Charlotte Ashley’s story struck several nerves with me, both as an author and as a father. (So much so that I can’t even bring myself to joke about Canadians inserting an extra letter U into every third word.) It’s another story that leaves me just sitting here saying, Yes. That. That’s exactly why this conversation matters.
Tomorrow’s guest post comes from Ada Hoffman, and delves into the portrayal of autistic characters.
I have never spoken to my daughters about race because I thought I didn’t need to. At least not yet.
We live a fairly privileged existence despite being a low-income, mixed-race family. We’ve carved out a small space in the heart of one of the most multicultural cities in the world, and what we lack in money I like to think we make up in education and community involvement. This is a neighbourhood without an obvious dominant cultural group, and my girls – who are 2 and 5 – see people of every colour in every possible context. We manage “screen time” very closely, and so to date my kids haven’t watched much television beyond Miyazaki movies and nature documentaries. We invest in educational and creative toys rather than “brands.”
In short, we have tried, perhaps naively, to create a sort of post-racial utopia for these kids, in the hopes of delaying the baggage that will inevitably come from being poor, female and brown. I have never spoken to my daughters about race because I thought that the surroundings we have chosen would speak for themselves.
That’s my excuse. I tried, but I was wrong.
I realized my bubble of utopia had failed when the kids and I were colouring pictures from a Melissa & Doug princess colouring book, which was a gift. Maggie, my 5-year-old, started hunting for the peach marker because she was colouring the skin, but it was nowhere to be found. There were plenty of other valid skin colours, but she was adamant that princesses can only have peach skin.
“Maggie, give me a break. What colour is your skin?” I asked.
“Brown,” she grumbled.
“Then here. Use this nice light brown.”
She would not be moved. “But it has to be the RIGHT colour!”
5-year-olds are huge on order. They want things to be the way they “should” be. Tigers are orange and have black stripes. Farmers wear overalls. Houses are all single-family detached and nestled in wide, green fields; forget our cramped, urban reality. Kids are big on symbolic representation. The symbol for a princess is a blonde white girl in a pink dress. So it’s a costume, right? One anyone would have to put on to do it right?
“Don’t you want your princess to look realistic?” I tested her. “Real princesses don’t look like that.” She knows this because we’ve looked at pictures of historical “princesses” from all corners of the world, trying to head off this moment.
“Yes they do,” she insisted. “My girl is going to have blonde hair like B.” Her blonde, blue-eyed friend down the street.
So, not only do princesses have blonde hair, they have the same hair as the little white girl. This isn’t simply a symbol, she is mapping the symbol onto her real-life experiences. If B were to be a princess, that would be right. If Maggie were, it would be wrong. Because she’s the wrong colours.
I don’t need to ask how this happens. I know very well she gets this from school, and from our friends’ houses. My friends are concerned about representation too, but as mostly white, middle-class families, they haven’t felt the same urgency to represent diversity in their own houses. They see their daughters playing with their dolls in cool ways (Barbie and Ariel: Demon Hunters) and that convinces them that what the dolls show doesn’t matter because kids make their own messages. But it does matter.
There is an idea out there that brown dolls are for brown kids, so that they can “see themselves” in their playthings. The same attitude exists in media – that we need diverse characters for diverse audiences. But kids notice that their toys are different from their friends’. To them, the one token black princess is an outsider, like the one girl Smurf. Kids don’t relish being the singled-out one. They don’t think being different is quite as cool as we do.
In time my daughters will will learn that there are many ways to be, and some day they will find their places as a freaky but funky iconoclasts and learn how great it is to be different, but we’re not there yet. They are still learning the foundations of their identities, learning their limitations. They’re learning they can’t hit other kids, can’t fly (sadly), and can’t hold their pee forever.
And they’re learning they can’t be princesses.
Representing diversity matters. I’ve been told engineers say “the solution to pollution is dilution,” and they’re right. Next time you pick a toy or a costume or a book, think twice about how you’re contributing to the culture. Got white kids? Get them a black doll. Diversity is for everyone.
Charlotte Ashley is a writer, editor and independent bookseller from Toronto, Canada. Her bookish ramblings can be found at http://charlotteashley.wordpress.com/.