Reading Diversity Out Loud – Interview with Danica Schneeweiss

Interview Danica Schneeweiss Title Picture

The Pink Lookbook is all about empowerment and fighting inequality. If you have been reading my Monday Postcards, you also know about my views on racism. For the longest time, I have thought about how I could contribute to the Black Lives Matter movement. Even though I am in a relationship with a person of colour, I was not sure how it is appropriate for me as a white woman to speak up.

I decided that the best way is to give those a voice who are at the front of the movement. It is time for us to listen and learn from those who experience racism themselves and have decided to raise awareness and fight it. Danica Schneeweiss is one of them. With her Instagram page @diversekidslit, she raises awareness about diversity in children’s books. She is an active supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement online and in Austria, where she has lived for the past six years.

Interview Danica Schneeweiss Diverse Kids Lit Instagram
Every two weeks, Danica presents a new diverse children’s book on her Instagram channel @diversekidslit

Danica started our interview with a funny anecdote about her name. When she books appointments online or on the phone and uses her name Dr. Schneeweiss, people usually expect a “typical Austrian.” Schneeweiss means “snow white” in German. “You should see the startled looks when they realise I’m Black,” Danica says with a hint of laughter.

Danica was born in Michigan and graduated from a JD (Doctor of Jurisprudence) programme in New York magna cum laude. She worked for a law firm in New York and was also involved in pro bono work. At the swearing-in ceremony after the bar exam, the exam to become a lawyer in the United States, she met her now husband who is Austrian. She never would have thought that she would end up in Austria. “But you know the saying ‘you make plans and God laughs’ – pretty much the story of my life,” she smiles.

For over six years, Danica and her family have called Vienna their home. She speaks fluent German (and Austrian, which I would like to explicitly stress because it shows her exceptional command of the language). When we met for the interview, Danica arrived in a beautiful black and white summer dress and a glamorous hat – she definitely stands out among the Austrian crowd with her New York style. You can also tell that she is a model as well.

What I find so impressive is Danica’s energy. When you talk to her, you will be captivated by her passion and drive. Whether it is expressing her views on current politics, being actively involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, her platform @diversekidslit, or the countless day trips she and her husband organise for the kids. It seems that this woman never sleeps (she does, six to eight hours, she told me – according to her, it is all about time management.)

Interview Danica Schneeweiss Portrait Black Lives Matter Mask
Danica with a #BlackLivesMatter mask by designsbyefua

@diversekidslit was founded in early 2019 and aims to raise awareness about diversity in children’s books. Every two weeks, Danica presents one of her finds and reads parts of them out loud. Even though it was only started fairly recently, @diversekidslit has already gained a lot of momentum. The likes of Eva Chen and Jessica Biel are among the fans.

“My mission is to show that there is such a wide variety of books with diverse characters. I think many people have the perception that books about Black people or any other group that is not White has to be “sad” or “traumatic” but this is simply not true. There are so many every day stories out there. A child goes to the library or spends the day with grandmother, stories that all people can relate to. I want to spread the word about these stories too, and also challenge what we consider ‘normal’ stories for kids. The research is clear, the majority of books showcase only White characters or animals as the leading voice(s) in kids’ literature.”

Danica promotes books not only in English but also in German, as it is important to work with the local language. English is something children learn in primary school in Austria. But their perceptions about gender and skin colour start as early as six months of age. Danica is also very focused on data about how children’s books reflect diversity – at the moment she works with data from the United States and the United Kingdom but she is also working on data about diversity in the German-speaking countries. Data is an easy and objective way to prove the lack of diversity. Danica and her husband donated diverse children’s books to the library of their school. That way, more children and parents will be exposed to the very existence of diverse books for children. 

Interview Danica Schneeweiss Radio Interview Mic
Danica shared why diversity in children’s books is crucial in a recent radio interview. @diversekidslit showcases books created by all ethnicities, but the is focus on Black writers and illustrators. (Picture courtesy of Ina Aydogan)

“I firmly believe that change in our society comes from every single person contributing. We all have our part to do. That’s why my approach has always been: ‘What can I do to solve this problem?’ Fighting against racism and inequality takes a long time, it’s a step-by-step process. I won’t solve it on my own overnight. However, I want to show that we can all contribute and solve so many of our problems if we work together.” 

Diverse children’s books are important for two reasons: First of all, representation matters. Children need to feel that they can see themselves in the books they read or that are read to them. Secondly, it is also about seeing others. If children see diversity as something normal in books, they will also consider it normal in real life. This applies to parents and caretakers as well.

“Fighting racism is also about active parenting. Empathy has to be taught. We are all not born with it – like so many claim. And this general notion that children don’t see colour, and thereby are ‘colour blind’, is a lie. We see colour and so do children. Acting like we don´t is not based on facts. Children can notice the differences in colour by six months of age, and can also attain racist thoughts and ideas between the ages of three and five. The work to fight racism starts at home. It’s in those hard and often uncomfortable conversations with your family, your friends, your workplace, and even in your school.”

I asked Danica how White people can support the Black Lives Matter movement. “First of all, listen to people of colour. Do not invalidate their experience because you have never experienced racism yourself. Educate yourself. There are so many books, blogs, videos out there, do the work. Think about your own actions and how you could change them, and also: treat others how you want to be treated.” 

Interview Danica Schneeweiss Radio Interview
You can stream Danica’s interview on Res.Radio. (Picture courtesy of Ina Aydogan)

Danica also stressed that some people turn to one Black person to be the voice for all Black people. “Just like any individual we are all different, unique and human and, as such, have our own opinions and ideas. So, what I’d like to say is: Don’t fall back on the weak mindset that since one Black person said something then ALL Black people must be the same way or have the same experiences. Open up your mind to the truth that we are all individuals and should be entitled to be treated with the same respect that you would want for yourself.” 

Since the start of the Black Lives Matter movement, I have often come across the argument that it was “a problem unique to the United States”, “a police officer in XYZ (enter the respective country) would never hurt anyone purely because of their skin colour”. I really struggle with the argument, because I know that racism is everywhere. Maybe the type or dimensions are different, but systemic racism, discrimination and inequality exist in each and every country. 

I asked Danica how we can respond to these types of arguments. According to her, the easiest way to counter them is to just say: “But it does happen!” There are videos documenting people of colour being harassed by the Austrian police purely because of their skin colour. And Danica herself told me that she has experienced racism too.

“There are the looks (sometimes of disgust), when I enter a place. I notice them. Me or my husband sometimes actively address people. But we try to shield the kids from a lot of these things, especially if we feel that the person could be dangerous. Nonetheless, we make it a point to stand up for ourselves and express that this behaviour will not be tolerated.” 

A current discussion in Austria is the renaming of dishes, street signs or monuments with a racist or discriminating background. A famous dessert which used to be called “Mohr im Hemd” was changed to “warm chocolate cake.” “Mohr” is an old, and negatively connotated expression for a Black person. As simple as it was to change it, it sparked a lot of controversy in Austria. “We have always called it that way,” or “It’s not meant in a racist way.” are just two examples of these arguments.

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“If it hurts someone, you should change it; it’s as simple as that. Many White people don’t know what people of colour go through every day. Being a person of colour is constantly having to explain who you are and why you belong. This appears in numerous ways from microaggressions to direct insults. Us having to work harder to make sure we are treated equally is not okay, and White people need to do better to see that this type of treatment in 2020 is not acceptable.”

Interview Danica Schneeweiss Radio Interview Audience
Radio interview on Res.Radio about diversity in children’s books in times of social distancing with the audience listening outside of the studio. (Picture courtesy of Ina Aydogan)

I asked Danica about her attitude to the question “Where are you from?” and to explain why it is offensive. “First of all, it implies that as a person of colour, you can’t be part of the country or Austrian. There are many Black Austrians that should not have to say anything more than where they were born (which could be Vienna, Linz, or whatever other city in Austria they are from). The current political climate has a lot to do with this. Many politicians have spread suspicion through misinformation and blatant lies. Often, people are told that if somebody looks different than them they should be suspicious. This ‘they can’t be from here’ mentality is pervasive.” When I told Danica that this question could be from someone genuinely curious and interested in where she came from, she said, “that may be the case sometimes, but the intention behind the question is key. Some people don’t mean it in a bad way of course, but from personal experience in 99% of the cases when asked to me, they don’t accept my answer – which is Im American. I have to go back and forth and often times they still don’t believe it.”

Danica told me about a recent incident in a taxi. The driver asked her where she was from and she replied that she was from Michigan. “But where do you REALLY come from?” he asked. And no matter what she answered he kept asking further and further and made arguments like “I know a Kenyan woman who has features like you, you must have that in you too.” When the driver tried to trace her family history back for about 200 years, Danica replied and asked: “Where was your family 200 years ago?” “This is quite offensive”, he replied. Danica could only laugh about the ridiculous situation, because he himself had just asked her that offensive question. “Again my golden rule holds true: treat others how you want to be treated.”

“Why do we always have to go back so far in our history? Why do we always have to prove to people who we say we are. I know a lot about my ancestors, but it’s nobody else’s business. If you asked a guy from Tyrol (Note: a region in Western Austria) working in Vienna where he’s from, your conversation will most likely drift away to the mountains, the lakes or that you know somebody there. For us, it’s always a loaded question and more times than not the intention behind the question is filled with prejudice and the desire to make one feel that they don’t belong.”

Interview Danica Schneeweiss Summer Pictures

We also discussed the controversy about the image of coloured people in movies such as “Gone with the Wind.” Some are asking to destroy them. Would Danica ban these movies or books? 

“By burning or destroying books or films we don’t deal with the real problems. We just erase it from history. Also, burning books has a very negative precedent as well, and I’m a firm believer that this is not the way to go. I don’t show these types of movies or books to my kids because they are too small. We have evolved from many of these books and films that offend a lot of people, and we need to see them as a sort of history lesson.” 

Danica has big plans for @diversekidslit as she believes strongly that educating our kids when they are small can help combat and rid racism and hate once and for all. “I do get emotional and sad sometimes, of course, but the people that came before me put in the work to make change and I have to do my part as well. We can get this done if we all want to become better humans – this is the goal: to grow, to change, to leave the world a better place than how we found it.”

Danica Schneeweiss obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Michigan and studied law in New York. She finished her JD magna cum laude. After passing the bar exam and working for a law firm and pro bono organizations in New York, she moved to Vienna, Austria, with her now husband. She is the founder of @diversekidslit, a platform promoting diverse children’s books, an active supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement and a mom to 3 active toddlers.

Pictures courtesy of Danica Schneeweiss unless otherwise stated.

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