‘Painfully offensive’ racial stereotypes lead school district to recall books

Abby Phillip, Washington Post, September 11, 2015

Minneapolis Public Schools shelled out more than $1.2 million as part of a contract that included new books aimed at closing the district’s yawning racial achievement gap. But over the summer, some teachers preparing for the new school year opened the books to find them riddled with problems, including glaring racial and gender stereotypes.

There was “Lazy Lucy,” a young black child. “Nieko, the Hunting Girl,” a Native American carrying a quiver of arrows. And a description of Kenya as a place where people are able to “run very fast.”

Word spread among teachers online, then made their way to the independent education blog Bright Lights Small City, which wrote a series of posts detailing teachers’ concerns with the new books and the district’s reading curriculum.

“I saw the book called ‘Nieko, the Hunting Girl,’ and I just said, Oh my f—— God,” said one teacher, Shana Dickson, who was initially given a pseudonym by the blog before deciding to go public with her concerns. “I started taking pictures of what I was seeing, and posting it on Facebook.”

The books, created by Utah-based publisher Reading Horizons, described the Native child and her father hunting a woolly mammoth, a long-extinct animal. Lazy Lucy is from some unspecified part of Africa, according to the blog. And in the 54 books in the series, only one Asian character is depicted — and that character was adopted by a white family.

Teachers also complained that the books failed to reflect any diversity of sexual orientation and reinforced gender stereotypes. One story highlighted by teachers, “The Raccoon in Mushroom Forest,” describes a character, Gilda, who lives a life of blissful domesticity:

Gilda would cook Bruce’s morning meal. Then she packed his lunch. … Then Gilda cleaned each room in the cottage. She was always in a good mood,” the story said. “Each day Gilda made a pot of mushroom chowder for dinner. … She would say with a sigh ‘Bruce works so hard. I wish I could cook him a better meal’ … [she] stitched up Bruce’s pants.

The district’s contract with Reading Horizons was part of an effort to narrow the “achievement gaps between white students and students of color” across all grades — a gap that, at the moment, is now more than 50 percent, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

But issues with the books were so pronounced that teachers called foul.

The district responded by recalling the books and sent Reading Horizons back to the drawing board.

In a statement, interim superintendent Michael Goar said that the “clearly painfully offensive” books were “not comprehensively vetted” before they were distributed to teachers ahead of the school year.

“It is not acceptable that in 2015 reading materials for children would contain language and imagery that perpetuate stereotypes that are hurtful and insulting,” Goar said. “We are as concerned about the culturally inappropriate material as everyone else and we quickly addressed and removed the materials, as we should have.”

Parent and teacher concerns with the books aren’t only about their content, but also about the company that created them and supplied them to school districts across the country for years before Minneapolis teachers raised the issues.

At a school board meeting Tuesday, board members noted that the contents of the books reflect the company’s faith-based foundation.

“All their values are faith-based, Christian faith-based,” board member Rebecca Gagnon said, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

In an interview with the newspaper, Laura Axtell, the publisher’s curriculum implementation coordinator, denied that the books reflect the company’s religious values.

Per the Star Tribune:

The company does not instill those faith values in its materials, Axtell said. “If you didn’t go to [the values section] of our Web site, you would never know it,” Axtell said. “It doesn’t translate at all into what we do.”

Axtell has also said that while Reading Horizons never before received complaints about the books in the past, the publisher is working to make changes to the curriculum in response to concerns from Minneapolis teachers.

“If people perceive that they’re culturally insensitive, then they’re a distraction to reading success,” she told the Salt Lake Tribune.

That isn’t enough for some teachers, staff and parents who wrote a letter calling for the district to end its relationship with the company.

“We believe that there are a number of concerning issues related to this curriculum inclusive of but not restricted to its significant absences and stereotypical presences of communities of color and Indigenous peoples’ communities and its portrayal of sexual identity, gender and family,” the letter said. “Reading Horizons has shown that they do not possess necessary cultural competencies and that having them redesign this curriculum would only produce similar results.”

According to Sarah Lahm, whose Bright Lights Small City blog was the first to report on the controversial books, the issue also puts pressure on interim superintendent Goar to adequately allay concerns if he hopes to be named to the post permanently.

“A lot of people want to keep pushing and get Minneapolis Public Schools to distance themselves from Reading Horizons, even if it means taking a loss” Lahm told The Post. “These books have been in use for years, but due diligence was not done by MPS, in conflict with their statements about diversity.”