Universität Bielefeld

© Universität Bielefeld

The innocence of books

By Tamar Mota


When we think about materials that we use in kindergarten to reflect on children's knowledge, one of the first things we come up with will be books. Picture books are essential for children at the kindergarten age to acquire knowledge about topics that emerge from their everyday experiences. The task of the teachers should be to take a critical, closer look at the picture books and to question what kind of knowledge they generate because: „[…] all text and textual practices are socially and culturally situated“ (Patel, 2016, P. 13) as Patel articulate in her book, Decolonizing Educational Research. If we take this hypothesis seriously, we must ask ourselves if texts can be considered as somewhat neutral. While it must be remembered that Patel refers to educational research in her book, her hypothesis is applicable to all knowledge-generating texts or books. Accordingly, we should also take a closer look at books which are addressed to children.

Often when looking at picture books is not questioned who wrote this for what purpose. Often it is also not asked to whom these books are addressed. Not every book that is supposedly addressed to children appeals to every child. Is the book addressed to the child who is actually reading it, or is it addressed to a constructed idea of the 'normal' child? And what does this image look like? Who is the 'normal' child and who is not? Who is represented in books and how? It is important to question a book that we present to children because: „[…] pivotal locations of textual learning are never neutral sites.“ (Patel, 2016, P. 13).

To answer for whom children's books are supposedly written, I took a close look at the 'mainstream books' in two bookstores and books used at a kindergarten. I asked myself: Which books are offered? Who is represented and who is not? Which topics do the books deal with? I asked these questions to show that there is a structure which excludes people, especially people of color in books addressed to children. People of Color are usually underrepresented in children's books. Often it is the case that they are not the protagonists. And sometimes they are represented as something exotic ore 'strange' which is not part of the 'normal society' ore 'majority population'. But why is that the case? Why is it just 'normal' that People of Color are not seen as a part of Germany? Or does it just seem to be like this?

For some years now it seems that, the question of who belongs to Germany has been increasingly discussed in in public, political and scientific discourses. But this discourse is not a new phenomenon, which raised up with the increasing number of refuges at the year 2015 or the federal elections at the last year. This discussion was already conducted at the beginning of the German Reich. With the founding of the German Empire (das Deutsche Reich) also began the German colonial project and the question of who is German and who is not, retreated through the German Empire and its colonies. Even if the German Colonial Epoch is seen as „one of the most short-lived of all modern colonialisms“ (Conrad, 2013, P. 543) we should have a very close look to this epoch of German history, because this epoch is not as insignificant as it is often portrayed by historians (Conrad, 2013, P. 544). A critical analysis of the connections between German Colonialism and the constructed concept of „Germanness“ in this context, could be enlightening as Fatima El- Tayeb says:

„Since German colonial activities lasted only from 1884 to 1914, they are often neglected as irrelevant to both the German society and colonial history in general. This perception requires correction. German colonialism put the race theories already dominating the public mind into practice on a broad scale. This did not only change the colonized countries but also the colonizer. A movement of „colonial enthusiasm“, massive government propaganda supported by the country's strong nationalist groups, buttressed the acquirement of overseas territories. Aiming at presenting colonialism as necessary for Germany's survival as one of the world's 'leading nations', it readily deployed Social Darwinist theories. Exhibitions of 'natives' in zoos, 'scientific studies' distributed freely to schools, and the widely popular colonial novels popularized the racial theories that had already conquered academia. (El-Tayeb, 1999, P.156f.)

As El-Tayeb underpins in this quote, there was a deep connection between the idea of race, academia, and at the whole educational system (including schools and civic education). While the same racial theories might not form part of scholarly discussions today, the tradition of categorizing people still works in academia and the educational system. Some well-known scientists have investigated the continuation of colonial- thinking traditions in the German education system and the academia. And they find them. Maria do Mar Castro Varela, Paul Mecherill, Claus Melter, Astrid Messerschmidt, Isabell Diehm and Susan Arndt, just to name some of them, used postcolonial theories and postcolonial perspectives to analyze the educational system and the educational research as well. The most important aspects of this postcolonial analysis in relation to my Photo-Voice-Project are that the idea of a „norm“, of a „normal child,“ does exist in the minds of teachers, even at the kindergarten. Also important is that the construction of a concept or a category of what is „not normal“ or „not belonging to Germany“ does also exist and children learn these concepts of belonging and not-belonging at their early childhood. They learn it from their (kindergarten) teachers, and they learn it from the academia. If we, as educational researchers doesn't take a closer look, a critical perspective at what kind of knowledge we are producing here in academia and don't reflect on how this knowledge can be used, then the existing structures will keep on going and existing. As Patel pointed out in her book Decolonizing Educational Research, the change has to start also here in academia.

„At its core, research is about the pursuit of knowledge. In this book, I focus on the ways that coloniality is manifested in both material conditions and the meanings that are made of those conditions, specifically within the field of educational research, and particularly what this structure means for projects of decolonization.“ (Patel, 2016, P.12)

To start here in academia, we, as students and researchers, has to search for alternatives to generate knowledge. If we follow Patel's arguments than we have to see the academia as a part of a system of producing and reproducing structures who systematically exclude children and people from the (knowledge) society. To swerve from this tradition to new forms of generating knowledge we can use alternative research methods. One of these could be the PhotoVoice-method, which was developed by Caroline Wang and Mary Ann Burris in 1992. They wanted to give oppressed women a voice and developed this method as an alternative research method.

„The concept has existed for many years, but much of the theoretical background of current programs comes from the work of Caroline Wang. In 1992, Wang and Mary Ann Burris developed Photovoice based on a combination of Paulo Freire's notion of „critical consciousness“ (a deep understanding of the way the world works and how society, politics, and power relationships affect one's own situation); feminist theory, which emphasizes the importance of voice; and documentary photography, which is often used to help bring about social change.“ (University of Kansas, Center for Community Health and Development, 2018, online available)*

I used this method to research about colonial structures in the educational system in my immediate vicinity and was influenced by Patel's understanding of decolonizing educational research.

Photo One: „Not about us without us“

In this photo we can see some of the books addressed to children with special themes. In some of these books people of color are the protagonist but in others it's more about cultural issues, such as festivals. But in all books people of color and cultural issues are connected to each other. An image is created and reproduced. Until reading these books with children it should be questioned who wrote this book and how the knowledge about cultural issues is used to represent a created group? Is diversity seen as a usual thing or is the text in the book reproducing knowledge about created groups and dividing people into „non-permeable categories“ (Patel, 2016, P. 19). Dividing people into different categories is a colonial-thinking tradition.

„The construction of the white man as the embodiment of all the qualities of civilization and rationality necessarily needed a counterpart that lacked all these qualities and continually confirmed the white race's superiority. The 'black race' was systematically built up as this counterpart.“ (El-Tayeb, 1999, P.150)

By the division into different categories and the evaluation of these categories, they can be put in a hierarchical power relation to each other. Who determines the categories, can also determine the value of these and position themselves to them; in other word, who invented the categories and divided them is also on the highest position of the hierarchy. That's why it is important to not let others decide to name someone as somewhat, but rather to let individuals themselves speak for themselves. „Not about us, without us.“ Just the division into groups or categories reflects already a colonial-thinking structure, which can be given by such books to children. Unconsciously, this can make the grouping of people into a daily normality. But should children learn to group people into different groups or categories? Why does this division exist? Fatima El-Tayeb says that: „[…] the hierarchy of race was central to the construction of a modern Western identity that needed to distance itself both from the rest of the world and its own medieval self.“ (El-Tayeb, 1999, P. 150). And nowadays, where we live in competitive, capitalistic society this division is needed to decide who are the winners and who are the losers, because even nowadays there can't be no white privilege without the so-called „others“ (Patel, 2016, P. 17).

Photo Two: „Other cultures“

This photo shows where the books from Photo One can be found in the kindergarten. The shelf compartment is labeled with the words: „Andere Kulturen“ which means „other cultures“. This division separates the imagination of one's own culture from the „other cultures“. And so, a category can be created, the category of the „other cultures“ and manifests itself in the minds of children.

Those categories, and keeping them separate, are inextricably necessary for the colonial project of naming and sorting for the purpose pf metering worth and safety while also justifying disparities as part of a natural order. With holistic order broken into different pieces and the majority focus on those party, it is more difficult to challenge assumptions about the overall system.“ (Patel, 2016, P.19)

In this part of Patel's book there are two important points to be highlighted. First the „natural order“ and the use of categories to justify „disparities as a part of a natural order“. That is why it is important to create categories and keep them, to keep ongoing the normality of separation and the justify a „natural order“. Children learn in their early childhood that it's „normal“ to be categorized, so they don't question it. The „holistic order broken into different pieces“ like Patel says, is the second important point. To atomize the system and the orders in it, division is made something natural. Something that is necessary and useful. But children not only learn to divide and categorize others, they also learn to be categorized and internalize the category which is assigned to them. The construction of difference and the linking difference to hierarchical values Kilomba describes as features of racism (Kilomba, 2016, P.40). The construction of a „different culture“ and linking this construction to certain (hierarchical) values is something that is deeply rooted in the social structures. Children learn that is normal and usual to place someone as the „other“ or to be placed as an „Other“.

Every time I am placed as 'Other' - whether it is the unwelcomed 'Other', the intrusive 'Other', the dangerous 'Other', the violent 'Other', the thrilling 'Other', whether it is the dirty 'Other', the exciting 'Other', the wild 'Other', the natural 'Other', the desirable 'Other' or the wild 'Other' - I am inevitably experiencing racism, for I am being forced to become the embodiment of what the white subject does not want to be acquainted with. I become the 'Other' of whiteness, not the self - and therefore I am being denied the right to exist as equal.“ (Kilomba, 2016, P.42)

If we as teachers, researchers or pedagogues take the injustice in the German educational system seriously, we should stop excluding children by seeing them as „Others“. We should start to swerve away from these thinking-traditions and change the way we see children (or the way we want to see them). We should rethink education and participation.

Photo Three: Ethnological adventure trip for children

As you can see, the title of this book is: „Sag mir wo der Pfeffer wächst“ which means „show me where the pepper grows“. The subtitle „Eine ethnologische Erlebnisreise für Kinder“ is also the title I gave to this picture: Ethnological adventure trip for children. But why do I see this as a colonial structured book which reproduces colonial-thinking structures? It's about what kind of logics and relationships can be created through these types of books. Taking a closer look at the cover you see, that just white children are illustrated, „on the tracks of foreign cultures“ as it is written on the cover. It's clear to see who is able to search about foreign cultures and how. From above, out of the hot air balloon, they look at foreign cultures to explore these.

If the different cultures are divided they can be researched and categorized, to learn how to deal with someone from a certain culture. So, cultures become to something that needs to be investigated to learn how to deal with diversity of cultures. These arguments are also used in further education for institutions and their educators when they learn about „diversity management“. Intercultural competences (Interkulturelle Kompetenzen) seem to be the necessary key qualification for today's educational institutions. But it should not be about intercultural competences, we should rather try to develop the ability of self-criticism. Take a look to yourself and not to the „others“. What kind of practice are legitimized in my institution? What kind of structures do I support with my work? Who is talking about who and how? Do I exclude children from learning processes through my pedagogical work? Maybe by using these kinds of books. The construction of a foreign culture has a long tradition in and continues to influence even today's society beyond the colonial era. The image of „race“, changed in the last years. Other ethnic groups (if they are defined by others, not by their self), foreign cultures, foreigners, or similar groups and categories are socially constructed. But the construction of the „others“ or „other cultures“ is also used to define a self-image. To define where I belong to I also use to define who is not included. In modern societies who belongs to this society depends on certain categories like formal ones for example citizenship, less formal ones like language and informal ones like an image of a German. But all these categories based on a colonial image of belonging and not belonging as El-Tayeb pointed out:

„Racial construction assigned opposite mentalities to the races. Only whites were granted differentiated personalities and societies. (…) This idea required that the separation of races was presented as necessary and natural. The accept- ance of a mixed raced population within the white West would have shown that cultural identity is not connected to „race“. That this acceptance never took place shows that the West still depends on race to define itself.“ (El-Tayeb, 1999, P.169)

The social construction of „race“ is deeply rooted in the „modern“ Western society.

Photo Four: Who is afraid of the black man?

This is the first page of the book Show me where the pepper grows and when I read this the first time I was really perplexed. First of all, the title (which is also the title of this photo) „Who is afraid of the black man?“ is just nefarious. Taking a closer look to the text, it seems to be self-reflective and well-intended. The text talks about the construction of the image of an image of strangers or foreign cultures. They explain that these images arise in the minds by using our fantasy to construct these images. But good intentions do not mean that there is an absence of racism, colonialism, and harm. Often the opposite can happen, and the real impact of structures gets undermined by being played down.

„The trope of the well-intentioned teacher without substantive interrogation of the impact of practices has long obscured problematic patterns that are in need of investigation and transformation. Throughout my argument in this book, I both assume and pay little attention to good intentions. I am instead focused on impact.“ (Patel, 2016, P.32f.)

Focusing on the impact like Patel does in her book, I want to point out why this book does not help but rather harms. First the so-called strangers where compared with aliens (as u can see on the right side of the page, there is also an alien depicted). When I start comparing people (even if they are strangers) with aliens then I dehumanize them. I start to see them as something who does not belong to my world, to my space or to my society. That's colonial thinking: dehumanizing and displacing people from my space. Second there is a really detailed description of why „we“ supposedly are afraid of the stranger subject, which also reflect colonial thinking structures. There it says:

„Wir denken uns, dass sie wahnsinnig viele Informationen über uns haben. Aber wir haben keine über sie und das macht un sein bisschen Angst denn, wir kennen ihre möglichen Absichten nicht. So haben wir viele Ideen darüber, warum sie zu uns kommen.“

„We suppose that they have a lot of information about us and we do not have any information about them. This scares us because we don't know their possible intentions. So, we have many ideas about why they come to us.“ This reflects a deeply rooted ideology. Children learn that they need to generate information about strangers and foreign cultures to can handle the situation when they meet them. They learn that knowledge can gives them certain kind of power. They also learn that it is a natural thing to be different from „others“ and to be afraid of strangers, or to find this appealing.

This ideology legitimizes the so-called xenophobia as a naturel thing and exotism as well. But both xenophobia and exotism are coded through „race“ and they both work through categorizing people into „others.“


To make a conclusion I would like to use questions that Patel used in her book to reflect on the responsibility of educational research and of researchers as well:

„While we have a responsibility to understand, contribute to, and be fluent in existing research, we also are responsible for our ontological entry-points and impacts as researchers. Because all research is conducted by living beings, with specific histories, we are beholden to consider and answer, perhaps always incompletely, the three core questions of „Why me?“, „Why this?“, „Why now?“ (Patel, 2016, P.57)

Why me: I am a student of the educational research and also a pedagogue at a kindergarten. As a part of the educational system it's my responsibility to reflect on myself and to reflect on the structures in my institution. I have to take a critical and close look to what I am teaching and how am I teaching. „Central to my discussion of „Why me?“ is a responsibility to consider ones' place within and among longitudinal and vast patterns of who has been researched, by whom, and from what theoretical frameworks.“ (Patel, 2016, P.57). To break up the structures which are deeply rooted in the (educational) system of our society here in Germany we all should take a closer look to the own „ones' place“ in this and make a critical self-reflection about it.

Why this? To answer this question first of all to myself but also to other students, researchers and people in my immediate vicinity, I have to make clear how I understand this question. „How we frame a research problem and its context is pivotal to understanding how it has already been understood, perhaps misunderstood, and what stances are fruitful for further understanding it.“ (Patel, 2016, P. 59). To construct our own understanding of our own pedagogical work and educational research first of all we have to deconstruct what we mean to know and reconstruct what we really want to represent. This maybe sounds complex and highly complicated but it can be simple. Ask yourself what do I know about educational research, research methods and theories? Where does this knowledge come from? Who wrote the texts that I read? From which perspective? Who talks about who and how? We should be clear about what kind of knowledge we want to record and reproduce.

Why now and why here? This question is about the context in where we live. Here in a country like Germany with a colonial past and present, it should be our responsibility as researchers and educators to investigate and question these continuities and to position ourselves. Where is my place in this system? How am I privileged? If yes, why? Who has access to knowledge? Also, its important to point out why it is now important to do this reflection. In my opinion, it is important to do all this because the shift to the right in global politics is not a myth. Because racism has become salon-savvy again and we should take seriously the demand for equal opportunities in the education system. As researchers and as educators, we are jointly responsible for the development of the education system.


  • El-Tayeb, Fatima (1999): „Blood Is a Very Special Juice“: Racialized Bodies and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century Germany. In International Review of Social History (1999) 44, P. 149-169, online available at: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/international-review-of-socialhistory/article/blood-is-a-very-special-juice-racialized-bodies-and-citizenship-intwentiethcentury-germany/47DDF99E647FFC98F0E5ED8997250824 [last call: 11.07.18]
  • Kilomba, Grada (2016): Plantation Memories. Episodes of Everyday Racism. Münster: UNRAST-Verlag
  • Patel, Leigh (2016): Decolonizing Educational Research. Form Ownership to Answerability. New York: Routledge
  • The Community Tool Box Team includes Center for Community Health and Development (2018): Implementing Photovoice in Your Community. Online available: https://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/assessment/assessing-community-needs-andresources/ photovoice/main (last call: 11.07.2018)