Shades of Black
The Best Books on the Black
Experience in Canada
Volume 22 Number 1
Bias -what is it, what do we do about it -is the topic of this month's feature which also includes an annotated bibliography of recommended Canadian titles on Black history.
The following article departs somewhat from the discussions which often appear in CM. The topic is timely and important --so important and far reaching that within Canadian society there will be many views and, even within the views, gradations of opinions.
The topic of bias is one on which much has been written and on which much more needs to be said. If, indeed, we are to move to a "just" society, all the "isms" must be examined, understood, recognized, identified and acted upon appropriately or compassionately or fairly (even the application of the adverb modifying the verb conveys a definite connotation, indeed even a "biased" one to someone, somewhere). Hence any discussion of identification of bias in materials is destined to spark debate, controversy and maybe even letters to the editor.
Let the debate begin.
Identification of Bias in Resource Materials for Libraries
Librarians involved in collections development are being faced with a new challenge--to select materials free of racial, cultural and gender bias at a time when sensitivities have never been so high. Finding a workable selection tool that assists in this task has grown increasingly important.
The beliefs and assumptions about different groups of people are embedded in our society. When we read books or view videotapes or filmstrips, images exist in our minds that serve as our frame of reference. On the basis of these images we either confirm or reject the biases that appear. For children, reading biased material may further influence their perceptions of other cultures and racially visible peoples.
We must agree that our collections should reflect and support the identity and experiences that promote positive attitudes toward race, ethnicity, gender, age, class and disability among readers of all ages. Further emphasis should also be made with regard to religious, linguistic and life-style diversity. Whether the materials are books, videotapes, filmstrips or CD-ROM sources, they probably all contain some bias. It is only when such biases are directed at specific groups, individuals or practices that the information is detrimental to those mentioned. The onus, then, is on the librarian and educator to select material that does not represent only the dominant cultural or socio-economic group.
While emphasis is being placed on evaluation and identification of bias found in educational or library resources, by no means does this mean censorship. Depending upon the age of the student/reader, it may be necessary to discard certain out-dated resources. Much of this will take place as a regular part of the weeding process. However, young people need to become aware of the existence of bias to understand how racially visible peoples and women have been portrayed in the past.
Many works of literature and historical information contain biases and points of view from the period in which they were written. Some of this information can be used to assist learners in identifying bias and to become critical thinkers without threatening the removal of certain classics. If instruction is not available through the school curriculum or library program, then young people will be unable to identify the existing bias and interpret stereotypes, covert racism, sexism, classism, etc., as being reality.
When educational and library resources are being selected, developed or used, it would be of benefit to have a selection of criteria to assist in the analysis. These criteria should help to identify racial, religious, sexual and cultural biases and prejudicial ideas. Our collections must show a balanced and real representation of all sections of Canadian society. If the criteria are available in a checklist format, it should assist the user in becoming aware of resources that portray a group of people in a negative way while helping to identify ideas in resources that are unsuitable for developing positive attitudes.
Use of these criteria will further alert users to the extent of bias and racial imbalances visible in some resources. The following checklist has been designed for this purpose. It is not a complete evaluation instrument, but a guide only.
The way in which the story is written and the characters are portrayed sends messages to the reader. The content should reflect accurate information on history and culture that recognizes that all people (racially visible, Aboriginal people, persons with disabilities, women, etc.) have made historical contributions to the development of our country. The content should:
- Display a realistic portrayal of a variety of personality characteristics for both women and men.
- Display emotions and feelings equally among women and men.
- Display a positive attitude towards older people.
- Assist readers to have an appreciation of cultures other than their own.
- Assist the reader in evaluating his or her own attitudes and behaviour with regards to race, culture, religion, gender, class and the disabled. Present a true portrayal of all people as they live in a country.
2. Stereotyping is defined as the unrealistic portrayal of certain groups. Stereotyping is an over-generalization that refers to a certain group, gender, race, etc., which is demeaning or derogatory. The material should:
- Avoid using one characteristic of an individual or a group as a general attribute of the whole group.
- Show family relationships in a non-stereotypical way.
- Avoid any stereotypes that makes generalizations about physical appearance, origin, position, race, monetary status, special abilities, age, etc.
"Life-style" refers to the variety of ways people live within their own cultures as well as within society as a whole. The material should:
- Show racially visible people, Aboriginal peoples, people of different ethnic origins, women, and persons with disabilities in leadership roles.
- Show alternative life-styles for each sex, race, age, etc., portrayed in the story.
- Show different types of parent-child relationships that show girls and boys in a variety of activities and roles.
- Show a variety of family patterns in a positive way--extended family, nuclear family, single-parent families of both sexes.
- Show conflict resolution in a fair way where racially visible/ ethnic groups and women are treated equally.
- Depict all persons in a realistic setting without negative value judgements.
- Show the achievement made by women not based on physical beauty.
- Refer to skin colour only if information is provided for its use.
- Depict various aspects of a culture accurately, including the behaviour, personality and authentic dress of a people.
- Ensure women, racially visible people, persons with disabilities, and Aboriginal people appear as heroes and heroines, and possess the same qualities as others.
- Show respect for all religions.
- Present norms, values and images which do not limit self-concepts and aspirations.
"Diction" refers to the use of vocabulary in materials. The material should:
- Contain words that do not have insulting overtones.
- Contain words that are not sexist or racist.
- Contain accurate names from the appropriate time period.
- Use current names for religious and ethnic groups.
- Include language that is appropriate and natural.
- Appreciate people who speak various dialects.
- Produce a pronunciation guide if cultural names are included.
- Use vocabulary and style that is appropriate to the intended age group or grade level.
- Define unfamiliar or difficult vocabulary in a glossary, appendices, etc.
Visual stereotyping through pictures is insidious and damaging. The material should:
- Display appropriate illustrations for the intended age group/grade level.
- Include illustrations that equally represent all groups.
- Illustrate an ethnic group or racially visible people realistically and true to life (e.g., in the cases of the portrayal of Blacks, are faces merely shaded?)
- Show women in a variety of clothing suitable for the activity in which they are involved.
How the author/publisher displays objectivity is a key factor in his or her ability to portray a group fairly. Is the author/publisher a member of the particular group being written about? If cultural/ethnic topics are being explored, has there been consultation with the groups to ensure that the portrayal is realistic? The author/publisher should:
- Show that they have substantial knowledge about different groups (racially visible, Aboriginal people, persons with disabilities, women, etc.).
- Show that they have a realistic perspective of different groups.
- Use terminology that is current and accepted by racially visible people, Aboriginal people, women, and persons with disabilities, etc.
Bibliography of Recommnended Canadian Black Literature/History
While it is not a complete list, the following bibliography will give librarians and educators a guide to books selected according to the above criteria. There has been a significant rise in the amount of African/Black history and literature published in Canada during the past decade. More books are being written highlighting the significant contributions of Africans/Blacks to Canada's development as a country.
However, not all of these materials will emerge from close scrutiny endorsed by Canada's Black communities. Many are flawed because African-Canadians themselves were not fully involved in the development of these materials. A prime example of this is Reidmore Books' Black Canadians: Their History and Contribution, a book that met with initial excitement among librarians and educators, many of whom purchased copies sight unseen. Shortly after its release, however, the book received considerable criticism from Blacks concerned by the manner in which some of their communities were portrayed. This book, an excellent work in many ways, has been rewritten in response to public awareness and should be re-released shortly.
For the most part new materials are being viewed as a positive step towards social awareness. The titles listed in the bibliography below are particularly notable examples. Whereas in the past many writers focused on the negative aspects of the African culture, ranging from what was termed "primitive" to the display of acts of subservience, these books take the perspective of Blacks themselves. Because Nova Scotia was one of the earliest settlement sites in Canada, it is strongly represented.
Braithwaite, Rella and Tessa Benn-Ireland. Some Black Women: Profiles of Black Women in Canada. Toronto, Sister Vision, 1993.ISBN0920813844. Junior High/ Senior High/Teacher Resource
This book provides brief biographies of Black women achievers. Among them are included politicians, educators, religious leaders, artists, businesswomen and social activists.
Brown, Rosemary. Being Brown: A Very Public Life. Mississauga (Ont.), Random House, 1989. ISBN 0394220501. Senior High/Teacher Resource
Rosemary Brown writes about the people and events she has known and witnessed--from her childhood in Jamaica and the family life that helped to shape her early views of life, to her rise within Canada's social fabric as a politician and concerned citizen.
Hill, Daniel. The Freedom Seekers: Blacks in Early Canada. Agincourt (Ont.), The Book Society of Canada, 1981. ISBN 0772552843. Junior High/Senior High
This resource presents the history of Black people in early Canada, their journey to freedom, and the people who helped them to get there.
Hill, Lawrence. Trials and Triumphs: The Story of African Canadians. Toronto, Umbrella Press, 1993. ISBN 1895642019. Elementary
Written for elementary school children, this book depicts the history of African-Canadian settlers and immigrants in a readable style. The achievements of our contemporary Black achievers are profiled along with earlier notables. Included are Daurene Lewis, Alfred Shadd, Oscar Peterson, Rita Cox and Portia White.
Mollel, Tololwa M. The Orphan Boy. Illustrated by Paul Morin. Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1990. ISBN 0195407830. Elementary
To the Masai, the planet Venus is known as Kileken, the orphan boy. In this beautiful tale from his homeland, Mollel explains why. More than a legend, The Orphan Boy is also a story of strength and weakness, youth and age, and unwavering, loyal affection. It is included here as a cultural perspective on the Black African heritage that does not trivialize or demean.
Pachai, Bridglal. Beneath the Clouds of the Promised Land: Vol.1660-1800: The Survival of Nova Scotia's Blacks. Halifax, The Black Educators Association of Nova Scotia, 1987. ISBN 0969321708. Junior High/Senior High/Teacher Resource
This book gives an accurate account of African heritage from the origin in Africa through to the settlement in Nova Scotia up to 1800.
Pachai, Bridglal. Beneath the Clouds of the Promised Land: Vol. 21800-1989. Halifax, The Black Educators Association of Nova Scotia, 1990. ISBN 0889994765. Junior High/Senior High/ Teacher Resource
A continuation of the saga, this book provides an accurate account of African heritage, the struggle and the accomplishments in Nova Scotia from 1800 to 1989.
Ruck, Calvin. The Black Battalion: No. 2 Construction. Halifax, The Society for the Protection and Preservation of Black Culture,1987. ISBN0921201001. Junior High/Senior High/Teacher Resource
Calvin Ruck gives an account of historical references that are brief overviews of Black involvement in the military service of Canada and the British Empire. The No. 2 Construction Battalion and other units were the first of their kind in Canada.
The Spirit of Africville. Selected and edited by the Africville Genealogical Society, with contributions by Donald Clairmont, Stephen Kimber, Bridglal Pachai and Charles Saunders. Halifax, Formac Press, 1992. ISBN 0887800858 (cloth), ISBN 088780084X (paper). Junior High/Senior High
This book tells the story of Africville in words and pictures, along with a portrait of a day in the life of the community. There is an account of the origins of Nova Scotia's Black residents, a history of Africville itself, and the story of events leading up to the demolition.
Walker, James, W. St. G. The Black Loyalists: The Search for a Promised Land and Sierra Leone 1783-1870. London, Longman Press, 1992. ISBN 058264190X. Senior High/Teacher Resource
This is a story about one group of Black Loyalists who came to the Maritimes but did not stay. In Nova Scotia the Black Loyalists encountered hardship, hostility and broken promises. James Walker documents their experience in Canada, and then follows them across the Atlantic as they became part of a unique colonial enterprise in Sierra Leone.
Nancy Sparks is the Resource and Community Coordinator, Race Relations, Cross Cultural Understanding and Human Rights, with the Halifax County Bedford District School Board in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.
Jane Thornley is Supervisor of Library and Information Services with the Halifax County Bedford District School Board in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, and a member of the CM Editorial Board.
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