White authors are represented in school curricula nearly seven times more than Black authors, according to a new report from the Education Trust. Of the 300 books in the sample, 77% featured at least one white author or illustrator. 

The report, released in September, analyzed representation in widely used grade school books. 

“I still am gripped with the imbalance of representation,” says report author Dr. Tanji Reed Marshall, a former director of P-12 Practice at EdTrust, an organization dedicated to dismantling racial and economic barriers in the American education system.

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‘Being Culturally Relevant Requires Responsibility’

While a book might seem inclusive and representative on the surface — like featuring characters of different races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations — you might find something different when you take the time to “kick the tires and look under the hood,” Marshall says.

Less than half of the books, at only 39% of the sample, included groups of color.

Only half of characters of color studied were portrayed with a “complex representation,” meaning they are multidimensional, and have agency and a positive influence. But only a third of the books avoid stereotypes, immerse people in culture, and portray groups of color positively and as equally valuable to other groups, the report found.

More than half of the books studied that include people of color don’t meet those criteria, only having a “limited representation,” meaning through stereotypes or as background to the stories of others.

“What’s most important to understand is that being culturally relevant requires responsibility,” Marshall says.

We’re beyond visual representation, according to Marshall. Now it’s time to stop “counting the beans and feeling good about it.” Even though representation is shifting, if it still depicts negative stereotypes, Marshall says, “forget it, because you haven’t really done deep work.”

Cultural Detachment in Black Characters

The most common form of limited representation among Black characters was cultural detachment, or when a book highlights a character as a part of a culture, but fails to demonstrate a connection to their deeper culture.

Another common problem was an oversimplification of topics, playing into what Marshall calls “intellectual condescension” to young people. They’re made to believe that complex issues can be solved if “the little people” do their jobs — like kids solving pollution by recycling or solving racism by everyone being nice to each other.

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It’s “reductive” and an “incomplete truth” intended to “make complex situations very easily solvable, as opposed to helping young people understand that they are part of a set of concentric circles where they are part of a world where they have their part, and there are systems and organizations and governments who play an even bigger part,” Marshall says.

There’s a need, Marshall says, to make the country’s history as simple as possible, but the oversimplification gives young people an incomplete understanding.

What’s most important to understand is that being culturally relevant requires responsibility.

Dr. Tanji Reed Marshall, former director of P-12 Practice at the Education Trust

Marshall cites Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as an example. Students learn he was a preacher who stood before the Lincoln Memorial and talked about a dream. What they don’t learn, Marshall says, is that his dream was part of a larger speech, in which he challenged the fact that Black and brown children were sent to schools “with teachers who don’t believe in their intellectual capacity,” Marshall says. 

Or they learn that Rosa Parks was a “little old lady” who didn’t give up her seat, but not that it was part of a long, orchestrated fight of civil disobedience, Marshall says. This incomplete and narrow way of communicating about the world leaves young people unable to engage in critical thought, according to Marshall.

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“It leaves them unable to meet the academic standards that call for them to be critical thinkers and critical analyzers of multiple texts and multiple perspectives,” Marshall says. “All of these limited, intellectually condescending texts are actually working against the very standards states say they want their kids to reach.”

Giving Characters and Children Agency

It’s important for Black and brown characters to have agency so that all young readers see these characters — and people — as decision-makers and problem-solvers.

“What happens on the pages of Black and brown children is that they are subject to the in the book.”

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The other problem is the way girls are portrayed, Marshall says. In one book that was analyzed, a boy is president of an organization, and a girl is vice president — but the girl is described as bossy. If no one flags that for you, Marshall says, no matter your gender, it influences your perception of girls.

“These subtle language messages happen when the representation is out of balance, and that’s harmful,” Marshall says.

So the report advises people choosing curricula books to keep in mind the portrayal of Black and brown children relative to white children, how all of these groups are being put together on the page, who the leaders are, and if there’s a balance across all people and cultures.

It’s Time to Ask Deeper Questions

Change has to start on multiple levels.

Book publishers direct the materials that land in classrooms, Marshall says, so they need to look at the representation and consider the unit being put together and what students will learn. 

They need to have these conversations with the authors, who, in turn, need to look at their books through a more critical lens, Marshall says. This also applies to teachers, who need to “develop a new set of eyes with new questions,” she adds. 

And parents, too, have a responsibility to help their children identify any harmful messages coming across so, when they go to schools, “they’re prepared to engage in a critical examination of what’s being put in front of them.”

There’s a need to make the country’s history as simple as possible, but the oversimplification gives young people an incomplete understanding.

While no single curriculum can “check every single box,” Marshall says, EdTrust has developed guidelines and suggests questions that schools and educators can consider when selecting books to teach. Are historically marginalized people multidimensional? Do they have agency? Are historical and social topics presented without sanitization? Do they include historically marginalized perspectives?

“People have to take the time to ask deeper questions to get them where they need to be,” Marshall says, “to help them challenge dominant, cultural stereotypes; to help them ask deeper, wider questions; to help them really understand how people, cultures, and topics are being represented in books and in instructional materials as a whole.”

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Maya Pottiger is a data journalist for Word in Black. She was previously a data journalist for the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland, where she earned both her BA and Master of Journalism. Her work has been featured...