I’m taking a deep breath as I type this. I’m nervous to say these things out loud.
But it is 2016, and we have elected Donald Trump to the highest office in the land, despite his willingness to incite violence, risk our country’s safety, disrespect women and minorities, and put the most fragile Americans in danger. As a Jew, a woman, a mother and an artist, I’m terrified. As a human, I’m aghast at what my fellow Americans have chosen (and what the rest of us have allowed, by not fighting harder).
It is also Thanksgiving today, and out in the west, the Standing Rock Sioux (joined by many others) are fighting on behalf of clean water, the earth, their culture, and ALL of us. We are not supporting them. We are turning a blind eye, as we uncomfortably snap pictures of our kids in paper feathers, as we roast apocryphal turkeys.
And then there is the water in Flint, Michigan, which is still undrinkable. The young black men (and women) gunned down in our streets, who so often go nameless. The dire situation in our public schools. The lives lost daily in Syria. Etc. Etc. In short, this world is a mess, an utter disaster. This is not new, but 2016 feels… like a moment.
A few years ago, a book came out, called Wonder. Maybe you’ve heard of it? People loved this book, embraced this book. It was a book that showcased how radical empathy might alter lives. Wonder has become an important book for schools, for educating kids about kindness. The book advocated that we all “Choose Kind.” This was a good thing. We were all proud of ourselves, of children’s literature, and the power it can wield.
But in the years since, I think something insidious has begun to happen. The “Choose Kind” message seems to have shifted. More and more , I see people suggesting that we “Choose Kind” by avoiding uncomfortable situations. It has been suggested to me that “Choosing Kind” is in opposition to the “Call Out Culture.” In fact, some people are not “Choosing Kind” so much as they are “Choosing Nice.”
I AM NOT OKAY WITH THIS.
We do not “Choose Kind” by not making the homophobe or the racist feel “weird.” By not holding the bully accountable.
KINDNESS and NICENESS are not the same thing. Kindness is not etiquette. Kindness is not an avoidance of discomfort. Kindness is a deep, true generosity of spirit. Kindness looks at the world, or a classroom, or a birthday party, and says, “Who is hurting most of all in this space, and how can I use my relative power and privilege to help them?”
We can Choose Kind and be radicals. We can Choose Kind by hurting feelings. I know this feels confusing, in the moment when it happens. But I believe this, I really do. Sometimes, Choosing Kind means that YOU have to be the one who ruffles feathers.
I sat this week at NCTE, listening to a panel on censorship, and thought about the role everyone plays in our communities. A few hours earlier, at a signing, I’d been speaking about Trump to a likeminded teacher, and then glanced back at my signing line, to notice a woman frowning at me. I could feel her criticism. I could feel that this particular teacher was not in agreement with me, but that she knew she was in a minority. I imagined her thinking, “Politics has no role in this place. Children’s books should not be political.”
And in that moment, I could feel myself altering my own tone, shifting my attitude, for her. I did not want to make her feel isolated, alone in her politics. Not here, in this room full of liberal teachers. I felt bad for her, even as I disagreed with her completely. I signed her book silently, tried to smile, and she left.
Then I felt dirty inside.
This is often the hard moment, for me. The moment when being “nice” to an individual contradicts everything else I know and believe. I am being “nice” to someone, but for all I know, this woman worked to shut down her school’s LGBTQ club. For all I know, she approves of a Muslim registry. In theory, I am furious at this woman. But I don’t really want to make her cry. Not in person, at a conference.
And yet–maybe that was a mistake. Maybe there was a conversation she was ready to have. Maybe there, at NCTE, she was rethinking things, struggling, and I missed my opportunity.
I guess I don’t really have helpful advice for anyone, around this topic. But it has been swirling in my head nonstop, and today, Thanksgiving, felt like the right day to say it aloud. I think we all need to think about what we mean when we say “Choose Kind.” I think there are moments when we politely agree to disagree. But I also think we’re in an important moment in history. I think that while I believe deeply in kindness, I’m beyond niceness right now. I’m beyond etiquette. I’m ready for justice. I’m ready to Choose Just.
Occasionally, someone will suggest to me that we, the children’s authors, should stay out of politics. As though, because we write for kids, we should “keep it light.” I could not disagree more strongly.
Because we write for kids, we have an obligation to be political. We have an obligation to educate. To empower. We owe these kids more than bunnies and cookies and easy rhymes. We owe them kindness, always. But we also owe them truth, and justice, and the tools to create their own world. Hopefully a better one.