The White Default & Me
Well before I started writing book reviews, I read book reviews in the NY Times and in Kirkus, a copy of which was always in the break room of the Barnes & Noble where I worked as a bookseller from 1995 to 2013. When I began writing reviews in 2008, these sources guided me as I worked to channel my enthusiastic voice into a more critical and concise communication. Becoming an elementary school librarian in 2014 and working with a student population that is 90% Latinx and low SES drove me to focus my reviews largely on books featuring diversity, equity and social justice. Once again, I looked to other book review sources to guide me: Hispanic or Latinx? Black or black? POC or BIPOC?
A few years back, I noticed that the reviewers at Kirkus had begun noting the color of the characters and I followed their lead. However, one thing I now realize I failed to do was indicate when characters are white. Linda Sue Park's piece in School Library Journal made the error of my omission clear to me. Park begins "Book review journals, book reviewers, book bloggers everywhere: I'm looking at YOU" with this quote from an editor of children's book reviews at a major paper in response to her change of policy request, "When race is a factor or important to the story, we expect our reviewers to reflect that in their assessment." Park makes it very clear how this policy perpetuates the White Default, writing, "To cite the race of characters in those books and no others posits whiteness as 'normal,' with every other race seen as a deviation . . . This policy is more than just disappointing. It is actively harmful, because what it does is support and reinforce the status quo. It's especially easy to see these days how dangerous the status quo is to Black people, and how people everywhere are demanding a change."
Park holds up Vicky Smith, the children's editor at Kirkus who, in late 2015 began requiring that all her writers "mention the race, ethnicity, or skin color of book characters named in their reviews" in her piece, noting the "storm of backlash" Smith received for this decision. Park refers to Smith's article from May 2016, "Unmaking the White Default," in which Smith shares the thought process that resulted in her decision and the challenges that came with it, which has further educated me.
I regret that it has taken me four years to fully understand and support the importance of noting the race of ALL book characters. I am grateful to Linda Sue Park for the clear and certain terms she outlines and to Vicky Smith for establishing a criteria for reviews that I can further learn from. As Park writes, "I'll say it again: By not mentioning when characters are white, reviews perpetuate the White Default, thereby supporting the systemic injustice of white dominance. I'm deeply dismayed that no other major review outlet has followed Kirkus's lead."