and each other. They reported that the mentor and the university supervisor failed to negotiate their power and position, and were even unwilling to talk to each other. As a result of failing to negotiate their positions, tension was created between the mentor and the university supervisor, which put the student teacher in a difficult situation during the teaching internship. Flexible positioning is also important because it prevents a potentially dangerous thought pattern from becoming a norm. If positioning becomes normalized, some students may be repeatedly disempowered by other students. (8)
Although positioning is an individualized act, a person’s positioning is related to others because people respond to the conversation differently depending on their positions. Also, what has been said in a conversation can be understood differently depending on a relationship between a speaker and a listener. In this study, the students had shown the positive relationships with one another, and they did not display any behaviors that may cause unexpected problems among group members during discussion. Therefore, we believed that the students would share their honest opinions during discussion instead of saying something to please their peers. For this reason, the relationships of students were not our major concern when we analyzed students’ positioning; however, we agreed that students’ responses might affect one another’s positioning.
In this study, we focused on students’ positioning because children’s positioning has not been examined greatly when discussing social injustice issues in multicultural children’s literature. We also believed that students’ positioning could reveal their understanding of social justice in the story. More specifically, we sought to examine whether the children shifted their positioning towards the two adult characters during discussion, and if they did, how their positioning shift was related to understanding the social justice issues in the story.
Design of the Study
Two discussions that we share in this study were videotaped in Ms. Green’s third grade classroom in Prairie Elementary School in February 2009 as part of a larger study (all names are pseudonyms in this study). The videotaped discussions were transcribed for further analysis. The majority of children in Ms. Green’s class were demographically white, upper middle and middle class, and none were receiving free and reduced lunch. When looking at the students’ races in Prairie Elementary, over 99% of students were categorized as Caucasians and less than 1% were categorized as Native, African American, Asian, or Latino/a. Prairie Elementary is located in a fairly newly established town known for good schools and beautiful houses. By examining the surroundings of the school and listening to students’ daily conversations, we assumed that discussions of discrimination and acting for social justice were not part of the children’s daily lives.
The research participant, Ms. Green was an experienced teacher who believed that literature discussions could achieve dual goals, namely helping children improve their literacy skills and inviting them to think about social justice issues. When selecting multicultural children’s literature that has social justice issues, Ms. Green and the first author decided to use the teacher’s resource room in the school. When selecting the book deliberately, certain criteria were used. First, the story needed to contain a social justice issue. Second, the story needed to be well written. Third, multiple copies needed to be available. Fourth, if possible, a chapter book was preferred over a picture book. With these criteria, both Ms. Green and the first author agreed to read The Friendship. Both read this book before, as well as other books by the same author that discussed social injustices experienced by African Americans in the past. Ms. Green indicated that through her observations, she noticed that her students did not have much background knowledge of social injustices such as maltreatment, inequity, and segregations that African Americans experienced in the past. She agreed that those social injustice issues are important to discuss and reading The Friendship would be a good way to approach those topics for her students.
In this article, we share one small group’s discussion of The Friendship. This story introduces the friendship between the black man, Mr. Tom Bee, and the white man, Mr. John Wallace, which ended with a tragedy in Mississippi during the1930s. In this discussion group, six children participated, and they met once in a week for two weeks to discuss The Friendship. While this group read The Friendship, the rest of the class were placed in different discussion groups to read other books. Ms. Green kept the discussion process simple. She assigned a book to a group with a brief introduction; then, she asked them to read it on their own during independent reading time. She also asked students to use sticky notes to write their responses whenever they wanted. For The Friendship discussion, the children were given about a week to read half of the book before the first meeting. After the first meeting, they were given another week to finish the rest of the book before the second discussion meeting. When Ms. Green introduced the book, The Friendship, she briefly introduced setting of the story and the main characters. She did not provide the historical background information to the children. Among the six children who participated in The Friendship discussion, four of them were boys and two of them were girls. Two boys were Indian Americans and the rest were white. According to Ms. Green, the students varied in their reading levels.
Recognizing the Positioning of “Whiteness”: John Wallace
Ms. Green found that some children did not have much background in social injustice, nor did they realize the nature of the racism experienced by the black characters. Some students tended to read the book from a position of inability to recognize discriminatory language, while others developed a sense of anger toward the racism illustrated in the story. The following discussion excerpt shows an example of one student, Aiden, expressing that he did not understand the nature of the racist conversation occurring between a white male adult and a black child in the story. The excerpts in this article are from the transcripts of the videotaped discussions. In the transcripts, “… ” indicates that some conversations were omitted. Ms. G means Ms. Green, the teacher, italics represent the texts in the book, The Friendship, and capital letters display the louder voice.
Aiden: I don’t really get it. Well, it seems he’s like a kid and I think they’re like…
Aiden: I know they went to the store, and before, and people were being mean to them I think they’re like that skin’s dirtier and blacker than dirt I like to put thing that off…
Ms. G: All right find the part where it talks about skin. Guys, can you find where is that in the book?
Emily: It says (reading the text) Thurston Wallace laughed and tossed his brother an ax from one of the shelves. Best chop off them hands off, Dew, they that filthy.
Ms. G: Where does it say?
Emily: This is like um, bad language.
Aiden: That’s an accent.
Emily in the discussion group also did not seem to have a lot of background knowledge of the racial discrimination occurring in the 1930s. Ms. Green believed that Emily and other children probably were not exposed to the race related social justice issues before the third grade in school. Emily also did not say that she read or heard of this kind of story before; however, she noticed that the white man in the story intentionally uses language that marginalizes the black child. She also described his talk as “bad language.” Another group member, Hari, seemed to understand the discriminatory context of the story, because he agreed with Emily that the way the white man talks to black children is not a right thing to do. An examination of the videotaped discussions indicates that when Emily read a text, her voice tone was assertive and firm indicating that she was upset about using “bad language” to the little black boy.
While Emily and Hari noticed the white man’s inappropriate language, Aiden still did not see what was wrong in this situation. It seemed that Aiden tried to understand the situation from the white men’s position. He did not think that the white man’s language was bad. For Aiden, it was just the white man’s regional dialect that Emily and Hari had a problem with. When Aiden said the white man had an accent, he spoke a little bit louder and his voice tone was firm. These non-verbal cues indicated that Aiden did not agree with Emily and Hari. Aiden’s comment also implies both that he did not think that the white man should be judged by how he talks and that he did not notice the discriminatory intentions behind the language. We also noticed that the other three children in this group were not upset with the white man because they did not agree with Emily or Hari. They also quietly listened to Aiden when he defended the white man.
Outsider’s Position: Learning to Perspective-Take
Although Ms. Green noticed that some children like Aiden did not notice the social injustice in the story, Ms. Green did not correct student’s positioning right away. Instead she closely monitored where the conversation was going and managed the discussion in a way that the children could continue to ponder about the social injustice issue in the book. Ms. Green believed that the critical thinking would evolve when the children had an opportunity to think and discuss, in her term, the big question, which is an open-ended question that invites children to think deeply.
Interestingly, as the discussion progressed, we found that the children’s positioning towards the white man’s behavior shifted. In other words, in this discussion, children’s flexible positioning was allowed. (9) The next excerpt shows the shift in positioning of two children, namely Aiden and Dylan. Initially, both Aiden and Dylan were in the position of defending the white man, but as the discussion continued, they tried to understand the white man’s commentary as well as his behaviors from a different angle.
Aiden: I only like, put myself in character’s shoes. Like, I just really don’t enjoy this book.
Ms. G: Okay.
Emily: I …
MS. G: So you don’t…
Aiden: I just, I can’t really…
Ms. G: You don’t enjoy this book because you can’t relate to it or you don’t enjoy it because…
Aiden: It doesn’t make sense.
Dylan: Yeah, a lot of it doesn’t make sense to anybody.
We thought that Aiden and Dylan tried to understand why the white man did what he did from an outsider’s position because they did not defend John Wallace any more. They both started noticing something was not quite right and felt confused, but they could not say why John Wallace’s behavior caused their confusion and uncomfortable feelings. It is possible that when Aiden and Dylan read the story on their own, they did not realize the racial discrimination in the story because they did not have any background knowledge of it. But as they listened to other children’s responses, they realized that something was wrong in terms of how one character treated another. For Aiden and Dylan, the window effect of multicultural literature (10) happened when they discussed the story with their peers, helping them shift their positioning and think about the story from a different perspective. During the discussion, Aiden said that he did not enjoy the book, The Friendship. In his case, he may not have liked the fact that the black child was treated badly just because of his skin color, and that could be the reason why he could not enjoy the book.
Recognizing the Position of Marginalization: Mr. Tom Bee
When the children shared their feelings for Mr. Tom Bee, the black older man shot in the leg by John Wallace, we found another positioning shift. In fact, the children spent most of their time in the second discussion talking about why John Wallace shot Mr. Tom Bee’s leg. When we analyzed the transcript, it was indicated that the children were shocked not because of the shooting itself, but because of the racist reasons for John’s outrageous behavior. The children could not believe that John asked Mr. Tom Bee to call him by his first name, and when Tom did it, he shot him. Dylan, who tried to understand the white man in the first discussion, could no longer understand John Wallace’s behavior.
Emily: Well, I think it was really mean that John shot Mr. Bee because they used to be friends, I guess.
Aiden: They weren’t friends.
Emily: (using a louder voice) Yeah, they were.
Aiden: He just, he was nice to Mr. Tom Bee. He was really nice.
Steph: And they were friends.
Emily: Um I know they used to be friends, but he said that. I think maybe John said that he um he he said that you can. HE SAID that you can call me John until the end of the day.
Dylan: Then why he was mad?
Aiden: Here is a picture. (Pointing at the shooting scene in the book.)
Emily: Yeah I know.
Dylan: Why did he get all mad? He said he could.
In this group, the children were not aware of the peer pressure imposed on John Wallace in the racialized climate of the 1930s which is pushing him to punish a black person who calls a white person by his first name. Instead of looking at John Wallace’s social positioning, the children took Mr. Tom Bee’s position and focused on the agreement that was made between the two characters. We think that the children did not understand the peer pressure leading to the racial violence. In fact, there was an illustration where all the white men stood behind John Wallace when he was about to shoot Mr. Tom Bee representing the peer pressure that John Wallace experienced. Since the children put themselves in Mr. Tom Bee’s position, the pressure from the other white men did not matter much to them. As they pointed out, a previous promise had been made between John Wallace and Mr. Tom Bee.
Emily and Steph in this group couldn’t understand John Wallace’s behavior because they thought that John Wallace and Mr. Tom Bee were friends. In their minds, friends should not do any harm to one another. Dylan, who couldn’t quite understand the racism in the story in the previous discussion, also took Mr. Tom Bee’s position in his analysis of John Wallace’s behavior. He also thought that Mr. Tom Bee just did what he was told to do. Dylan discussed that John Wallace should not be “mad” at Mr. Tom Bee in the first place, and his shooting could not be justified. The children in this discussion tried to find the answer for John Wallace’s racialized violence directed at Tom Bee, but they were unsuccessful.
Shifts in positioning
After analyzing the two discussions, we noticed the shift in positioning of Aiden and Dylan. According to positioning theory, other people’s speech action is one of elements that can determine people’s positioning. (11) We think that the other children’s responses to the story influenced Aiden and Dylan’s positioning. The discussion created a space for the children to share their thoughts on social injustice and gave chances for children like Aiden and Dylan to shift their positioning. At the end, Aiden and Dylan looked at the situation from the position of people who were victimized by social injustice resulting from racial difference.
Ms. G: Well, he even said (reading the text) just look at ya skin’s black as dirt you can seeds on him have growin in no time. Steph, what do you think?
Steph: I didn’t think that is something you should say, just because, you’re little dirty because he’s black.
As shown in the excerpt above, as other children shared feelings for the black child in the story, Aiden seemed both to notice something was wrong with the white man’s behavior and realize that the child could be hurt by what the white man said to him. Both Aiden and Dylan shifted their positioning of initial sympathy and noticed that the situations in the story did not make sense to them anymore. An analysis of the commentary by Aiden and Dylan indicates their realization that there was no reason for the black child to be treated badly by the white man. These children seemed to be confused because they discovered the white man was not the kind of man they originally perceived. At the end, Aiden and Dylan came to the conclusion that the white man’s action could not be understood. When we looked back at the videotaped discussion, they both looked confused and seemed uncomfortable discussing the tragic ending for Mr. Tom Bee. Aiden said the story did not make sense and Dylan kept asking “why he [John Wallace] was mad?” to the group. Issues related to social justice put children in an uncomfortable position, but we believe that this uncomfortable feeling is an indicator of student’s thinking about social justice. We also believe that this uneasy feeling opens up the opportunity for the teacher to facilitate a discussion about historic and contemporary discrimination and let children think further about social justice issues.
What Teachers can do?
Multicultural children’s literature can be an avenue to introduce examples of social injustice to children. We witnessed that children are capable of discussing social injustice when the teacher creates the space and time for them to do so with multicultural children’s literature. In this study, Ms. Green did not initially provide the children with specific background knowledge related to the story. She intentionally did not give a lecture on black history or the cultural situations depicted in the story. She wanted the children to explore the social justice issue in the story through discussion with their peers. What she did was to select multicultural children’s literature that has a social justice theme and set the small group discussion time during the language arts block. She hoped that the students would discuss social inequalities around human differences, but she did not directly ask students to find out the racial discrimination in the story. During the discussion, Ms. Green tried not to interrupt the children as long as they stayed focused and discussed the book. Even though she discovered that some children did not initially realize social injustice in the story, she allowed the children to take their time to learn about it through discussion.
Ms. Green explained the historical background of the story after the children’s discussion, but they eventually discussed and identified the social injustice in the story without the teacher’s explicit explanation before reading. Their responses may have been different if they were taught the historical context and other relevant background information prior to the reading. The impact of this pedagogical technique can be examined further in the future research.
The results of our study indicate that discussing multicultural children’s literature with a social justice theme could be a way for children to meet academic goals in Language Arts and Social Studies. In addition to developing literacy skills, the children were able to both help one another recognize instances of discrimination and take the social position of those most impacted by them. As positioning is a flexible action (12) which can be negotiated with the people who are in the context, the teacher needs to create that positive context for children. In other words, children need to feel free and safe to share their thoughts honestly. If Ms. Green did not create the context, which invited the children to exchange and express their ideas freely, the children may not have been able to share what they thought, and the shift in Aiden and Dylan’s positioning may not have happened.
After the discussion was over, one of the children, Ethan, came up to the first author and asked, “Did this thing [social injustice] happen in Korea?” The first author was quite surprised by the fact that Ethan had been thinking deeply and wondered if social injustice exists in another country. Considering Ethan was relatively quiet during the discussion, and did not actively express his feelings about any of the characters in the story, it was a nice surprise to know that Ethan thought about social injustice globally. If we can get this kind of reflection from children through discussions with multicultural children’s literature, we are in a better position to help them act in ways that challenge the social injustices they see around them.
Before we conclude our article, we would like to make some general suggestions for teachers when discussing social justice issues in their classrooms.
1. Select multicultural children’s literature that has a social justice theme.
When selecting a book, look at the resource room in your school. Multiple copies of multicultural children’s literature may be available for your students already. For the new titles, take a look at WOW Review at http://www.wowlit.org. This Worlds of Words website publishes multicultural/international children’s literature reviews regularly.
2. Form small groups and set the discussion time.
We believe that a small group is much more effective than a whole group for literature discussion. Small group creates a more inviting and non-threatening environment and gives children more chances to talk. We suggest the mixed grouping with different reading levels and gender. Most importantly, we suggest that teachers set the discussion time on a regular basis. Discussion can happen anytime throughout the day, but if teachers want to employ small group discussion, they need to place discussion time on the schedule.
3. Ask students to lead the discussion.
Remember that students are the ones who need to run the discussion. They can decide what to talk about and when to talk. Student-lead discussion needs practice. Teachers can establish discussion rules, such as permitting students to talk without raising hands, allowing only one student at a time to talk, and encouraging students to comment on another student’s idea. Teachers can help students practice these rules until they can manage the discussion independently. Once students can take the lead, teachers can monitor students’ talk and guide them only when it is necessary.
4. Don’t hesitate to talk about social justice issues with children.
Children are capable of talking about social justice issues. Teachers may think that some topics are hard for children to understand including racial discrimination, segregation, and war-related events. Teachers do not need to teach the harsh facts in great details, but they can certainly guide children to think about these topics through multicultural children’s literature. Here we suggest the following books for teachers to read with their elementary students.
FitzGerald, Dawn. Vinnie and Abraham. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge, 2007. Print.
Vinnie was a girl with a gift for sculpture. She had to fight against prejudice experienced by female artists, but she created the Lincoln statue in Washington D. C.
Johnson, Angela. A Sweet Smell of Roses. New York: Simon and Schuster Books for young Readers, 2005. Print.
The civil rights movement is described through the eyes of two young sisters.
McKissack, Patricia. Abby Takes a Stand. New York: Viking, 2005. Print.
Grandmother Gee tells her story of being ten in 1960. She helped protesters in Nashville, Tennessee by passing out flyers during the civil rights movement.
Raven, Margot Theis. Let Them Play. Chelsea, MI: Sleeping Bear Press, 2005. Print.
This is a journey of one all-black Little League baseball team in Charleston, South Carolina in the mid-1950s.
Yoo, Paula. Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee Story. New York: Lee and Low Books, 2005. Print.
This book is written based on a true story of a Korean American, Sammy Lee. In spite of the unfair treatment and racial discrimination, Lee pursued his dream and became an Olympic diving champion.
Multicultural children’s literature can be read for many reasons, one being to help young children both learn about and challenge social (in)justice around human differences. In a globalized society, children need to learn about other people’s lives outside their own cultural communities. In this study, we conclude that discussions with multicultural children’s literature that has a social justice theme are important activities that empower children to think deeply about social inequalities. Through these discussions, teachers can help children practice where to position themselves. We can hope that their positions lead us a step closer to a socially just world.
(1) Tyson, Cynthia A, and Sungchoon Park. “From Theory to Practice: Teaching for Social Justice.” Social Studies and the Young Learner 19. 2 (2006) : 23-25. Print.
(2) Written by the author of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Mildred, D. Taylor. Bantam, 1987.
(3) Bishop, Rudine Sims. “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors.” Perspectives 6. (1990) : ix-xi. Print.
(4) See Cynthia A. Tyson and Sungchoon Park in note 1.
(5) Harré, Rom and Luk Van Langenhove. Positioning Theory. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1999. Print.
(6) Davies, Bronwyn, and Rom Harré. “Positioning: The Discursive Production of Selves.” Journal of the Theory of Social Behaviour 20. 1 (1990) : 43-63. Print.
(7) Bullough Jr., Robert V, and Roni Jo Draper. “Making Sense of a Failed Triad.” Journal of Teacher Education 55.5 (2004) : 407-420. Print.
(8) See both Evans and Lane for student’s positioning in literature discussion:
—–Karen, S. Evans. “Creating Spaces for Equity? The Role of Positioning in Peer-led Literature Discussions.” Language Arts 73. (1996) : 194-202. Print.
—–Lane, W. Clarke. “Power Through Voicing Others: Girls’ Positioning of Boys in Literature Circle Discussions.” Journal of Literacy Research 38. 1 (2006) : 53-79. Print.
(9) See note 6.
(10) See note 3.
(11) See Positioning Theory in note 5.
(12) See Positioning Theory in note 5.