Using Popular and Youth Culture to Tackle Constructions of Race

By: Sara Austin and Kaylee Jangula Mootz


During the Q&A after our panel “Teaching Multi-Ethnic Children’s Literature” at the 2019 MELUS conference in Cincinnati, an audience member asked about teaching children’s or young adult literature, which students may think that it doesn’t qualify as “Literature.” A fruitful conversation ensued, but even after the conference was over we (Sara and Kaylee) were still thinking about how we use content that doesn’t qualify as “Literature” to teach difficult subjects related to theories of race and ethnic identity. We ground this discussion in bell hook’s work Outlaw Culture, specifically her argument that using popular culture in the classroom breaks down barriers of discipline, power, authority, and bodily difference, uniting students in a common language that allows them access to politically charged and complex ideas (4). Because students are also already familiar with popular culture, they do not rely on the instructor to read it as a primary text, decentering the instructor in the classroom and giving students more agency over their own readings.

Students may be resistant to studying children’s literature because such works challenge commonly held notions of the canon. While we as scholars know that the canon is always a political project based in raced, gendered, and classed assumptions of art and culture, students may not have thought about their syllabi and assigned readings in these terms. Therefore, when using children’s literature or popular culture in the classroom, we start with a discussion of what the canon is and how it functions. Students might volunteer their assumptions about children’s literature, who can read it, and why. Opinion pieces such as how Harry Potter is terrible or why adults should not read young adult novels can anchor these discussions in specific cultural stereotypes about young adults and, by extension, the literature made for them. To balance these voices, we include videos with bell hooks as well as YouTuber Lindsay Ellis from PBS’s The Great American Read. After setting up student expectations for how we will engage with children’s media, or popular culture more broadly, we regularly make connections between theoretical concepts and these types of practical cultural examples.



Graph created by Emily Midkiff and used by permission.


Sara: When my classes read a textbook excerpt from Frantz Fanon’s “The Negro and Psychopathology,” for example, the class spends a few minutes discussing the Clark doll experiments and their role in the Brown v Board of Education decision. We do Google searches for dolls and talk about the contemporary offerings such as Barbie Fashionistas and how these dolls differ from their historical counterparts. The class also looks at the We Need Diverse Books website and we talk about the lack of representation in children’s publishing as another example of Fanon’s thesis. Having these specific examples keeps students engaged with the critical reading, but it also shows how the issues that Fanon discusses change over time. Even though the article was published in 1952, connecting it to dolls and children’s books helps students to see its current relevance.


Kaylee: I include a similar project early in the semester. After discussing the Cooperative Children’s Book Center report on the infrequency of children’s books published by and about Indigenous and persons of color and viewing the graphic visualizations of the report (one example here, another here, and below), students are asked to visit a YA book display at a library or bookstore and analyze the choices made by the curator of the display. Students notice which books are displayed prominently, with their covers facing out, as compared to books lining shelves. I ask them to take stock of how many of the prominently displayed books feature protagonists of color as compared to white protagonists. If it is a small display, they may also take stock of how many total protagonists of color are on the shelves/stacks out of the total number of books. When writing their analysis, I ask students to engage with Walter Dean Myers’s “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?”, as well as the CCBC report, to offer their own assessment of whether or not children’s publishing and book sales are addressing the lack of representation that has been criticized for decades (starting, perhaps, with Nancy Larrick’s “The All White World of Children’s Books” from 1965) in any meaningful way, and what material consequences that representation may have.











Huyck, David and Sarah Park Dahlen. (2019 June 19). Diversity in Children’s Books 2018. blog. Created in consultation with Edith Campbell, Molly Beth Griffin, K. T. Horning, Debbie Reese, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, and Madeline Tyner, with statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison: Retrieved from


Sara: These examples help students understand the stakes of critical writings. One of the most difficult things for me to guide students through is developing conclusions; explaining to a reader why their argument matters. Being able to pull a blog post or Twitter thread from a scholar gives me clear examples of what these moments look like. Comparing tweets to the conclusion of critical articles, as well as pop culture adaptations of the text allows us to approach the same idea from several angles. One of my favorite groupings is Lopez’s “Social Construction of Race” with Debbie Reese’s comments on The Wizard of Oz, and Todrick Hall’s Straight Outta Oz. Watching Hall’s video “Low” with students allows them to immediately recognize connections between the visual elements of Oz and those of the Black queer community. Because most students know Judy Garland’s performance in The Wizard of Oz already, and Hall’s video is only a few minutes long, this crossover gives us a lot to work with regarding social constructions of race. We can talk about the minstrel elements of Oz’s original stage adaptations, intersections of racial and sexual identity, Reese’s and Hall’s respective approaches to critique, etc. Bringing in the visual lexicon of Oz also helps students think through how culture represents race and sexuality in ways that a critical text alone cannot.


Kaylee: I try to add a visual element to my courses as well. For example, after reading a selection from Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s Racial Formation in the United States (2014) I lead a class analysis of several pop culture images to decode the different levels of racialization depicted in the image and to discuss the sociohistorical connections between the “real world” of race in the US and the ways it is represented in popular culture. While this activity could work with almost any pop culture image that depicts Indigenous or people of color, I’ve had success in discussing Marvel’s Black Panther film poster and thinking about the ways that it works against slave portraits and other historical images intended to depict Black abjection in favor of Black heroism, power, honor, and intelligence. Similarly, the cover of Kwanza Osajyefo’s graphic novel Black yields fruitful discussions about the now-iconic red hoodie of Trayvon Martin and the Hands Up, Don’t Shoot and Black Lives Matter movements. Through this exercise, my students are not only engaging with Omi and Winant’s text in a tangible way, but I also find that practicing intertextual and historical analysis on visual texts helps them perform these same moves in written texts.


While these examples are certainly not exhaustive, they do represent some of the ways we think through the use of children’s literature and popular culture in our classrooms and what using these examples can do for students. While students may be incredulous about how “literary” these examples are at the beginning of the semester, they often come to appreciate how children’s literature and popular culture can distill cultural messages into easily digestible packages, which as Dr. Reese might point out, is precisely why we should pay them scholarly attention.


Works Cited
hooks, bell. Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations. Routledge, 2006.


Screen Shot 2019-07-14 at 1.54.08 PM

Kaylee Jangula Mootz ( is a PhD candidate at the University of Connecticut specializing in contemporary Native American and African American fiction, film, and young adult literature. Her dissertation project argues that because US national mythology relies on Native American and African American peoples to be configured in linear and past-oriented terms in order to fulfill its progressive self-conception, alternative temporalities in Native American- and African American-authored fiction and film have the propensity to unsettle hegemonic historical narratives and liberal notions of racial progress. Mootz is the former managing editor of the MELUS journal and the current graduate student representative to the Society for the Study of Multi-Ethnic Literatures of the United States.


O8819 Sara Austin

Sara Austin received her PhD in English from the University of Connecticut and is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Miami University in Ohio. Her interest in race, gender, and childhood identity has yielded articles in Transformative Works and Cultures, The Lion and the Unicorn, The Looking Glass: New Perspectives in Children’s Literature, and The Journal of Graphic Novels & Comics. Her current research explores monstrosity as a cultural metaphor for child identity.



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