The White Mind

Anne Sibley O’Brien

We belong to a field full of well-meaning people who care about children. If asked, most would surely agree with poet Lucille Clifton (Some of the Days of Everett Anderson) that “the literature of America should reflect the children of America.” I have never met an aficionado of children’s books who I can imagine wanting those books to misrepresent, marginalize or render invisible whole groups of our nation’s children.

So how can it be that in 2010, this is where we find ourselves:

  • The percentage of published children’s books featuring characters of color is far smaller than – perhaps less than half – the percentage of people of color in the U.S. population, and the majority of these books are still created by white writers and illustrators.
  • Many of the most popular book series, particularly in fantasy, have no significant characters of color at all.
  • Cases of “whitewashing” book jackets, of editors requesting that an author erase a character’s ethnicity so that a book “can reach a larger audience,” of booksellers or librarians passing on certain titles because “our community doesn’t respond to those kinds of books,” suggest an assumption that white readers won’t respond to characters of color.

And so on.

I want to suggest a cause for the gap between our intention and the reality we’ve created: the patterns formed by white American socialization, which I’ll call White Mind.

 By White Mind, I do not mean conscious prejudice or racist attitudes. It is not what you believe, what you intend, the values you are committed to or how you choose to behave. I’m speaking instead of the unconscious patterns that result from social conditioning as the dominant and majority race in the U.S. for the last several hundred years. Being a dominant group member is like having a free pass that members of out-groups don’t have, but with no awareness of having it. Given such conditioning, developing White Mind is pretty much inescapable.

 Brain researchers such as Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard University ( have documented the presence of implicit bias as a universal human experience. When we think about people like ourselves, they report, a certain part of our brains light up; when we think about people different from us, a different part lights up. This kind of bias is completely unconscious, Banaji states, present in people who are absolutely positive they don’t have it and who are committed to treating everyone fairly (and think they do). According to Banaji’s studies, 80% of whites show bias for the white race; people of non-majority races do not show this bias for their race. These implicit biases can drive our behaviors without our awareness.

 White Mind shows up in the stuff we have no idea we’re doing (as in those studies in which a majority of teachers of both genders were shown to call more frequently on male students than female, even though they were committed to and convinced they were being fair). It’s usually invisible to white people, though often quite visible to people of color.

It’s part of the explanation for how scores of thoughtful white writers could create so many books with no significant characters of color, or how so few manuscripts by and about people of color get accepted. It’s one of the reasons why our children’s book conferences and conventions are overwhelmingly white, and why I might walk out of a bookstore or library with a stack of picture books, not even noticing that not a single one of them starred children of color.

 From writing and illustrating to hiring publishing staff, editing and marketing to selling, buying and reviewing, White Mind affects children’s books today. Unless we become aware of and develop strategies to directly challenge these patterns, white norms will continue to prevail.


Sometimes, when facing puzzling and seemingly intractable problems, we can find clues in myth. Picture in your mind the lovely Snow White, asleep in her glass coffin, with the piece of poisoned apple stuck in her throat.

 White Mind is a kind of sleepwalking. It can be as obscuring as fog, as ineffable as mist, as taken-for-granted as breath or gravity. So how do I break the spell? I wake myself up, cough out the poison, and step out of the coffin.

 Read more here


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