When Pippi said the N-word

What should a parent do when Pippi Longstocking says the N-word in the book? The Children's Library project wants to build tools for dealing with everyday racism. 
Illustration: Emmi Nieminen

It was a long journey to the summer cottage, and we needed an activity to share. The children became restless on the backseat and started to complain. So we put on a radio play about Pippi Longstocking in Yle Areena, heard on the radio for the first time in 1996.

The heavenly peace and quiet lasted for about three minutes – until Pippi said that her father was “the King of the Negroes”. I looked at my spouse, who raised his eyebrows. There it was, the N-word. What on earth should we do in this situation?

A quick fix: we did nothing.

I still pondered the issue that evening. I wondered whether it would have been a good time to raise the issue and use the opportunity for an educational discussion, when Pippi used the N word. Should we explain to the children, as Yle does in the service – that the radio play “should be listened to and interpreted according to the values of the society at the time of writing”?

This instruction by Yle seemed not only somewhat patronising, but also a half-way solution. Our children belong to a generation which, hopefully, has never even heard the word. Why would we want, even with good intentions, to specifically teach them a word that we do not want to slip into their vocabulary, even by accident? Some of their school and daycare friends are black. We were not sure whether it was even necessary to mention that, until quite recently, words that are now considered degrading were used to refer to these people.

How about the good old strategy of ignoring the whole thing and looking the other way? Maybe the word should just be overlooked now, and no fuss should be made about it. In our case, it might indeed make sense if the adults did not make a fuss about something that the children did not even notice.

But that seemed somehow wrong, too – what if there had been a child in the car who would instantaneously have known what the word means, since it has already been used in a degrading manner about him or her? Letting the whole thing pass is maybe possible for us, but that is a very privileged opportunity.

I mentioned the situation later to a colleague, who said that the same problem had come up in the family, but they had tackled it with a practical solution. Working with sound, this colleague processed the audiobook with editing software to find out whether the N-words could be cut out smoothly. That being done successfully, the children could then listen to the edited version. The problem was solved.

“That word just seemed wrong there”, my colleague said and shrugged. “Somehow, the reader used it in the audiobook so casually that it just sounded too brutal to me.”

Such a straightforward attitude amused me, but I could not let the topic go. So I telephoned Katarina Jungar, a social scientist who leads the Children’s Library Project, funded by the Kone Foundation. Through this project, parents and children strive to understand the racism encountered by children in their everyday lives and seek new ways of dealing with it.

Perhaps Jungar, a researcher in the field, would know how to deal with this?

“It is very common that parents have no tools for dealing with such situations. When these issues are discussed in search of solutions, confusion tends to reign,” says Jungar and sighs. She has no right answers up her sleeve.

“That’s a pretty common piece of advice: discuss the problems in the books with your children. It is not only given by Yle, but by many scientists too. The advice can easily become a little absurd when you try to follow it,” says Jungar. ”I’ve noticed that, after studying postcolonial feminism for twenty years, even I do not know how to discuss the N-word with a three-year old. If, for example, a word like the N-word comes up in an old children’s book, I look at the children and my head is spinning – what should I say and do now. Should my reaction be just that this is a bad bad book, let’s put it away!”

In principle, the information is there but we do not know how to discuss it so that the child understands and will not become even more confused. And we are not always sure whether we even want to,” Jungar says.

“Why would I, on the other hand, want to discuss the possible racism in a children’s book with the children, when I do not have the time to read all the good books in the world to them, that do not involve the same problem?”

Illustration: Emmi Nieminen

Many people do the same as Ahmed Al-Nawas, who works with the Children’s Library project alongside Katarina Jungar.

“For my daughter, Pippi is a really empowering character, so I can’t just not read the book, because censorship would only make her more interested. So I edit the text while reading it,” he says.

When Ahmed Al-Nawas reads Pippi books to his child, he realises that his own mind begins to race:

“Pippi has the prerogative to be a radical, because she has Dad’s money, but where is the money coming from? And why do we not know anything about Pippi’s mother, was she from the colonies too? While reading, I’ve tried to liberate Pippi from her father, because Pippi is generally really sensible and ethical, but with her father, Pippi’s morals lose out. So Pippi suffers from an Oedipus complex!”

In most cases, Al-Nawas’ attempts at editing are not very successful. “My daughter catches me doing it every time,” he says and laughs.

The Children’s Library project started out with similar experiences of confusion. Katarina Jungar says that many of her friends had tried to discuss racism experienced by their children in public spaces, for instance in the social media. That was difficult.

“Yes, people were horrified by the behaviour of a drunken man at a bus stop, saying how terrible that was, but it didn’t go any deeper than that. That discussion ended with comments wondering how people can be so stupid,” says Jungar. It was easier to think that the individual drunk was the actual problem, rather than the people who stayed silent all around, even though they were part of the problem. In children’s own accounts, the particularly rough experiences were the ones in which nobody defended them.

“A racist classmate is not the worst thing. It is the best friend who does not show solidarity,” Jungar explains.

So she began to wonder whether a practical guide was required for situations involving racism in everyday life.

“These things happen so quickly that anyone can wind up just falling silent.”

The Children’s Library is trying to find new, practical ways of dealing with experiences of racism – including structural racism that the child may encounter in places such as libraries, or while reading a book in the lap of a safe adult, rather than when yelled at by a drunk.

Through research and art, the aim is to create positive counter-stories based on the experiences of parents and children. Jungar has employed the memory work method, made famous by Frigga Haug, which is popular among feminists in particular. It involves group discussions of personal events in life, making them into stories told in the third person. The basic idea is that the narrative helps participants to take a more objective and analytical look at their lives, and perhaps even change them.

In Jungar’s opinion, Frigga Haug’s method is ideal for processing racism experienced in public spaces, as it helps the victim to distance herself from difficult experiences. Stories about everyday racism have therefore been written by the group and read aloud to others.

Children’s books are among the themes of the stories – that is, the very same situations we referred to. How does it feel when a family is listening to a CD in the car, and the reader says something racist? How does a parent read books aloud to children, what should be said and what left out? Where can we find stories that feature diverse children as active characters, not just representatives of colourful Benetton aesthetics? How does it feel if you find that a very much loved and wonderful children’s book to be rather mindless?

In Sweden, there has been a heated debate on Pippi Longstocking in particular. A few years ago, a new edition of Pippi Longstocking was printed. In accordance with the wishes of Astrid Lindgren‘s daughter, racist terms were replaced by other terms. The company supervising Lindgren’s rights believed that the author would have accepted the changes herself. Even in Finland, this was reported as a form of censorship.

An uproar arose when some libraries removed old editions of Pippi from their collections, in which the offending words were still being used.

“In Sweden, there is talk of book burning and the issue has aroused intense emotions and anger. It’s interesting how angry people can become if their children are not allowed to read the N-word in their books,” says Katarina Jungar.

Astrid Lindgren’s beloved books give rise to particularly deep emotions: This is part of our very own culture, I read this book myself when I was young. Can’t even children’s literature classics be exempted from the hysteria of political correctness?

“In my opinion, the debate about children’s books in particular is hysterical. It is in this context that people suddenly discover their patriotism,” says Ahmed Al-Nawas and smiles. He thinks it is pointless hiding behind the fact that this is children’s literature.

“The books we read to children are part of our cultural heritage, common national figures that convey an understanding of what is a good childhood. The entire term ‘children’s literature’ is questionable,” he says. The whole idea of ​​children’s literature as a special genre is new, only about a hundred years old.

“There are no children’s books as such. There are just books that adults have written and choose to read to their children. For example, I would like to read books to my child in which my native country is not only depicted as a flying carpet. It is a fictitious idea that this would be literature just for children. The idea is based on our desire to imagine a children’s world which is as innocent as possible.”

Illustration: Emmi Nieminen

It is no coincidence that the key location for the Children’s Library is just the library.

When Ahmed Al-Nawas arrived in Finland from Iraq, he was fourteen years old. At the time, he discovered the Pasila library in Helsinki and the large music collection on the second floor. The library became an important place for the young immigrant. He sat in the music department with headphones on, and borrowed cassettes that he listened to on his Walkman at home.

In the library’s music department, Al-Nawas felt that he had found things that he related to personally: hip hop, Brazilian tropicalism, 1970’s black music, punk.

“When I listened to that music, I felt I was not alone. Someone else had experienced the very same thing back in the 1960s.”

The categories used in the library did not direct Al-Nawas or recognised his experiences. Finding new things meant getting lost and discovering various routes and networks for himself.

“Each time I got lost, I always found new information, varying from one record and musician to another. I began to realise that my choices were not random, but part of a larger network,” he explains.

Ahmed Al-Nawas began to feel that, although the categories used in the library were intended to be neutral, they were not. Even when they raised non-European issues, they chose those that were appreciated in Europe.

At the same time, the library is still an extremely important non-commercial space, says Al-Nawas. Although public funding is declining and the internet has revolutionised access to information, he thinks that libraries are still an essential place in the creation of the welfare state, in terms of guiding and directing people’s interests.

Although Ahmed Al-Nawas felt that his interests were marginal, he found fascinating and unique items in the library.

“In a Helsinki library, you can find dub music that is not available in any of the world’s public libraries, and valuable original releases that are sold on the market for a thousand euros. Just think, that some librarian wanted to invest in such treasures a long time ago? These are great stories!”

And someone is making similar decisions as we speak, says Al-Nawas.

The Children’s Library indicates that Finnish society is changing. Decolonisation is mentioned here as well. Decolonial research aims to take account of different perspectives from all over the world and to break free of the canon of Western thinking. Knowledge that we regard as universal may actually involve a world view with a focus on Europe. Decolonial research does not want to question knowledge itself, but to show that there are other ways of generating knowledge about the world and highlighting issues.

But should knowledge be feared, and can books be dangerous? Isn’t the library a safe place where no knowledge should be censored, but viewed as an opportunity to understand the historical contexts of certain issues? Aren’t children’s books part of our history, which should be discussed, not kept silent?

Ahmed Al-Nawas thinks that the concepts of archive and curating are good tools. The essential issue is whether a library is an archive or a curated space.

“If a library is supposed to be an archive, it must contain absolutely all knowledge of our past. But if a library is a curated space that reflects the values ​​of modern society, then that is a different issue.”

In the same way, parents reading books to their children always curate their child’s image of reality: by choosing books, and creating and editing the text spontaneously. Or by even turning to editing software.

“All this in not just about whether Pippi should be consigned to or removed from the archive. Instead, we need better ways of handling these issues,” says Al-Nawas.

The Children’s Library project is now trying to build such methods. In the simplest case scenario, this means curated shelves in libraries where you can find positive books about a diverse range of children.

In Katarina Jungar’s opinion, the key strength of the project is that a curator and artist are involved, with whom things can be done together. The project’s summer school will bring together researchers, artists, writers, poets, filmmakers, graffiti artists, publishers, producers and journalists. The aim is to create a space for new stories.

Author

Veera Luoma-Aho