OSU professor examines issue of colorblindness in children’s books on sports heroes

As a longtime educator at Oregon State University, Ken Winograd has always paid close attention to what his 14-year-old son reads. So while perusing the library one day for sports biographies aimed at children, Winograd discovered a disturbing trend in the books he was picking up.

“I started noticing egregious examples of racism” contained in the sports biographies of African-American male sports heroes, Winograd said. “Some of the racism in these books is quite explicit, but more troubling is the more subtle forms of racism that actually permeate this genre of children’s literature.”

Winograd, an associate professor in OSU’s College of Education, wrote about his examinations of children’s sports biographies in an article for the journal Race, Ethnicity and Education, published in the United Kingdom. The article appeared in this month’s issue.

Dan Marino

In one biography, quarterback Dan Marino, who is white, is depicted as having a rich personal life that includes founding a philanthropic organization and highlights his work in television and radio. Alternately, in the same series, African-American wide receiver Jerry Rice is depicted as wearing diamond rings and fancy suits, and collecting football cards.

Wrote Winograd in the journal: “(It) portrays Jerry Rice as the childlike and simple-minded Sambo, shining his shoes and collecting cards with his own likeness. The racist imagery used to represent Rice becomes more vivid when his synthesis chapter is compared to that of the white player.”

Winograd said explicit forms of racism and stereotyping found in children’s books before the civil rights era have largely been eradicated. Yet, he points out that a more subtle form of racism is common in sport biographies written for children. His analysis of biographies of notable African-American professional football players showed that race and culture were absent from those stories, and the books presented a colorblind approach to telling about the lives of these athletes.

On the surface, colorblindness, or not discussing or acknowledging race, is sometimes perceived as a liberal, non-racist attitude.

“This is the post-race discourse,” Winograd said. “Especially with the election of Obama, there’s a lot of people out there, including well-intentioned liberals, who think there is no more racism, that we’ve reconciled the core tensions during the racial struggles of the 50s and 60s and we’re beyond that.”

Jerry Rice

According to race theory, Winograd says, colorblindness invalidates the experience of minorities by ignoring race altogether, and erasing or denying racial history.

“The colorblindness can easily lull many white readers to overlook the racialized nature of American life, racial injustice and white privilege,” he writes. “It also can easily lead white readers to assume, as many do, that the success of these few black athletes is suggestive of racial progress.”

Winograd argues that white authors from predominately white publishing companies who tell the story of athletes of color are doing so from a white perspective. In doing so, they don’t paint a complete picture of the lives of African-American athletes because they ignore the racial struggles and experiences that may have helped shape their lives.

“The historic structure of this genre eschews description or examination of athletes in their social/cultural contexts, including descriptions of culture, racism and class struggle,” he writes.

Winograd proposes, as an alternative to these sports biographies, creating a new genre of children’s literature, multicultural sports biographies. These books would depict the uniqueness of African-American experience and place the sports figures in the context of their heritage, upbringing and racial experiences.

“The rethinking of this one overlooked genre of children’s literature is modest but, at the same time, a significant action in forging a more just world for our children,” Winograd concludes in his article. “This new genre is especially important for black children, so they can learn identities as black people with pride in their culture and its traditions as well as understand the multiplicity of experiences entailed in the African-American experience.”

~ Theresa Hogue

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