Last year, watching my 4-year-old daughter playing with some paper mermaid dolls we bought her as a souvenir from a trip, I had a little heart attack. Of the three dolls, she had chosen one to be the “bad” one in her pretend play–and it was the one with the darkest skin. She had made the black one the villain.
I was momentarily horrified, wondering what she could have possibly absorbed in her short life to make that decision. I abhor racism, I’ve always tried to treat people of all backgrounds equally, and demonstrate that to my children. I’d also already been contemplating the concept of racism, trying to understand what “white privilege” meant, and trying to answer a question I’d always wondered: Was it really possible to be racist and not know it? Was it possible that, being raised in the Deep South, even by parents who taught me to treat everyone with respect, and having quite a few African-American friends, that I could have absorbed some unconscious bias and somehow transferred that to my child? If so–how on earth could I address it?
The other thing is that her father, who is Filipino, has a much darker complexion than I do. As do his sisters and her cousins, whereas she and her brother are fair-skinned like me. She had already been exposed to some sort of variety, so I knew she already had some exposure to various skin tones.
And I’ve always considered myself to be especially conscious of avoiding attributing any kind of meaning to anyone’s complexion, knowing that children pick up on little things and misconstrue them. I’d even imagined scenarios in which, playing at a public park, she would suddenly notice that one little girl was different, and might ask me out loud: “Mommy, why is her skin/hair like that?” and none of the different possible answers I could give to a child have really satisfied me. The idea that “boys and girls look like their mommies and daddies” perhaps comes closest, though it wouldn’t take into account adoption . . . hence the quandary.
As I watched her, wondering how to handle this, knowing that I couldn’t get angry or punish her for something she didn’t understand or know to be wrong, I just stopped to ask her: “Mila, tell me about your dolls.”
She pointed to them and said, “Well, this one is Ariel” (the one with red hair), “this one is Belle” (the one with brown hair), “and this one–I don’t know her name. She’s the mean one.”
And it hit me: She doesn’t think black skin is bad–she just doesn’t know any black people. She doesn’t have any black friends. She doesn’t know any stories with black characters, or princesses that aren’t white. The strange one is the odd one out.
She wasn’t in school (because she liked being at home, and I wanted her to learn through play), and we live in the suburbs. And like many wards in the U.S., even in the South, ours is pretty darn homogenous.
I realized then, that I needed to change something. I couldn’t wait for opportunities for her to meet black people so that she could watch me just being nice. I needed to be more proactive.
One Harvard psychologist, Mahzarin Banaji, an expert on racism and prejudice, has said this about how children learn or unlearn racism:
“So the good news is that even a child whose parents make no conscious effort to teach [him] not to be prejudiced can shed that prejudice if he finds himself in a diverse enough place and consistently observes in-group and out-group people interacting positively and as equals.’’
If I was really going to teach her to see and treat people of all races as equals, she needed more exposure and good experiences with other races. She needed black friends, storybooks with black characters she could relate to. She needed a black doll.
But first, for my lover of princesses: she needed a black princess.
Soon after, we rented “Frog Princess.” She loved it. Why hadn’t I done this before? A few months later, she told me she wanted a Tiana party for her next birthday. Which I hope will still be the case when the time comes.
She’s in kindergarten now, and I’ve seen her and her friend Kathea greet each other with excitement as they walk into school.
And even though I know my work isn’t done, I feel some relief that at least my sweet, loving girl is still just that. And as long as I am learning and aware of ways to introduce her to diverse experiences, to teach her about racism when the time comes, I feel confident that she will become a young lady who will be a force for good against the prejudices in the world.
How do you teach your children to love those who look different than themselves or their family? How do you open your own eyes to your possible blindspots?