Anastasia Higginbotham is the best-selling author of several children’s books, including Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness. That book was specifically mentioned by Republican State Rep. Steve Toth as he was encouraging fellow legislators to support House Bill 3979, a school censorship bill that heavily restricts what can and cannot be taught in public schools. Texas Signal spoke to Anastasia about that experience, and how she feels about the anti-critical race theory legislation that is passing in Texas and across the country. This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
When did you find out that your book was being discussed in relation to a bill about curbing what can be taught in a social studies curriculum?
I received an email from Professor Marlon C. James at Texas A&M. They wrote to my publicist and said, ‘I’m trying to get a message to Anastasia.’ I was [forwarded] a letter from a Texas state legislator. Dr. James wanted to know if I would be able to write something or just speak on the issue right at that moment. Because he knew that the book was being shared by Steve Toth with every member of the House of Representatives, under the guise that my book was racist.
Yes, we wrote about it for Texas Signal.
For me, I was shocked. To be told I’m race-shaming kids?
Not what the book is about at all.
It’s really an acknowledgement for humanity and the sensitivity of a child who would be able to recognize something’s very wrong. Something is wrong in the culture, and they feel it in their body. They know in their gut that there are people who are not safe, and it is due to the color of our skin. Whether we are safe from this kind of racist violence or racist discrimination. So I wanted to acknowledge that children are sensing that, and then invite them into a legacy of justice work. I wanted to let them know that they’re not alone. That there’s a place for them. That racism was not their idea, that they were born into something that is in the culture, and in the system of schooling and policing and banking and housing. They could make choices. They could understand. They could know that it’s a system and it’s not them.
Steve Toth’s argument, as I understand it, is that you are shaming white children with this book. And we should not be talking about these ‘divisive’ topics. What would you have to say to that?
It’s the opposite. The shame is already there, but shame is part of being born into the lie of white supremacy. The shame is what they feel when adults won’t talk to them, honestly, about the history that has brought us to this moment and the current reality. What I’m doing in the book is inviting children to understand their own sense of justice. It is like, people don’t want to hear those words spoken to children. So [Toth’s] thinking is warping the message of a book like mine and others. I’m in excellent company. I’ve never been in such excellent company to be associated with The 1619 Project, but they’re intentionally warping and distorting the message.
So people like Toth really don’t understand anything about the book?
They flip it and reverse it. And then they act like victims and they’re lying. They leave white children in a place of no power and no self-regard. You know, he’s denigrating their capacity.
Acting like victims and lying. That’s actually a really good description of many of the lawmakers that we have in Texas right now. In Texas, we passed a number of bills this year, along with many other states throughout the country, that are billed as “anti-critical race theory.” As someone who is his trying to expand the minds of children, how do you feel that there are so many books right now that are being censored? Not even just with anti-racism topics, but things like LGBTQ identity and a lot of other topics like that?
I just see it as really ugly. It’s blatant censorship. It’s fear of the truth. It’s bias. It’s bigotry. It’s anti-Blackness. They are trying to pretend like racism doesn’t exist, trying to pretend that people aren’t in danger, and trying to protect wealth in the hands of those it’s already in.
I’m curious if you heard from maybe any parents or librarians after all this happened?
Every day I get posts on my Instagram or emails that are just like, ‘You’re racist. You’re the worst. You’re the reason that we have racism in this country.’ Just ridiculous stuff comes at me. I hear from teachers, the same teachers who I was hearing from before, who say, ‘I’m still teaching your stuff, I still have your books.’ I hear from friends who in their various professions, some work in hospitals, some work at schools, some work in anti-bias education, who are saying, ‘I still use your work just like before.’ I have heard from parents. A guy in Wisconsin. He said they were debating [my] books at a school board thing. And they’re trying to deny funding. [Some] parents were organizing, but they lost. The community came out overwhelmingly in favor of keeping the materials in school.
When you do hear about cases though, where maybe the censorship prevails, and we’ve had a couple of those cases in Texas; do you do have any thoughts on that?
It’s dangerous. It is frightening for the children because, just like what we said before, they’re saying that they are the ones being censored, but it is the exact opposite. They’re acting like they’re there for the protection of the children, but [stuff like this] only protects their own power and position as well. A position within a culture that favors going along with ‘white as right.’ It only favors them. It endangers everyone else.
Is there anything else that you’d like to add? I always hope for good things in Texas, but right now. Gosh. I think about all of the topics or people that kids were already in danger of not learning about, and you add onto that everything that we’ve been talking about. It is a combination of, like, this is so stupid, but it’s got such a huge consequences.
It is. It’s so stupid, but it has tremendous consequences. That’s in the book. It’s pretend, but it has real consequences.
A longtime writer and journalist, Jessica was thrilled to join the Texas Signal where she could utilize her unique perspective on politics and culture. As the Features and Opinion Editor, she is responsible for coordinating editorials and segments from diverse authors. She is also the host of the podcast the Tex Mix, as well as the co-host for the weekly SignalCast. Jessica attended Harvard College, is a onetime fitness blogger, and has now transitioned to recreational runner (for which her joints are thankful).