Whitewashing in Religion and Books

It seems like everywhere I turn these days I find evidence that so many people still don’t understand race and subtle racism.

I teach a Sunday school class for little guys (preschool and elementary ages), and have recently been looking at different curriculum for the upcoming months. Most weeks in my class I don’t have even one caucasian student. I have Latino, biracial, African American, and Korean American. And do you know how hard it is to find a curriculum in which the ethnicities of these children are accurately represented? It’s practically impossible.

So often when I find “multicultural” teaching aids, they portray Asian children as wearing traditional Chinese and Japanese clothing and black children as wearing the outfits of native Africa. I realize that the companies are trying. But don’t they see that Asian children and black in America aren’t going to be dressing that way, at least not on an everyday basis? In fact, often natives of these countries no longer regularly dress in the traditional garb in which they are portrayed. People in Korea no longer wear hanbok every day, so portraying them in such a way shows a basic misunderstanding of other cultures.

Not to mention, if you’re religious, have you ever noticed how the people of the Bible are “whitewashed”? Of course, almost all societies tend to depict Jesus and other Bible characters as being of that ethnicity, so they are mostly portrayed as white in our country. But why can’t we just portray these historical figures as they probably looked? After all most of these men and women, including Jesus, were of Jewish lineage, and therefore probably resembled those from the Middle East.

Books are another area in which I’m struggling with race. I  have always loved to read. Now my son shares that love. Finding diverse picture books hasn’t been too big a  problem. Some, of course, are better illustrated than others with more realistic and respectful portrayals of  people of color.

But as we look for chapter books to begin to read to him, I realize how many are about caucasian characters. Almost all of the books considered classics portray the lives of white characters. If people of color are included, often they are portrayed in a derogatory way. Of course, many of these classics he’ll still read and we’ll discuss how people of color are thought of and portrayed. But I feel it’s a fine line to walk–exposing him to those truths without giving him reason to feel he or his ethnicity is inferior.

That’s why I feel it’s important to balance those classics with books featuring positive and realistic storylines about people of color. Yet, that’s easier said than done. In time he’ll read all of Linda Sue Park’s books, which all have a tie to Korea through Korean/Korean American characters and/or history. But that’s only a handful of books.

Then recently I discovered Laurence Yep. He’s written numerous books featuring characters of mostly Chinese heritage. So I’m excited to begin to explore Yep’s books and hopefully share them with our son someday. But as I was trying to learn more about Yep, I found this statement on Wikipedia:

Regardless of the ethnicity of his characters, Yep’s writing is for everyone.

That statement just really struck me. It almost seemed to discount Yep’s work in someway because his characters are primarily Asian. As if people of other ethnicities wouldn’t even consider reading a book about Asian children. And all I could think is how many children of color are required to read books primarily about whites and in some case featuring negative portrayals of their own ethnicities.

I realize that for me this is a recent understanding. I grew up going to church seeing “white Jesus” and never once questioned the image. And almost all of the books I loved as a kid had very little racial diversity in them. But still I wonder about why our country isn’t further along in this understanding? Why didn’t I, who was raised in a diverse area, question these things earlier? And why aren’t Christians further along in racial understanding, given that we’re commanded to love as God loves us? I don’t have the answers. But I’m hoping to be part of the change.

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Just a reminder that if you want to learn more about Korean culture (both traditional and pop culture), language resources, and cooking, check out my other blog: thekoreanway.wordpress.com It's filled with resources for adoptive families or anyone interested in Korean culture.

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