Challenge to Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You: Q&A with Aidan Larson

Banned and Challenged Books, Censorship, Education

Following the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent nationwide protests in May 2020, books sales for antiracist literature soared. Books like White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo and So You Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo experienced a 6895% and 2264%, respectively, jump in sales from May to June. Classrooms around the country also started to incorporate anti-racist literature into their curriculum.

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You

Aidan Larson, a teacher in Round Rock, Texas, utilized the book Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You (a Young Adult adaption of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racists Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi) by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, as part of their Learning From History unit this fall. The book was a recent addition to their district’s approved reading list, and parents could opt in or out for their child’s participation in the study. However, as is typical with the use of materials that push back against the status quo, schools and libraries have also started to see an increase in challenges in books that deal with racism and immigration bias.

In Round Rock, even with the choice to opt out available, one parent chose to file a complaint with the school against the book, and then later, against Ms. Larson herself. The complaint escalated from the school (Level I) to the district (Level II), where Stamped’s place on the approved reading list received overwhelming support. The parent then took their complaint to the Board of Trustees (Level III). At this point, though Ms. Larson had been defending her choice to teach Stamped at each step of the complaint and reconsideration process (click here to read her response to the Level I complaint), she decided to take further action by creating a petition on Change.org. Thankfully, the petition was shared widely throughout the Round Rock community and on social media. It received 3,602 signatures, and the decision was made to keep Stamped on the district reading list.

Recently, I was able to speak to Ms. Larson regarding this situation. Her commitment to intellectual freedom and dedication to fostering an antiracist learning environment for her students is evident in her discussion of the challenge to Stamped. Not every educator is in the position to fight back against a challenge: it can be a risk to their professional reputation or even their job security. But if they’re able to do so, it always makes a difference, even if censorship prevails in that particular incident. As Ms. Larson states below: “Fight for the kids. They will know. They always know.”

Q&A with Aidan Larson

IF Blog: Were you surprised that Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You was challenged? 

AL: I would like to say that I was very surprised at the challenge to the book, but I realize where I live and have to confront the issues that exist within our community. I knew that I was following district protocol by teaching the book in our, Learning from History, unit of study and felt confident that the book’s place on the approved reading list and the standing option for parents to choose whether or not their child(ren) participates would be protection from censorship. I did realize that I was the only teacher in the district to teach the book because of its newly published and district approved status, but I’d read it in the spring and again over the summer with my own children and knew it to be a rich and full opening to inquiry. Inquiry and research are in the TEKS {Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills} for this unit of study. 

IF Blog: According to the report on KVUE, the complaint against Stamped is that it has “inappropriate instructional material”. You’re a middle school teacher. You’ve taught this book in the classroom. How did your students respond to reading it and discussing its challenging message? 

AL: As mentioned above, I knew the book to be a wonderful opening to further inquiry regarding history and that tied in beautifully with our Learning from History unit of study. We usually study the Holocaust during this unit. We have done book clubs of nonfiction and historical fiction and focused a lot of time and attention to that era of history, but I thought this new, fresh view of our American history, by an esteemed and beloved young adult author would be relevant and enriching for my students. They had already been talking with me and each other about the events of the summer and how they wanted to learn more about the unspoken history of our country. We used the book as a jumping off point for further inquiry as aligned with the TEKS for this unit and students were rapt. They discussed and questioned and wanted more time for deeper study. They were curious to know more and drew their own conclusions based on their lived experiences. The conversation was rich. This age group is developmentally curious and wants to know where they fit into their world and who they are in the broader sense of community.

Mr. Reynolds’ engaging voice and writing style furthered their interest in learning where they fit into our American history and future because it was fun and accessible while dealing with concepts and events they may not have previously known. Another point I’d like to make about the use of this book in an ELA classroom is the writing itself. Students looked at craft moves and choices made by Jason Reynolds and practiced these in their own work. The listing of difficult concepts, for example, and the use of narrative to illustrate conflicting ideas are deftly constructed throughout. The use of breaks and blank space on pages to give readers a breather and time and space to consider what they’ve learned and to process new information was a favorite feature of many students.

Adolescents and teenagers are curious and empathetic. They want to know how things work, and how to make them better. They are open to questioning what they’re given and I allowed this to develop in my role as a guide through this book. (It is worth noting that our classes were all virtual and students were still highly engaged in inquiry and discussion.)

IF Blog: I think sometimes, parents will challenge a title to make their objection known, but then concede if the challenge is rejected. That was not the case here. The complaint was heard at both the campus and district level, where it was unanimously agreed upon as a valuable addition to the reading list. Why was the objection to Stamped pushed forward to the level of the Board of Trustees? 

AL: I will try to answer this question fairly and with discretion. It is clear to me, based on the evidence and discussion presented by the parent in question, that politics and Christianity played a major role in the persistent challenge of this book. The complaint shifted over the course of the challenge.

  • In the beginning, there was a complaint regarding Dr. Kendi’s tweet about Amy Coney Barrett and multi-racial/global adoptions, to which the parent responded on the campus parent Facebook group: “Couple of quotes from the book’s co-author, Ibram Kendi: “The only remedy to racist discrimination is anti-racist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.” {from How to Be an Antiracist, p. 19} And last month he said of families like mine: “Some White colonizers ‘adopted’ Black children. They ‘civilized’ these ‘savage’ children in the ‘superior’ ways of White people, while using them as props in their lifelong pictures of denial, while cutting the biological parents of these children out of the picture of humanity.”
Photo of tweet by Ibram X. Kendi: “Some White colonizers ‘adopted’ Black children. They ‘civilized’ these ‘savage’ children in the ‘superior’ ways of White people, while using them as props in their lifelong pictures of denial, while cutting the biological parents of these children out of the picture of humanity.”
  • The parent’s second complaint to the use of the book was Executive Order 13958, aka 1776 Commision, which was quickly overturned by President Biden on 1.21.21. The parent stated that he believed the book was a violation of this EO and therefore, was not legal to teach in a public school using federal funds. 
  • The parent’s third complaint was against me personally and ranged from the process and timeline with which I introduced the book and gave or withheld, as was falsely claimed, planning and instructional content. In truth, I extended the opt-in/out period for parents and was told by my principal not to make things worse by giving notice of this extension to parents because it would make them question why the extension was given and she didn’t want any more noise on this topic. The parent asked for access to my planning materials and I provided them and all parents and students with my instructional Google slides on my website and on our LMP, Schoology. Ample time was given, transparency was given, and resources were shared throughout the book study. 
  • During the level II decision meeting, the parent said that, “the use of this book and the teaching of it are an abomination”. He wanted to discuss his personnel complaint against me, the teacher, and was redirected back to the book by a district level employee. The personnel complaint against  me was part of the Level I complaint and I don’t know if that was right or not. 
  • It is important that you know the history of this group of parents and their use of bullying and pressure tactics as regards teachers and our principal. The ones with the most power, influence, and money are heard. It was unusual for my principal to hold her ground on this issue, but I believe she had no choice because of the support for the book at the district level. 

Finally, I am 100% certain of my information on the reason why the challenge was taken to the Board of Trustees. A trustee member is in a prayer group with the family who challenged the book. It is alleged that she encouraged the family to take the challenge to the Board. I have trustworthy and inside information that this would have been supported by a number of trustees. This is why I felt it was important to start the petition. The hearing was to be in closed session and no one would have known that the challenge had been taken to this level, nor would the outcome (removal from the approved reading list) been publicized. I could see an outcome of the book silently being removed with no recourse for those of us who fought for its place on the list. 

IF Blog: Jason Reynolds has several other titles on the Round Rock ISD approved reading list, including the novel All American Boys, which also deals with topics regarding racism and police brutality. What do you think it is about Stamped that singled it out for a challenge? 

AL: The parent has a political and Christian nationlist agenda in challenging this book in particular. His family is made up of globally adopted children and he seems to believe that this view of American history does not match up with the one he would rather believe. 

IF Blog: How did you decide to take the step from speaking out on Twitter to creating a petition on Change.org? Why did you think that was the most effective way to combat this challenge?

AL:  I believed change.org was the most effective way to combat the challenge because I know of its efficacy and reach in the community. I wanted it to spread beyond our learning community and found other groups aligned with antiracism in our district to amplify its plea for transparency. 

IF Blog: Based on your experience in fighting this challenge, what advice do you have for fellow teachers or librarians who might be dealing with similar challenges? 

AL: I would say that you should not be afraid to speak out against censorship but that it is difficult at times (especially in nonunion states like Texas) when you may be putting your job on the line. Find support before you speak out publicly so that you have many voices behind you. Try to stay on message and not get into the weeds and emotions publicly. It is hard to have your name and professionalism slandered, but the book and the students are what matter. Take ego out of it as much as possible and remain positive and on the high road when others attack you. There is community out there who will support you if you’re acting from truth and love of knowledge and of your students.

Fight for the kids. They will know. They always know. 

IF Blog: Is there anything that I haven’t asked that you’d like to share? 

AL: It should be known that the parent opted that his child participate in the whole class study of Stamped. He allowed his child to read it even though he was so against it that he took his challenge to the Board of Trustees. Yet, he allowed his child to participate in the whole class book study. Again, classes were virtual. The parent recorded my instruction from his home while his child was a participant in the book study. He would then transcribe the things I said that he found objectionable and send them to my principal to add to his personnel complaint against me. She would then read them aloud to me over the phone. I stand by everything I said during instruction and inquiry. I’m not certain this would be legal in another state. I am not certain if parents would be happy to know that this parent was recording our class discussions.

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