Book Banning is on the Rise—And It Can Look a Lot Like Oppression

girl pointing at books through a glass window

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Key Takeaways

  • The recent increase in book bans in the US tend to target stories that are BIPOC, LGBTQ+, immigrant, etc.
  • When books are banned in school curricula and libraries, marginalized groups often face mental health repercussions.
  • Books can be an opportunity to engage in dialogue, rather than erase certain experiences to render those readers invisible.

According to the American Library Association (ALA), there has been "a dramatic uptick in book challenges and outright removal of books," which disproportionately impact narratives that are BIPOC, gay, queer, trans, etc.

Titles like To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Beloved by Toni Morrison, and Maus by Art Spiegelman have come under scrutiny for some of their more challenging themes, but the discussion of this subject matter is essential for helping children from marginalized backgrounds understand their history.

When award-winning author, Aya Khalil, MEd, learned that her debut picture book, The Arabic Quilt: An Immigrant Story was banned by the Central York, PA District school board last fall, she had felt disappointed.

Khalil co-founded Kidlit in Color, which is a group of traditionally published BIPOC creatives, two of whom, Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow and Tameka Fryer Brown, had their books banned at the same time as Khalil.

Historically Underrepresented Authors Often Targeted

The US publishing industry was reported as 76% white as of 2019, despite diversity initiatives to improve representation since 2015, so Khalil is in the minority as an Arab Egyptian American Muslim author.

Khalil recalls seeing herself incorrectly represented in media such as the Disney movie Aladdin, which is why she is glad that her children and other Muslim and Arab kids today have a better chance for more authentic representation.

Unfortunately, even as more books by Muslim authors are coming out, including award-winning Black Muslim authors like Ashley Franklin, Khalil notes that school boards are banning them with undertones of white supremacy.

Khalil says, "It made me want to write more. I write when I am sad, angry, and happy, so I actually wrote a picture book based on the events at Central York District, called The Banned-Books Bake Sale, which is set to be released in 2023 by Tilbury House, and illustrated by Anait Semirdzhyan."

In her new picture book, Khalil highlights, "The kids organize a protest and have these discussions in the classroom. They basically revolt against an unjust system, emphasizing the power of children and their voice."

The Oppression of Book Bans

Neuroscientist and clinical social worker, Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C, says, "Book bans are oppressive because they don’t allow people to see the range of identities that exist in their culture."

Weaver explains how this lack of representation allows privileged people to create a skewed view of how others are. "As a result, a lot of BIPOC people are ashamed of themselves and the expression of their culture from food, language, hairstyle, fashion, and other practices," she says.

This disconnection can often lead to isolation, which Weaver notes may contribute to a wide range of mental health challenges in clients, such as anxiety, depression, stress, imposter syndrome, suicidality, etc.

Weaver highlights, "They may have all the markers of success, yet they have a hard time being heard and being seen because they secretly feel like they don’t belong, and they don’t want anyone to find them out."

Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C

In working with children and youth, this lack of representation in learning materials is very damaging to their mental health as it reaffirms limiting beliefs about their purpose and potential.

— Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C

By educating clients about racial trauma, Weaver notes that she can see them exhale as they feel affirmed. "I wish the public knew the importance of saying 'Black Lives Matter' to a group of people who have been indoctrinated with inferior and disempowering beliefs," she says.

Weaver explains, "In working with children and youth, this lack of representation in learning materials is very damaging to their mental health as it reaffirms limiting beliefs about their purpose and potential."

These messages prime youth for the school-to-prison pipeline, as Weaver highlights, "If they don’t physically end up behind bars, they end up living as adults behind a mental prison of not living up to their full potential."

Weaver explains, "Diversity ultimately benefits society. The message is that everyone deserves a seat at the table, everyone has value and belongs at the table. Everyone has humanity and it is their birthright to exist. No one is just there by luck, and no one will be found out for being less than."

In Favor of Intellectual Freedom

Becky Calzada is a library coordinator, based in Leander, Texas, and one of four librarians of FReadom Fighters, which she describes as, "A group working full-time, taking up a cause to promote intellectual freedom and highlight the positive impacts books can and have had on readers."

Calzada explains, "FReadom Fighters launched after the Twitter takeover of the #txlege hashtag. Our group of four felt librarian voices were not being highlighted, stories about the impact of books on readers were not being shared and only those voices in favor of banning were being told."

After seeing #txlege and #FReadom trending nationally on November 4, 2021 when they highlighted books and their impacts on readers, Calzada recognized how many stakeholders were seeking an opportunity to share, get information and connect with others to gain insights on how to support.

Calzada notes that they connect librarians with resources, offer parents and students opportunities to engage at the community and national level, elevate the work of authors, and encourages others to join them.

As a library coordinator, Calzada supports librarians and administrators in her district with reconsiderations. "I’ve probably assisted with 12 book challenges, with 6 of them occurring this school year," she says.

Having led professional training in her school district, Calzada has been instrumental in providing policy information and conversation coaching, and offers insights on the processes by which librarians select books.

Calzada explains, "When we go to library school, librarians learn about the importance of intellectual freedom but there wasn’t much said to speak to the emotionally charged conversations librarians encounter."

While Calzada believes that parents often just want to be heard, having a discussion with them can help. "Members of the reconsideration gain an awareness of the systems in place, how books are selected and typically walk away with an appreciation for the process in place," she says.

With vivid detail, Calzada remembers when she first felt like she saw herself represented in a book, but it was not until the 1990s, when she was a first grade teacher, and she read Too Many Tamales by Gary Soto.

Calzada explains, "It was the first time I saw food I ate and made with my family as a child growing up in South Texas. Even seeing all the families come together to celebrate La Navidad was something I connected to."

From the images of making the masa to spreading the masa, to cooking and eating the tamales, the book resonated deeply with Calzada, who distinctly remembers thinking that she knew how this masa feels.

With book bans on the rise across the country, Calzada views their work as an opportunity to raise awareness, and provide support by sharing information and offering action steps in favor of intellectual freedom.

Calzada finds it exciting that more diverse books are published, in which readers can see themselves, or learn about the lived experience of others. "Many of the books we’ve seen removed include LGTBQ+ characters, the Black Lives Matter movement, activism, and more," she says.

Since not all readers can afford to buy books, Calzada highlights, "Students of color and queer students feel the impact of those book removals. The removal sends a message of their lived experiences not mattering."

A 2021 study published in The Library Quarterly found that print materials in public library storytime programs lack diversity, which is why librarians need to be making a concerted effort to address this gap.

Diverse Representation Supports Marginalized Clients

Ariel Landrum, MA, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist and certified art therapist at Guidance Teletherapy, says, “I am a self-identified geek therapist. The best way to understand ourselves and the world around us is through the passions and fandoms we regularly interact with."

Landrum explains, "Diverse characters in diverse books with diverse experiences increase validation and affirmation for marginalized clients. It allows them to provide examples regarding their lived experience to others without doing unnecessary mental and emotional labor."

As a narrative therapist, Landrum uses the tenants of a story to help clients author and reauthor their lives. "When a client is able to identify characters that have survived trauma with a healing outcome, they are better able to visualize and author that experience for themselves," she says.

When these narratives come from books, Landrum highlights that clients can actually visualize themselves as the characters, which makes the belief of healing more real, and therefore accessible and achievable.

Ariel Landrum, MA, LMFT

When a client is able to identify characters that have survived trauma with a healing outcome, they are better able to visualize and author that experience for themselves.

— Ariel Landrum, MA, LMFT

While book bans may stem from fear, Landrum notes, "These texts are opportunities to open up dialogue about difficult conversations. We, as a society, should want children and young adults to expand their understanding of themselves and the world they live in."

Landrum explains, "We should encourage that understanding to increase their belief that they can enact change and create legacies of purposeful living. This means welcoming opportunities for difficult conversations about race, sexuality, gender, socioeconomic status, disability, etc."

Instead of turning these nuanced subjects into something taboo, Landrum encourages conversations that would allow marginalized readers to be seen, as book bans only erase their experiences and render them invisible.

Landrum explains, "This can cause society to fetishize, infantilize, and become incredulous to their plights. It also impairs the marginalized group's ability to articulate and identify evidence that would support claims for policy change, social justice, and improvement of treatment."

What This Means For You

Book bans are on the rise in the US. Authors, educators, and therapists agree that there are mental health ramifications to such actions for marginalized groups, especially if they cannot afford to buy books.

1 Source
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  1. Cahill M, Ingram E, Joo S. Storytime programs as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors? Addressing children’s needs through diverse book selectionLibr Q. 2021;91(3):269-284. doi:10.1086/714317

By Krystal Jagoo
 Krystal Kavita Jagoo is a social worker, committed to anti-oppressive practice.