In children’s books, a new study says the moral of the story is a strong likelihood light-skinned characters will be there, but Black and Latino characters will be underrepresented.
“Our estimates show that lighter-skinned children see themselves represented more often in these books than do darker-skinned children,” said researchers at the University of Chicago and Columbia University, using artificial intelligence technology to analyze the imagery in 1,130 books over the past century.
Though characters with darker skin tones increasingly appear in the books over time, the high-profile award-winning books in the forefront of the “mainstream” genre — which are two times more likely to be loaned at libraries — “persistently depict more lighter-skinned characters,” the researchers said.
The researchers also spotted another pattern: apart from the books that are especially written to highlight girls and women, “we see that females have consistently been more likely to be visualized (seen) in images than mentioned (heard) in the text.” The upshot suggest more symbolic than “substantive inclusion,” they wrote.
‘Children’s books represent a prime opportunity to ‘fix the institution’ by increasing equity in representation, particularly in books that highlight the diverse roles that people can perform in an equal society.’
— Researchers from the University of Chicago and Columbia University
Overall, “males, particularly white males, are persistently overrepresented,” they said.
The National Bureau of Economic Research distributed the study on Monday — which also coincidentally happens to be National Book Lovers Day.
The researchers were not attempting to offer any suggestions on the right amount of demographic and race representation in kids’ books, they said.
Instead, they noted the study showed that with the help of technology, it’s possible to quantify the amount of race and gender representation in children’s books.
“By providing research that expands our understanding about the diversity in content, we can help to contribute to work that aims to overcome the structural inequality that pervades society and our daily lives,” they wrote.
The study comes amid a debate on the presence of critical race theory in the classroom. The theory says race is a social construct. The theory is pointing out that social institutions like the criminal justice system, housing market, healthcare system and more can treat races differently, according to observers like Rashawn Ray, a fellow at the Brookings Institution.
The “scholars and activists who discuss [critical race theory] are not arguing that white people living now are to blame for what people did in the past,” Ray wrote. “They are saying that white people living now have a moral responsibility to do something about how racism still impacts all of our lives today.”
In recent months, lawmakers in several Republican-leaning states, have advanced or enacted legislation focusing on how race and racism is taught in the classroom. For example, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill in June that didn’t mention the term “critical race theory,” but said no school district, teacher or administrator could require instruction that, among other things, said ideas like getting ahead in a “meritocracy” should not be linked to racism.
The majority of main characters in children’s TV programming are male, according to a 2019 study from Rutgers University-New Brunswick and the Center for Scholars and Storytellers.
The latest study also adds to the research on the deeper context surrounding the media that kids soak up.
For example, the majority of main characters in children’s TV programming are male, according to a 2019 study from Rutgers University-New Brunswick and the Center for Scholars and Storytellers. The girls depicted on the shows were more likely than the boys to be thin, they noted after reviewing programs from America and Canada in the fall of 2017.
When the characters encountered problems and obstacles, the boys were more likely to use their physical might, as well as critical math and science skills. The girls often resorted to magic, they said.
The researchers in the latest study aren’t saying what books ought and ought not be out there, but others are making that call.
Earlier this year, Dr. Suess Enterprises, the company handling the estate of Theodor Seuss Geisel, the iconic Dr. Seuss, said it will stop publishing six of Geisel’s books due to racist and insensitive imagery.
Images and content in the books aimed at tender-aged readers is not child’s play, the authors in the latest study wrote.
“Children’s books represent a prime opportunity to ‘fix the institution’ by increasing equity in representation, particularly in books that highlight the diverse roles that people can perform in an equal society,” they said.