Lecture Examines Race-Based Perceptions of Innocence

Robin BernsteinScholar and award-winning author Robin Bernstein presented Rutgers–Camden’s Second Annual Childhood Studies Lecture, titled “Trayvon Martin and So Many More: Racial Innocence Today,” on April 9.

According to Bernstein, when George Zimmerman saw Trayvon Martin on the evening of Feb. 26, 2012, he didn’t see an innocent kid with candy.  He saw a criminal.  He wasn’t the only one, she continues; even after Zimmerman killed Martin, who was proven to have been unarmed, some members of the press rushed to attach guilt to Martin, not Zimmerman.

“As African American blogger Mia McKenzie recently wrote, ‘Why don’t our children get to be children? Why don’t they ever get to be innocent?’” asks Bernstein, author of the award-winning book Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights.

Through a historical analysis, Bernstein will examine how white children came to be understood as “innocent” and, likewise, how children of color, especially black children, came to be seen as “tough, non-childlike, and definitely not innocent.” In doing so, she will illustrate how this history remains vivid today – for Trayvon Martin and so many more.

Bernstein is a professor of African and African American studies, and studies of women, gender, and sexuality, at Harvard University. In Racial Innocence, she argues that the concept of “childhood innocence” has been central to U.S. racial formation since the mid-19th century. “Children – white ones imbued with innocence, black ones excluded from it, and others of color erased by it – figured pivotally in sharply divergent racial agendas from slavery and abolition to anti-black violence and the early Civil Rights Movement,” she posits.

Racial Innocence Cover jpgThroughout the book, Bernstein shows how “innocence” gradually became the exclusive province of white children – until the Civil Rights Movement succeeded not only in legally desegregating public spaces, but in culturally desegregating the concept of childhood itself.

Racial Innocence was recognized with five awards: the Outstanding Book Award from the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE), the Grace Abbott Best Book Award from the Society for the History of Children and Youth, the Book Award from the Children’s Literature Association, the Lois P. Rudnick Book Prize from the New England American Studies Association, and the IRSCL Award from the International Research Society for Children’s Literature.  Racial Innocence was also a runner-up for the American Studies Association’s John Hope Franklin Publication Prize and received an Honorable Mention for the Book Award from the Society for the Study of American Women Writers.

The Department of Childhood Studies at Rutgers–Camden puts the issues, concepts, and debates that surround the study of children and childhoods at the center of its research and teaching missions. Through a multidisciplinary approach, this innovative Rutgers–Camden program aims both to theorize and historicize the figure of the child and to situate the study of children and childhoods within contemporary cultural and global contexts.

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