Teaching moment

Baby’s First Racist Comment



Shan Yu in Mulan.

The Princess invasion continues. My daughter, Ronia, is obsessed with princesses. She recently brought home a book from the library called the 
Disney Princess Essential Guide
. It is written like an ethnographic tome, explaining the particular traits of each princess: her house, her bio, her love interest, and most importantly, her outfit. We are told that the rustic Pocahontas, “doesn’t need shoes!” Despite this freedom from need, she too must be bedecked in a full gown.

I am predictably horrified. It’s not just the staggering number of synonyms for “spunky,” (though it is horrifying) it’s also the near identical personalities of the ‘cesses and the unreconstructed renditions of the plots. “Snow White longs more than anything for her prince to come.”

We are reading through the Mulan entry when Ronia helpfully points out “that’s a bad guy.” Since she has never seen Mulan, and is working purely from visual grammar on this, I ask her, “How can you tell?”

She gives the heartbreaking answer, “He’s black.”

Where do I start? First of all, while black is everywhere the color of shadow and the unknown, I am still flabbergasted that Disney has managed to render a dark-skinned villain in ANCIENT CHINA. And that Ronia has picked up on it so quickly.

I manage to stay calm and remind her of the black clothes she and I wear, the people she loves who have dark skin. She happens to have an African American male housemate and regular babysitter.

I did feel a bit out of my league with all of this though. So, like any good modern parent I turned to Facebook and asked for help. The Episcopalian minister who is also a member of our synagogue and an African-American woman asks, “What did you say and what will you do?” My Jew of Color friend offers me a trip to Iowa of all places to for a play date with her biracial children. Others are also sympathetic of Ronia and me alike.

Apart from the steps mentioned above, and blogging about it, I will have to monitor even more closely the colorism in the pop cultural works she consumes. Disney at least has the advantage of being very obvious. At least Ronia’s favorite Disney work is the mostly black “Princess and the Frog” a far too late apology for past racism that nonetheless STILL manages to have a villain with more “ethnic features.”

My mother, as we speak, is busy making Ronia two dolls, one black and one white.  A small gesture, but I’m trying to do anything I can. Any other suggestions of how I should deal with this?

Jesse BaconJesse Bacon grew up a nerdy, wimpy Jewish kid in rural Wisconsin. He stayed at home with his daughter for most of her first two years of life and is just now transitioning to a part time activist work for Jewish Voice for Peace while she starts preschool. He would also like to incorporate racial and economic justice into his support of feminism. He is a practicing Jew who goes to synagogue most weeks and tries to keep his laptop closed on the Sabbath.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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