Today we’re pleased to welcome Jenny Devenny and Charnaie Gordon to the WNDB blog to discuss their children’s book Race Cars: A children’s book about white privilege.
Race Cars is a children’s book about white privilege created to help parents and educators facilitate tough conversations about race, privilege, and oppression.
Written by a clinical social worker and child therapist with experience in anti-bias training and edited by a diversity expert, Race Cars tells the story of 2 best friends, a white car and a black car, that have different experiences and face different rules while entering the same race.
Filled with bright, attention-grabbing illustrations, a notes and activities section at the back helps parents, guardians, and teachers further discuss these issues with children.
Why is this book important? As early as 6 months old, a baby’s brain can notice race-based differences; children ages 2 to 4 can internalize racial bias and start assigning meaning to race; and 5- to 8-year-olds begin to place value judgments on similarities and differences. By age 12, children have a complete set of stereotypes about every racial, ethnic, and religious group in society. Our guidance is especially crucial during this impressionable time.
Race Cars offers a simple, yet powerful, way to introduce these complicated themes to our children and is a valuable addition to classroom and home libraries.
How did you come to anti-bias/anti-racism work?
Jenny: First of all, I’m a social worker by profession and I think that if you are a social worker and you’re not practicing with an anti-racist, equity lens, then chances are you are causing harm to the very communities you’re trying to serve. But I initially became interested in anti-racist work years ago before I even had a name for it. I grew up in NYC, which is one of the most diverse cities in the world. However, I attended public schools from K-11th grade and watched as the demographics of my classes got more and more white as I got older for various reasons including standardized tests and other screening processes that disproportionately benefit more affluent, white students and that I definitely benefited from. Of course, at the time I did not have the context to understand why this was happening and attributed it to my own hard work. It was not until later that I would come to understand the structural racism built into our education system that allows white children to succeed and makes it harder for children of color.
In 11th grade, I was sent to a “progressive,” “diverse” private school on a scholarship. It was at this private school where I first was introduced to anti-bias/anti-racism work. I remember feeling so proud to attend such a “progressive” school and wondering why I had never learned these things in my previous schools. That changed quickly after several racist incidents occurred, which revealed the hypocrisy of this institution. And really, how could it ever be as “inclusive” as it had claimed to be with its astronomical tuition fees and all-white leadership? This experience helped me to think critically about what Nikole Hannah-Jones termed the “curated diversity” of our institutions. Pretending to be interested in equity while actually just perpetuating white supremacy and replicating the status quo.
Charnaie, can you talk about your role in this project as editor?
Charnaie: I decided to join this project because not only did I enjoy the storyline, but I also understood the importance of telling this story to serve as another valuable resource for parents, caregivers, and educators to use with children when discussing race.
My role in this project was to serve as the editor. I was brought in to look at the previously self-published version of the book through a critical lens. I tried to dig deeper, make suggestions, and refine some of the language and the overall flow of the story. My edits resulted in a revised story that is fundamentally the same in the overall plot, but different in that it now has new characters, different ending, and an updated discussion section.
Jenny, why did you write this book?
Jenny: I originally wrote Race Cars five years ago when I was completing my master’s at the Silberman School of Social Work in New York City. I was taking a course there focused on engaging students in conversations about privilege, power, and oppression with the goal of creating an anti-racist social workforce. I wrote Race Cars: A Children’s Book About White Privilege as a final project for this course.
At the time, I was working with children in the NYC public school system. So much of the work we were doing was focused on undoing racism and unlearning these preconceived notions we have about the world—and I thought “If we started much younger before children become set in their beliefs, what would that look like?” So Race Cars became my way of answering this question of how you start having conversations about racism and privilege with kids.
Why is this book important?
Charnaie: This book is important because it tackles a tough topic (white privilege) in an age-appropriate way that children and adults can understand. It is not about traumatizing children or making them feel less than or guilty for having a specific skin tone. It is about educating them about the unfair things that sometimes happen to people of color. Children should recognize when something is unfair and then have the courage to be able to speak up and voice their opinions.
I think it is important to understand that making the choice to delay telling children about things like white privilege is just that—a privilege. People of color do not have a choice when it comes to talking about things like race and white privilege. Talking about tough topics with children in age-appropriate ways is important if we want to raise children who value equality for all.
As a therapist, why is it important to talk to young children about white privilege?
Jenny: As kids try to make sense of their environment, they are exposed to pervasive cultural messages and pick up on the ways in which whiteness is normalized and privileged in society. White children are afforded a range of privileges and protections that children of color are not, and without explaining the structural racism behind those privileges, kids may infer that they are caused by inherent differences between groups. In other words, they may start to believe that white people have more privilege because they are inherently, somehow, smarter or better or that they work harder. This book dispels the myth of meritocracy and reminds the reader that the playing field was never level in the first place.
Helping kids to see how racism is systemic supports BIPOC children in resisting social messages of racial inferiority and supports white children in developing a positive self-concept that enables them to like who they are without needing to feel superior to anyone else.
How do you recommend parents use this book?
Charnaie: I would recommend parents, caregivers and educators use this book by first reading the story. After the reading is over, see what kinds of thoughts or questions come up from children before telling them your opinions or thoughts. Allow them space to summarize the story on their own first, making note of the type of language and words they use.
Children are such inquisitive, imaginative, and curious little humans. Who knows, they might even offer adults a different perspective or angle of the story!
After that, I would suggest going beyond the story and taking a deeper dive into the discussion questions listed in the back of the book. For younger children, you might want to consider reading the story one day and then tackling some of the discussion questions on another day. It can be a lot to digest in one sitting.
I think older children can read the book on their own or with a grown-up and then move right into the discussion questions for a richer experience and open dialogue. Again, adults should pay attention to any language or words children use and correct them if you think they are interpreting something incorrectly or in a way that may be offensive to a group or community of people.
How do you recommend educators use this book?
Jenny: Race Cars is a great springboard for conversations about racism and privilege, but even before getting into those conversations you want to make sure the foundation is there. A great place to start would be the book Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves by Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards, which does a wonderful job of clearly outlining the goals of Anti-Bias Anti-Racist (ABAR) education and ideas for how to achieve these goals in a classroom setting. Race Cars should be used as part of a much wider anti-racist curriculum.
As an educator, you also want to consider your environment, your own actions and the institution you are teaching in, and what that may be communicating to your students. Kids can tell when your anti-racist curriculum does not translate into anti-racist policies including your school’s barriers to entry, hiring practices, etc. Race Cars highlights a systemic problem. Ace, the individual white car does not intend to bring harm to his friend Chase, the Black car, but he benefits from a system set up for white cars to succeed with rules set by an all-white committee that may look an awful lot like the leadership at your school. Are you ready to have that conversation?
What are some other things children/parents/educators can do to practice anti-racism at home and in school?
Charnaie: Read anti-racist books! Get to know others who are different than you, learn what it means to be an ally (it’s a lifelong journey and commitment), stand up and speak out when you witness unjust things happen to others, amplify voices who actively advocate for anti-racism, and most importantly do the internal work on yourself to understand any biases or prejudices you may have against others.
Why did you choose the metaphor of a car race to talk about white privilege?
Jenny: I used the metaphor of a race car to talk about racism because I wanted to start with an accessible concept that children could easily grasp. But the metaphor was always used with the intention of having an extensive discussion section to encourage adults to help their kids connect the story to real life.
Also, the book is a reflection of the real race car industry. When you look at Formula 1 and NASCAR, there are these huge barriers to entry that have led these sports to be predominantly white. Formula 1 is one of the most expensive sports to participate in. Lewis Hamilton is the first (and still only) Black driver in Formula 1 history. So I felt it was very relevant.
The illustrations in this book are simple but effective. What was your process for creating the illustrations?
Jenny: Prior to becoming a social worker I actually worked for years as a graphic designer in various marketing roles, so I have a lot of experience thinking about how to use illustrations to communicate clearly and effectively. The book deals with such complex topics that I felt it was important to keep the visuals simple and repetitive so that it would be easy to follow and so that any significant changes in the story, such as the new obstacles introduced in the race, and the increasing emotionality of the characters, would be more pronounced.
The illustrations (and my design style in general) are also very much influenced by my favorite designer, Saul Bass.
Why should readers choose Race Cars over the many other anti-racist books available?
Jenny: I don’t think it’s about buying one anti-racist book over another—buy them all if you can! How many books about going to bed has your child read? My son is only four months old and he already has about 5 books about poop. So I say read Race Cars and any other anti-racist children’s books you can get your hands on. I will say that Race Cars is a storybook that sets it apart from a lot of other books I’ve seen that are more informational, so it’s a good place to start to engage kids.
Q: How has your perspective on this work changed at all since becoming a mother?
Jenny: I think that my perspective on my role in this work has changed both as a mother and as a white person in general recently. White people are so used to our narratives being centered that we find ways to center ourselves, even if unintentionally, in this work as well. I think if you had asked me even a few months ago I would have said that the responsibility of ending racism lies with white people. I still believe that, but I now recognize the need to follow and support BIPOC doing this work rather than feeling like I should be a leader or “expert” in this work (thank you Rachel Ricketts and Austin Channing-Brown for educating me on this important distinction). Part of the reason I wrote Race Cars is because I felt that white parents needed to be talking to their kids about racism just as much as BIPOC parents. Again, I still believe that, but I have been questioning whether I, as a white woman, needed to be the one to write this book. Do I really need this platform or am I just taking up space and centering my whiteness once again?
Let me be clear, I love this book and I don’t regret writing it five years ago. But I realized going into the process of revising and updating the new version of Race Cars how important it was to not only partner with a Black editor who could offer another perspective but also to redistribute part of the proceeds of this book to the community it was intended to serve. I will be redistributing proceeds from my royalties to The Loveland Foundation, a nonprofit committed to showing up for communities of color in unique and powerful ways, with a particular focus on Black women and girls, for as long as this book is in print.
What do you hope families take away from this story?
Charnaie: I hope families take away that everyone deserves fair and equal treatment. We all deserve to feel seen, heard, and loved no matter what we look like. In a world where there is so much noise and varying opinions, I hope the future looks brighter for my children and all children of the next generation. Learning to coexist in the same space, the same world as others who look different than you does not have to be hard.
Also, as I state in the Editor’s Note in the book, “I hope white children recognize that having privilege does not require them to feel guilty for their privilege. Use this book as a conversation starter to discuss how privilege looks in our society and which groups have privilege, and which do not.”
Jenny Devenny, LCSW is a psychotherapist, author, illustrator and native New Yorker currently living in Los Angeles with her husband and son. She is dedicated to providing anti-racist psychotherapy to children, adolescents and families and has experience facilitating groups and workshops on racism and white privilege. This is her first book. Find her on Instagram: @jennydevennylcsw.
Charnaie Gordon is a Diversity and Inclusion Expert, forthcoming author of the picture book A Kids Book About Diversity (A Kids Book About 2021), blogger, podcast host, and digital creator. She also serves as a member of the National Advisory Board for Reading is Fundamental for their Race, Equity, and Inclusion (REI) initiative. More than anything else, she cares about connecting people with great books they’ll love. In her world, books are an absolute necessity. Find her online at hereweeread.com and @hereweeread on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.