Storytime for Social Justice: Ethnocentrism

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We hope you’ve been thinking about our new Social Justice-themed Guerrilla Storytime questions. If there have been some concepts in the questions that tripped you up, you’re not the only one. No worries, friends. We’re here to help discuss the topics and provide some introductions.

 

First up, one of my personal favorite questions: How do you counter ethnocentrism in storytimes?

 

Let’s define ethnocentrism first. It means, “evaluation of other cultures according to preconceptions originating in the standards and customs of one’s own culture.” When we make judgments about a person from a different cultural background, it often has to do with our own narrow perspective and experiences. We can easily decide that our customs and behaviors are right or normal and any others are strange or wrong, but doing this is a form of disrespect and marginalizing and we have to push past that impulse to embrace and understand those who are different from us.

 

This is a lot harder than it sounds. Uncovering those cultural biases requires us to doubt ourselves, to research different viewpoints and cultures, and to accept self-criticism as part of our routine. It means that you have to be able to say you were wrong, or that you’re not the only one who is right.

 

In storytime, ethnocentrism can appear in lots of ways.

 

We might be telling ourselves that we can’t read books featuring vocabulary in different languages because our crowd just won’t “get it.” This idea that foreign languages are harder to understand or have less value is completely relative to your own cultural background and it’s really a judgment that underestimates both your skills as a presenter and your crowd’s ability to understand and show tolerance. If you think you get strange looks when you sing one song in Spanish, just think of how many looks native Spanish-speakers must get in their day to day lives.

 

We might be singing songs that mostly feature eurocentric language like lords and ladies, porridge, kings and knights, horses, etc. (MGOTL can place you on this path very easily, so be aware.) When it comes to adding songs with more neutral language or maybe even more diverse cultural references like yams, tigers, gourds, cranes, are you presenting them with just as much enthusiasm? Are you working for equity by balancing your activities and going the extra mile to make your crowd embrace them?

 

We might be choosing books that cast characters of diverse backgrounds as “other.” Take a look at your selections. Is there a white character who must overcome her own cultural biases, making her a hero? Are immigrants receiving unspecific labels like, “Latin American?” Are there stereotypes in the illustrations? Are all the cab drivers Middle Eastern or South Asian in appearance?

 

The idea, simply, is that we don’t want people from diverse backgrounds to feel like they are “other” in libraries. We must continue to work towards representation for all and, more deeply, the right kind of representation–the kind that isn’t just wheeled out for Thanksgiving and Lunar New Year, but included in every session and reflected in our own attitudes and leadership.

 

We recommend looking at some of the things you do every week in storytime and asking yourself some of the questions we listed above. Maybe think about replacing one thing with an activity that reflects another culture, just to dip your toes. It can be as simple as making a flannel set to go with The Wheels on the Bus that shows real pictures of children in different countries riding buses. It could be that you replace one of your lap bounces about ladies and gentlemen with a more neutral one about a child on a horse.

 

Let us know how it goes and add your own ideas for countering ethnocentrism in the comments.

 

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