A publisher plans to remove a book from sale and has said it will review its materials and training procedures after Twitter users called out some of its content for being racist.
“It was actually a lot more than I expected,” said University of Alaska Anchorage psychology professor E.J. Ramos David. “I’m happy. Creating some kind of change is not always going to be this easy.
"Many times, there’s going to be a lot of resistance or a lot of denial, or even people arguing back and fighting back and doubling down on their bigotry. So, to get this quick and this easy and this powerful of a response was refreshing and I hope it happens more.”
David has written extensively on internalized oppression and postcolonial psychology. It was David’s children — who are Filipino and Athabascan — who first brought his attention to the troubling content.
“I picked them up from school just like everyday. We were driving home and then my 10-year-old, my oldest son, from the back of the car, I heard him ask me if I ate balut. It seemed like out of nowhere ... but I just said yes, I have. Then, a few minutes later, I heard him say, ‘What? They have maktak on here?’ So, then I looked in my rearview mirror and I saw him reading a book.”
The book in question was Capstone Publishing's "Take Your Pick of Disgusting Foods" by G. G. Lake. It features descriptions of dishes from around the world.
The food David's children asked him about was balut, which is a fertilized duck egg that is boiled and eaten from the shell. It was one of two Filipino dishes featured in the book, David said.
Maktak (which appears in the text as “muktuk”) is bowhead whale skin and blubber and is a common Alaska Native traditional food.
The descriptions for balut and maktak use language and words intended to surprise or shock readers and warn of the possible dangers of eating them.
When they got home, David flipped through the book and then sat down with his kids.
“I told them the book is wrong, that we should not regard the foods that are listed in there as ‘disgusting,’ ” he said. “I told them that for many people, their food is a reflection of their culture, so it’s more than just food.”
He talked with them about how it made them feel to see dishes written about that way. His kids then shared stories with him about other times they had experienced or witnessed stigma and questions about certain foods.
"It's obvious that the book was trying to target young readers. For young people, for kids, there's this fascination about things that are yucky or gross or disgusting. That seems to be a favorite topic for many young kids and I think the book was really trying to capitalize on that, to use that fascination and engage children to be interested in reading," David said.
“But to me, that made it even more problematic. It was intended for young people, but they were using different people’s cultures and traditional foods and making that fit what they are considering to be gross and disgusting and horrible.”
After speaking with his kids, he decided to bring the discussion to Twitter and wrote:
"My 7 yr-old came home with this book from his school library. It has 2 Filipino foods & 1 Alaska Native food. This book is explicitly telling my Filibascan kids that their cultures are 'disgusting.' It's 2020, & the books in our schools are still teaching our kids to be racist."
His intention was to raise awareness for other parents and the general public, he said. His tweet quickly gained traction. Not long after, it caught the attention of the book’s publisher, which responded in a series of tweets back to David and other users who had shared his post.
“We are mortified and ashamed,” wrote @CapstonePub, the publisher’s official account. “You are right to call this book out as racist and we are taking steps to remove it from active sale. We specialize in titles that attempt to reach reluctant readers; topics that are gross and disgusting are popular hooks. However, cultures and traditions never fit this description and the myopic view that produced this book is inexcusable. We will be reviewing our staff training and looking across our list to make sure we are not perpetuating the problem in other titles. We’re deeply sorry that bringing this to our attention was necessary, but thank you for doing so.”
David said he was surprised by their swift response.
"They were decisive about it. They did not make any excuses. They acknowledged there was something wrong that happened. And then they corrected it immediately," he said.
That's important for a publisher that specializes in content for children, said David. Not only can books like this be extremely offensive and hurtful to kids who read them and see themselves or their cultures reflected, they can teach harmful lessons that manifest in other ways.
"To me, that is dangerous," said David. "In the larger scheme of things, it teaches kids to be disrespectful to other cultures. And then, on the more everyday scale, it can lead to teasing. It can lead to bullying for kids who may have those foods as their traditional cultural dishes."
For that reason, David said, he’s also been in communication with a teacher at his kids’ school and the school will be addressing the issue, as well.
He hopes this public interaction can serve as a reminder to others that calling out racism and racist content is important and can lead to tangible outcomes.
“I just hope that this serves as a lesson to always speak up,” he said. “Even when we think nothing might come of it, even when we might feel alone or even might feel afraid to speak up, we should still try to speak up because we never know who might be listening. We never know who might become our allies. We never know who might become our supporters. We never know. Things might actually change.”