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Feb 14 2011

Baby’s First Racist Comment

By at 12:19 pm

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?

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11 Responses to Baby’s First Racist Comment

  1. Pat M says:

    Shan Yu is not black, his skin looks dark in this picture because it is night time. Watch the movie.

  2. Casey says:

    Seems to me that the author is making a mountian out of a molehill. I think your OVERreaction to the situation and following emmersion in all things multicultural will only heighten her awareness of the differences between skin tone and cause her to notice what otherwise would be ignored. You can’t constantly point out others skin tone and then say “pay no attention” to it…it’s makes no sense to children.

  3. Jesse Bacon says:

    @Cassidy, what’s a parenting blog for if not to think too deeply about things? And why have children if not to overthink? Seriously, I am concerned less about her hating black people or dark-skinned people then fear of the unknown, which could later be exploited. Here’s Dr. Beverly Tatum on subject for some expert guidance:
    and here’s a Newsweek article that I was remembering about parent’s inability to talk about race:

    • Cassidy says:

      I do understand what you are saying. My issue was not with the importance of teaching your child about race. I think that is extremely important. I just did not see that your child’s comment about the character had anything to do with race, and you made that connection for her. When you talked to her about it, did she explain why she made that comment? I am always amazed at the reasons why kids say what they say. Young children are very perceptive, even though they think very simply. The complex thought comes later in development.

      • Rachel says:

        I think that you have a valid point, Cassidy, that we can project our adult-level concerns into child-level thinking, and it’s important to figure out what the child’s real thought process was.

        That said, if the child has come to understand that dark skin is one of many dark things that means “scary,” that’s certainly worth talking about with her.

        I guess that was some of my point about separating “black” from “Black.”

  4. Cassidy says:

    I know that you are very concerned about this, but I fear that you are looking into this too deeply. It is not in a child’s nature to hate. They have to be taught to hate. Children will play with anyone until an outside force steps in, whether it be a parent or actions that the child deems inappropriate. Children are so accepting of others, and they just want to learn what the world has to offer. This character has a mean face and wears black. It is easier for a child to use the concrete thought of the color black instead of the complex thought that the character has a mean face. As long as you have been accepting to everyone, your child will learn from that.

  5. Hannah Rea says:

    @ Lauren N: That was my first thought as well, was that it was because it is a dark, shadowy picture, and that it may not in fact have been a racist comment. Especially if she has positive people of color in her life already.

  6. Rachel says:

    I wouldn’t necessarily follow my approach: Exclaiming “Princesses are bulls**t and Disney is crap!” It makes the adults in the room laugh, but I’m not sure my 4-year-old gets my point.

    I also wonder what she meant by “black.” Our family is bi-racial. I think it’s important to separate the idea of the color black with the identity of “Black/African-American.”

    A while back, our daughter started noting who was “black” and “white.” We told her that “Black” and “White” is a complicated thing, and for now, it’s nicer to say “brown skin” “pink skin” “tan skin” etc. if she’s trying to describe how someone looks. She has plenty of time to figure out all the nuances and implications of “Black” and “White” as she gets older and figures out her own identity.

    So it would be interesting to talk with your daughter and figure out if she has picked up on media cues that equate dark skin with “bad guy,” or if she has picked up something about what “Black” means. And then explain to her that you think that when people draw pictures where the bad guy always has dark skin, it is mean and hurts people’s feelings.

  7. Jesse Bacon says:

    @Lauren, that is quite possible, but it still disturbs me cause it’s a pretty fine line. I am thinking of the NYT story a while back that said that kids have “racist” inclinations from a young age rooted in a natural fear of the other and that it can be nipped in the bud if parents talk about it with them.

  8. shelli says:

    It’s never too early to start talking about skin color – there are some wonderful books out there: “The skin you’re in,” “Call me black, call me beautiful.”

    Have open, honest conversations. We can’t ignore it, because it doesn’t go away.

    Talk, talk, talk.

  9. Lauren N says:

    I’m really wondering if she didn’t mean more that the colors of the picture were dark and scary looking… meaning, the picture of the guy was generally black, not that he was black himself. My toddler frequently makes general statements about images that I take more specifically than he meant them. For instance, she might think the princess is not evil because she’s wearing a smile and has butterflies around… or she might say because it’s yellow or pink or whatever color equals happy to disney.

    and also I’m pretty sure The Pioneer Woman posted a blog post at some point about multi race play dolls, etc.


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