By RACHEL GARLINGHOUSE
It’s a dreary, winter afternoon, and I’m with my oldest daughter at our local Target. As we near the cash registers, our cart full of groceries and Christmas gifts, we notice signs over a few racks in the little girl’s department. The familiar, nostalgic block-font beckons us.
My daughter rushes over to admire the dresses, purses, hats, and shirts inspired by the upcoming film, “Annie.” I run my hand over a satin, vibrant red dress while my daughter squeals in excitement over the merchandise. I glance up to see how much the red dress costs. To my dismay, something all-to-familiar catches my eye.
In both the Annie merchandise signs, all of the clothing models are little white girls.
I shouldn’t be surprised. For my entire parenting journey, thus far, my family and I have been reminded time and time again that children of color aren’t as valuable to companies as white kids.
One reason the new version of “Annie” is so appealing to my girls, ages four and six, is that for the first time, Annie is being played by a Black girl, a girl with creamy brown skin and a curly afro. A girl who looks like them. And just like when Disney’s “Doc McStuffins” and Princess Tiana made their debuts, we cheered. Finally, we smiled, a main character featuring a girl of color.
My children’s race is something we’ve always celebrated and discussed in our home. Since they were very young, they were aware that we are pink and they are brown. When my oldest child was two-and-half, she became infatuated with pointing out other Black people and any features they had that resembled hers. One afternoon, we were shopping in a department store when a Black woman walked by. My daughter pointed at the woman’s hair, which was styled in a voluminous afro, and exclaimed, “Mom! Mom! She’s got a big afro like me!”
A year later, my daughter was preparing to participate in her first ballet and tap dance recital. The week before the show, the teacher handed the parents an instruction sheet explaining that it was expected that all dancers style their hair in a tidy, tight bun and wear skin tone tights. The goal was for the dancers to appear uniform. I discovered that “skin tone” meant peachy-colored tights, a shade that contrasted dramatically against my daughter’s deep caramel skin. My daughter’s hair was in box braids and was hardly long enough to be in a bun. My child, barely out of toddlerhood, was being whitewashed.
As a girl, I spent hours playing dolls with my younger sister, so when my second daughter arrived, I was excited to purchase dolls for my girls. I quickly discovered that Black girl dolls weren’t easy to find. There is usually a line-up of dolls on the store shelves with blond or brown hair and blue or green eyes, each with creamy skin, with names like Samantha. Then there’s the one “ethnic” doll. She has beige-ish skin, hazel eyes, and straight dark brown hair. Her name is usually Keisha, or some other name that implies she’s not-White. She’s the racially-ambiguous one, made to represent all the others.
She looks nothing like my children.
Sadly, the minimizing of my children is the norm. Children’s books, animated shows, advertisements: they feature a white protagonist who maybe, just maybe, might have one Black friend. The friend is either silent, playing no substantial role besides being the happy-diversity-representative, or she’s a blend of stereotypes: sassy, loud, poor, street-wise, fashionable, cool, athletic. If the creator is so inclined, there might also be an Asian character, one who is smart (indicated by glasses) and good at playing the violin. There might even be a character with special needs, utilizing a wheel chair, but this character will either be the Black kid or the Asian kid, because the white kids must be preserved in their perfect roles.
The messages being sent to brown kids like mine are clear: you are secondary, you are an afterthought, you are insignificant. You aren’t worthy of a spotlight. You aren’t worthy of being accurately represented. You are to be a help-mate to the white superhero.
Children want to see themselves reflected in the things created to entertain them. Despite colorblind claims made by so many, color is often the first thing we notice when we meet someone. A person’s skin color isn’t just a physical feature, but a history and a culture, something that should be celebrated, not ignored. And children with big imaginations and even bigger dreams, need to be encouraged not only by their families and their community, but also by the media, a media that heavily influences us all.
I hope that in my lifetime, immense progress is made. I hope that those who make decisions in publication and production see that all kids are valuable and need to know that they are worthy of being the shining star, not just another sidekick or afterthought. I hope that as my kids grow up, they see more and more of the options they desire, and that seeing a protagonist who is, in their words, “brown like me,” becomes the norm.
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Rachel Garlinghouse, mom of three transracially and domestically adopted children, is the author of Black Girls Can: An Empowering Story of Yesterdays and Todays. A prolific writer, she has appeared in ESSENCE magazine, on The Daily Drum National Radio Show, and on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry. She blogs about adoption at White Sugar Brown Sugar.
Your article is on point. My 10 year old is growing increasingly frustrated by this same issue. She asks why this is happening and says how unfair it is. Myself and my 15 year old daughter tell her that the powers that be has always whitewashed everything but we always tell her to be proud of herself and her African-American heritage.
Ballet requirements honor the traditions of the art’s roots in discipline and uniformity. My own mocha latte beauty was required to wear a bun and light pink tights, though we knew that when she started dancing. We accepted that she had chosen an art form with time-honored rules. It was not our place to change that. If I thought such conventions were an untenable slap in the face of her race (which they weren’t), I might have encouraged her to consider a free-form dance style . Thankfully our studio named the tights by color as opposed to referring to all pinkish tights as “skin tone”. On the other hand, when I sensed she was being pegged for roles that were brown-tinged (e.g., characters whose origin was less Caucasian than most), we skedaddled and switched to piano!
Great point. I don’t think imposing a uniform is white washing and I expect it. Whenever straight haired girls have to get their hair teased for shows, I always heave a sigh of relief that I have volume naturally. Or when some girls’ lips are made up to look bigger. Its the sort of thing that happens with the arts an entertainment. Still I agree with the other points.
Well saI’d. Thank you for writing this piece.
I’d love to send you a few copies of my books, Princess Truly and the Hungry Bunny Problem and I am Truly.
I know this article was written awhile ago but it is sooo on point. My 4 year old came home one day and said “mommy can I have white skin next year. I want to be white like princess Elsa.” It broke my heart. For the next several weeks she asked to be white because it is beautiful. She didn’t see her black skin as beautiful even thought we talk all the time about who she is. She despartely wants to see “herself” on TV. Anyway thank you for validating me.