In Anti-Racism Work, 'That Listening Part is Huge'

Oct 1, 2020

Northampton, Massachusetts, author Tiffany Jewell’s activity-driven book, "This Book Is Anti-Racist," lays out the work kids need to do before a lifetime of bias is instilled in them.

It's written for everybody middle-school age and up, and is the latest pick in our Books For Young People series.

Growing up, Jewell said her neighborhood in Syracuse, New York, was poor and the elementary school had mostly Black and brown kids. The teachers lived elsewhere and were white.

Tiffany Jewell, author: I had a [third grade] teacher — she did these little things. Like, she would say things about the amazing field trips her son's suburban school [was] going on, or how they had famous authors come visit their school. And we never — we didn't even know that was possible. And so she would share those little things that kind of made us feel less important and not great.

The cover imagine of "This Book Is Anti-Racist," by Tiffany Jewell and illustrated by Aurelia Durand.
Credit Submitted Photo

I'm Black, biracial and very light. My friend, he's Black and much darker. He and I were smart kids, best buddies. We'd do this thing where, because she made a lot of mistakes as a teacher, we would just kind of correct her. And so he corrected her and she yelled at him in a really horrible way and she told him to shut up. And she used "Black" as if it was the dirtiest thing coming from her mouth, and she likened him to an animal. It was one of those moments where she said it, and we just all were sitting there, stunned.

That moment now — I know I would do it totally differently. And I became a teacher, probably, as a reaction to her, to make sure that whoever's in my class doesn't ever have to experience that or feel that way.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: Speaking of power, with the recent death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I've been reflecting about the barriers that she overcame. She didn't allow herself to be told what to do. Is that kind of belief in doing what's right, no matter what the penalty, similar to the message that your book really brings the reader when you talk about opening doors and empowerment?

Yes. I kind of always have erred on doing what I believe is right over what makes other people comfortable — and knowing that not everybody can do that. I think it really depends on who you are. I love that about Ruth Bader Ginsburg — how she stood up for what she believed in. And it's not always the same thing everybody else believed in. And there are times where later, she's like, 'You know what? I made a little mistake,' and I appreciate that too.

I'm hoping young folks will be able to kind of be moved by that, and also recognizing there are huge consequences and risks. And anti-racism takes a lot of risk and some people can take much bigger risk than others. So what I hope from the book is that, like, white cisgender kids are going to see that they can take a greater risk than a Black trans classmate — because the role of being an accomplice is to stand up and to work in solidarity and to take that risk.

An image from "This Book is Anti-Racist" by Tiffany Jewell and illustrated by Aurelia Durand.
Credit Submitted Photo

You write that the job of white people is to listen, learn and grow. This summer, time and time again, we saw Black Lives Matter rallies. There was robust attendance. Is that a really a good starting point for people who represent people from outside the global majority?

Yeah, it really depends. And it goes a lot with asking folks what they need and not making the assumption, 'You want me to organize this or do that?' [Instead] sitting and listening, and really listening and not doing the thing that people do where we half-listen but we're already coming up with our own solutions and answers to things.

And sometimes that need is just money. It's redistributing funds to support Black organizations. Other times it's listening and learning that we actually need white people to provide a physical barrier so Black folks can be safe when they're being brave. So that listening part is huge or else we don't know what people need.