By AYA de LEON
I would have held my breath if I’d known. A couple weeks ago at preschool my daughter made an art project where she had to choose between paper doll forms of several colors.
I was at work that day. Perhaps I was standing in front of my students talking about racism, or gender bias, or the craft techniques that make a poem dazzling. I was oblivious to the fact that my daughter was taking a massive race/gender test at her preschool. What color doll to pick. They had beige, tan, light brown, dark brown.
So many of us are haunted by those studies in the sixties of black children, quoted for decades in literature and captured on video. Which is the pretty doll? The smart doll? The good doll? The loveable doll? Time and again, the children picked the white doll.
I’ve been vigilant. I don’t allow her to play with white dolls. Dora the Explorer is the lightest the dolls get in our house. Her books are heavily weighted toward stories of African heritage girls. I have even written a children’s book with photos of kids, adults and families with natural hair called Puffy: People Whose Hair Defies Gravity.
My daughter would wear her hair out every day if I would let her. I don’t have time to comb out the tangles every night. On the days I do let her wear it out, she goes for the old school Michael Jackson fro. “Puffier mom! Make it puffier!” The Puffy book celebrates the perspective of the preschooler who is dazzled by hair that looks like a dandelion, a lollipop, a tree in bloom. I’ve been hustling to have the book out for the holidays, and I finally did it. It’s available for pre-order on my website. But you can write all the positive African American hair books you want, but you can’t single-handedly balance out the white supremacy that is whispering in her ear from so many other parts of the society.
At four she’s already begun to comment on things like length of hair, the virtue of pink skin, and how much she likes Belle from Beauty and the Beast. She wants a Barbie. I assure her that she can have as many Barbies as she wants when she turns 18. All her exposure to Disney and Barbie happens outside of home and school, but they’re out there—an army of blonde haired blue eyed dolls marching toward her on tiny high heels with an arsenal of media images, beauty products, cosmetic surgeries and eating disorders. I take every precaution I can fathom, but I hear their tiny Barbie feet clicking by outside sometimes. I worry.
She picked the brown doll. The dark brown doll with the skin color closest to hers. When I saw the doll she made, I was caught up short. I asked the teacher about the process—did the teachers pick or did the kids pick? The preschool director, a light brown Latina smiled. “Oh, the kids pick of course.” She laughed and showed me a brown doll done by one of the white little boys. I let out the breath I had been holding.
This is just the first of many tests. My daughter won’t pass them all. She won’t be unaffected by racism. But I am reaffirmed in my commitment to stay vigilant about images that we expose her to, and to create affirming natural images for other families and children. I commit my creative life as a suite of lovesongs to brown women and girls, and to images and stories of our dazzling wonder.
Puffy is available for pre-order at PuffyHairProject.wordpress.com. There’s even a personalization option where you can send in your own photo! Aya de Leon is on twitter @ayadeleon