Minority Underrepresentation in Coronavirus: A Book for Children
The purpose of this study is to evaluate how children’s books portray the experiences of people of color amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting minority communities as compared to White communities; however, existing media indicates that the experiences of people of color during the pandemic are similar to those of White people. This inaccurate portrayal undermines the disparity and raises concern that young readers, regardless of demographic identity, are negatively impacted by the inadequate representation.
To explore this idea, a primary analysis was conducted of the recently published children’s book, Coronavirus: A Book for Children, with supporting analysis from additional texts including What is Coronavirus?: A Simple Explanation for Young Children. This was integrated with research on the significance of children’s literature in early development to analyze the negative impact of such underrepresentation.
Critical investigation reveals this media provides limited acknowledgement of the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on minority communities, which translates to a negative effect on children. As particularly seen in What is Coronavirus?: A Simple Explanation for Young Children, in which there are no people of color illustrated, there is a far greater presence of White people. Additionally, most of the traditionally prestigious professions are held by White people in Coronavirus: A Book for Children, and no people of color are ill from having contracted the virus. By focusing on the experiences of White people, this literature builds norms detrimental to self-esteem among children of color, contributes to early development of stereotypes, and impedes development of empathy and awareness.
The research demonstrates that Coronavirus: A Book for Children and similar children’s books do not adequately portray the experiences of people of color during the Coronavirus pandemic. They neglect to include adequate illustrations of people of color and omit the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has on minority communities. This negatively impacts young readers of color by contributing to feelings of isolation and hinders development of empathy in other readers, which ultimately inhibits progress toward greater equity, access, and recognition.
COVID-19 is affecting minority communities in the United States disproportionately as compared to White communities, yet many existing media platforms portray the situation in such a way that undermines this true disparity. This is amplified in children’s books like Nosy Crow’s Coronavirus: A Book for Children. Considering that illustrations are often utilized in children’s books as more effective means of communicating messages to readers, the book’s myriad of illustrations are particularly relevant to its analysis. Initially, these illustrations may appear to portray the Coronavirus and its effects accurately, serving as a beneficial source of information for children. Upon deeper analysis, however, these illustrations are misrepresentative because they provide limited acknowledgement of the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on communities of color. This translates to a negative impact on children of color, as it can develop discouraging feelings of underrepresentation and isolation. Simultaneously, White children do not see enough representation of people of color to elicit awareness and acknowledge their own privilege, particularly as related to the COVID-19 pandemic, which impedes their empathy. Coronavirus: A Book for Children and similar children’s books do not adequately portray the experiences of minority people during the Coronavirus pandemic because they neglect to include adequate illustrations of people of color, and completely omit the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has on those communities, which consequently has a negative impact on children.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, people of color have been disproportionately impacted compared to White people. This conclusion is supported by multiple sources, including research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and The COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic. Overall, communities of American Indian or Alaska Native, Black or African American, and Hispanic or Latinx people have a higher rate ratio of diagnosis, hospitalization, and death compared to White people (“COVID-19 Hospitalization”; Kirby 547). Asian people also have a higher diagnosis and hospitalization rate, and Black people are dying from the Coronavirus at more than double the rate of White people (“COVID-19 Hospitalization”; Grimes 782; “The COVID Racial Data”). While Black or African American people make up only 13.4% of the United States population, they have accounted for around 20% of the COVID-19 related deaths for which race is a known factor (“The COVID Racial Data”; “U.S. Census”). It is also more common for Black populations than White populations to be affected by many chronic health conditions which are associated with more severe COVID-19 outcomes (Kirby 548).
According to these statistics, communities of color experience the harshest effects of the Coronavirus when compared to White people. These data communicate the true disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on communities of color in the United States.
This current health inequity is not a new issue. Rather, it reflects long-standing structural racism that leads to disparities in social determinants of health (Laurencin & McClinton). These disparities are defined by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion as “conditions in the environments in which people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship, and age that affect a wide range of health, functioning, and quality-of-life outcomes and risks” (“Social Determinants”). This communicates how the health inequity faced by people of color is largely due to factors they may not be able to control, especially for children who cannot change their families’ living standards. These factors include economic stability and wealth gaps, social and community discrimination, education access and quality, healthcare access, and nutrition and housing environmental conditions (“Social Determinants”). Communities of color continue to experience barriers relating to these factors that contribute to the continuance of health disparities such as in the current COVID-19 pandemic. As minority communities experience inequities including higher percentages of poverty, less access to health care, and therefore a higher likelihood of underlying disease, such disparities in health make communities of color particularly susceptible to COVID-19. The clear, historically rooted overlap between risk and resources creates an unequal distribution that makes communities of color vulnerable to the pandemic’s harsh exploitation.
While it has been well established that people of color have been more substantially affected by the Coronavirus pandemic when compared to their White counterparts, there are sources such as the newly published children’s book Coronavirus: A Book for Children which do not adequately portray these irrefutable inequities. For young readers with varying reading levels and attention spans, visual illustrations provide context for understanding themes and messages when reading comprehension may be difficult. This makes it possible for children to “read” a picture book from the images alone. Research has shown that children can begin to notice skin differences as early as six months old, and by age three they are forming opinions on people based on further physical differences they notice, such as facial and hair features (Hughes‐Hassell and Cox 212). With literature that only shows images and experiences of White people, this contributes to early development of racial and ethnic stereotypes, as opposed to more representative multicultural literature that provides positive portrayals of people of color and encourages healthy development of identity and self-esteem (Hughes‐Hassell and Cox 214, 215; Hefflin and Barksdale-Ladd 810, 818). Children of color may learn to value White culture more than their own, while White children may not develop social consciousness of different cultures to recognize bias. It is thus evident that messages passed on through children’s books impact the mindsets of the children reading them. Features such as theme, plot, language, and illustrations are all important in the messages conveyed, as they interconnect to communicate an overall narrative (Hefflin and Barksdale-Ladd 814, 815). If these narratives perpetuate misinformation or racial and ethnic stereotypes, and fail to reflect the experiences of people who are not White, they can impede the personal growth of children of color and further incite White dominance. Therefore, the inadequate representation of people of color in Coronavirus: A Book for Children is particularly problematic.
Upon analysis of the illustrations in Coronavirus: A Book for Children, there emerges the primary issue of general minority representation, as there is a greater presence of White people than people of color throughout the book. On over half of the pages in the story, or roughly two-thirds more specifically, there are more illustrations of White people than people of color (Jenner). This creates a false image that White communities experience the greatest effects of the pandemic, when alternatively, as increasingly shown by COVID-19 demographic data, communities of color are most impacted. Similarly, in the illustrations of another Coronavirus-related children’s book, entitled What is Coronavirus?: A Simple Explanation for Young Children, there are no children of color at all (Zielonka). By putting White people at the center of the narrative, this undermines the experiences of children of color during the pandemic and builds norms detrimental to their overall sense of self-worth. With an absence of people with whom they can relate, children of color may feel discouraged not only about the pandemic, but also toward their long-term goals and overall success. It can therefore be surmised that this children’s book illustrations negatively impact children and perpetuate a White-dominated society that does not adequately address the experiences of people of color amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to the inadequate presence of people of color in the illustrations in Coronavirus: A Book for Children, there is not sufficient representation of the specific health impact COVID-19 has caused among minority communities. While there are multiple illustrations of “sick” people, or those who have fallen ill from contracting the virus, none of these illustrations include people of color (Jenner). This is especially misleading for young readers and families, as it wrongly communicates the idea that White people get sick from COVID-19 more often than people of color. Young readers, regardless of demographic identity, can be negatively impacted by this inadequate representation. Children of color can feel discouragement and isolation from the underrepresentation and marginalization perpetuated by the lack of Black or Brown people illustrated. They may also feel more alone in the disparity they face since it is not addressed. White children do not have the diverse exposure necessary to develop empathy or even understand the disproportionate impact felt by their peers whose experiences are poorly represented, which can perpetuate ignorance of the problem. Whether it is a feeling of aloneness or a lack of awareness, these impacts are detrimental for children and ultimately for reaching a solution. Thus, the pictures included in Coronavirus: A Book for Children, specifically pertaining to the actual illness of people, add to the inaccurate portrayal of the pandemic’s true health effects on communities of color and accentuate the negative effects of underrepresentation.
Another issue of Coronavirus: A Book for Children is the representation specifically in “essential service” occupations. Essential services are defined by the Pan American Health Organization as “the services and functions that are absolutely necessary, even during a pandemic” to “maintain the health and welfare” of society (“Tool 16” 1). Among these services are healthcare and the provision of supplies needed for survival, such as food, gas, and medical supplies (“Tool 16” 1). Other examples of essential work are fire and police protection, utility and communication maintenance, and transportation services (“Tool 16” 1). In the Coronavirus: A Book for Children illustrations, there are twice as many essential workers who are White compared to people of color (Jenner). This inaccurate portrayal falls short of addressing the fact that Black people have been risking their health for societal well-being as much as, if not more than, White people. Consequently, children of color do not see role models of their shared physical appearance in these important jobs, which could inhibit the development of ambitious goals and positive self-images. The illustrations give a very limited display of the hard work and dedication of people of color during the pandemic, further contributing to negative impacts on the children and families who view them.
Compared to White people, some communities of color are indeed more likely to hold jobs in certain frontline service occupations. While Black people accounted for 12% of employed workers in a 2019 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report, they made up around 36% of those in nursing, psychiatric, and home health aides occupations, and 30% of licensed practical and vocational nurses (“U.S. Bureau” 5). Whereas 16% of employed White people were in service occupations (which include healthcare support, protective service, food preparation and serving, cleaning and maintenance, and personal care and service), 24% of both Black and Hispanic employed people held such jobs (“U.S. Bureau” 28). Many of these work settings are associated with factors that may increase COVID-19 exposure risk (“Health Equity”). Thus, it is significant that many people of color hold jobs in the essential work settings which have been so critical during the pandemic, as this contributes to the disproportionate impact experienced by minority communities. The illustrations in Coronavirus: A Book for Children are misleading because acknowledgement of the essential work of people of color during the pandemic is not given adequately, which also fails to bring awareness to the contribution of occupation in the disproportionate impact of the Coronavirus on people of color.
Upon comparison of the images in Coronavirus: A Book for Children with emerging COVID-19 demographic research, it is concluded that the children’s book fails to adequately address the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on communities of color. Throughout the book, the majority of the people in the illustrations are White, all the people who appear to be ill with COVID-19 are White, and the occupations in “essential service” are held entirely by White people. The book’s messages can be perpetuated among society as they are absorbed by the children, families, and guardian figures who read it. This can inhibit progress toward greater equity, access, and recognition. Instead, in order to help amend these problems of health inequity that remain prevalent amidst COVID-19, it is necessary to have literature that gives truthful representation of people of color and fosters the empathy and awareness necessary to actively combat injustice. Therefore, in order to best foster societal understanding, address long-standing health inequities, and take action against the detrimental impacts of the pandemic, it is essential that this media better portrays the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 endured by people of color.
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