In Color Me In, by Natasha Díaz, issues of belonging and advocacy are contemplated at the deepest of levels. The story begins with Nevaeh Levitz’s introduction to Harlem, where she is now living with her mom’s family, whose Liberian and Jamaican, Baptist background differs significantly from her father’s Ashkenazi Jewish one. Nevaeh has never really felt like she fit in anywhere. She isn’t white, like the overwhelming majority of students at her suburban private school, but she is also made to feel like she isn’t Black, both by her white peers and her Black cousin.
Nevaeh’s parents are going through a particularly contentious break-up, which she doesn’t have the full picture of at the beginning of the book. Her mom is depressed and is struggling to help Nevaeh to deal with her new living arrangements. And her father is suddenly very interested in making sure that Nevaeh is in touch with her Jewish background, which was never a priority in the past. She is being pulled in every direction, without feeling like she really has a place anywhere.
Nevaeh has a lot to deal with, but the most interesting and powerful aspect of this book has more to do with what she discovers about others and about the issues they face. Not belonging, or not being immediately identifiable, comes with benefits that Nevaeh never realized she was taking advantage of until it is pointed out by her family in Harlem and members of their diverse community.
We are seeing more and more children’s and young adult books that focus on the experiences of underrepresented groups in the United States and around the world. Even more importantly, we are seeing an increase in the number of books by members of these identity groups. For too long, readers received most of their information about diversity and injustice from authors who had been benefiting from white privilege, with or without their conscious knowledge. Now, finally, the voices of individuals of color or other underrepresented groups are being raised.
But, are they really? We can have these books on our classroom shelves, but unless these authors are featured in frequent classroom discussions and readings, their stories are not being heard. When I spend time speaking out against racism, as a white educator, my voice is heard rather than the voices of people of color. Or, in the words of Natasha Díaz (via Nevaeh Levitz), “What I know now is that sometimes, the best thing you can do with your voice is to listen.”
Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:
Identity 2: I know my family history and cultural background and can describe how my own identity is informed and shaped by my membership in multiple identity groups.
Identity 5: I recognize traits of the dominant culture, my home culture and other cultures, and I am conscious of how I express my identity as I move between these spaces.
Diversity 10: I understand that diversity includes the impact of unequal power relations on the development of group identities and cultures.
Action 20: I will join with diverse people to plan and carry out collective action against exclusion, prejudice and discrimination, and we will be thoughtful and creative in our actions in order to achieve our goals.
RL.2- Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.
RL.3- Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).
RL.5- Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.