Saturday, March 13, 2010

Why is race still an issue? Because we continue to make it one

With minority births on track to outnumber white births, one might think that we're getting closer to the point where people can be accepted as people and race doesn't really matter. But, as I explain this week in a post at's Child Caring blog, I don't think we're there yet.

A few months ago, I received a press release about a new children's book featuring "an ethnic elf princess." Imagia and the Magic Pearls is an adorable story, and I'm sure my 5-year-old daughter would love it -- but not because of the way the main character looks.

Young kids tend to view skin color much in the same way that they view hair or eye color -- that is, just another trait. A preschooler will identify with a character based on what that character does, not only because of how that character looks. (Also: when did "ethnic" become code for "African American"?)

"Is the general mainstream market ready for African American main characters?" the press release asked, pegging the book to the debut of Disney's first-ever black princess -- and raising my hackles at the same time. The question implies that the bulk of American consumers -- the ones that count, at any rate -- still perceive blacks as "other." I think that offering up a book, movie, or product that underscores this, instead of countering it, just makes the problem worse.

The hype surrounding Tiana from Disney's Princess and the Frog was much like Mattel's renewed focus on a black Barbie: all of the truly ethnic characteristics were whitewashed to create a "user-friendly" black character whose only ethnic trait is the color of her skin. (And it didn't even work: A Louisiana Walmart offended parents recently by cutting the price of black ballerina Barbie dolls to nearly half that of white ones. The retail giant said the black doll had been marked down because it wasn't selling well.)

In spite of the positive message on which the book hoped to focus, Imagia does almost the same thing as Mattel and Disney; though the elf princess has gorgeous African braids, she also has a narrow nose, thin lips, and sky-blue eyes.

Frankly, I think the focus on skin color as the sole indicator of ethnicity is short sighted, and the idea that young kids are worrying about not being able to relate to or identify with a character in a story book is absurd -- parents, maybe, but kids? My 3-year-old says he wants to be a puppy or a robot when he grows up; he relates to Muno from Yo Gabba Gabba as readily as he does to Little Bill (and, frankly, he identifies with Little Bill because the main character is a young boy, not because he has dark skin).

I'm saying this as a multiracial woman of color, and as a mom with kids of all shades of brown: If no one had mentioned Imagia's, Barbie's, or even Tiana's skin color, I probably wouldn't have thought twice about it. Which, to me, makes highlighting their skin color part of the problem instead of the solution.

The post at Child Caring sparked a heated discussion in the comments. One person wrote:
I don't understand why people have an issue with wanting to be with their own race. I enjoy and have a ton more in common with white people then other races.. I don't see anything wrong with that. I don't think bad things should happen to other races ect ect, but I rather spend all my time with white people. People like to see people who look like them. I'm sorry black people(for the most part) are so different then white people. That's fine and it's ok. There is nothing wrong with that. I don't know why this is so hard to understand for liberals.. Force race relations is not the answer.
I think it's important to point out that "race" and "ethnicity" are two different things. A white person whose parents are from South Africa is ethnically African American, as is a white person from Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia). A blond-haired, blue-eyed Cuban is both White and Hispanic. Persians from Iran are Caucasian, not Arabic. And yet, the commenter seemed to be saying that he or she would identify more with any of them than with a black person who grew up in exactly the same circumstances as the commenter. Which begs the question: Why should social cues come from skin color rather than personality, ethnicity, or life experience?

Another commenter wrote:
One of the unforgivable offenses that whites make is trying to define the reality of blacks/African Americans/the Others. And when we tell you differently, you argue with us. Why don't you listen sometime and acknowledge that we know more about what we experience, encounter, and endure than, oh, 98% of whites? That would be a good first step towards addressing racism in its various forms. You may fantasize all you want about a post racistl society, but attitudes like yours go a long way toward preserving the status quo. If you have any non-white friends who will tell you the honest truth (most of us are tired of trying to teach to non-learners) ask them their thoughts on your thesis. And listen to what they say.
This comment fascinated me, because either the commenter couldn't see my photo at the top of the page, or choose to ignore it -- as well as the last paragraph of my post, in which I described myself as a woman of color. After giving it a lot of thought, I have to say that I still think it's inaccurate to assume that by having a brown-skinned character you've created something that all black children will automatically identify with. Also: My husband, who is African American, grew up in the Bronx. He assures me that it was nothing like growing up on the Bayou. A common skin color does not necessarily make for a common experience. But perhaps my attitude about race is, at least in part, a function of my generation: Just as I didn't think of Hillary Clinton as "my candidate" because I've never been told I couldn't do something simply because of my gender, I don't see a brown-skinned character as representative of me because I'm a generation removed from the struggle that people of color went through to gain acceptance in the part of the United States in which I live.

Readers, I've turned this post into a micro-novel, but if you're still reading, please weigh in: Do you think race is still an issue where you live? Why or why not?

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