Here’s another example of how racism, capitalism, sexism, and heterosexism intertwine in our culture. Disney is using images of its princesses to market candy, and they are doing so through a blatant use of racial stereotypes. Putting Tiana on the package of watermelon flavored candy? And Cinderella on the package of vanilla flavored candy? Nothing subtle about this. But not only are the need to make a profit and racism intertwined here, but these then are linked to creating the myth that all girls need to find their prince, and that all normal relationships are heterosexual. When our children are exposed to this, they internalize the images and associations, which become part of an internalized structure of oppression.
Colorlines.com has posted a short interview here with Jaime-Jin Lewis, Executive Director of Border Crossers, an education non-profit in New York that promotes the inclusion of social justice in K-12 curricula. In the interview, it is noted how important it is to engage young children in discussion of race and that such discussions are not in fact making matters worse. In one study, 13% of six year olds sorted pictures by gender and 68% sorted them by race. They have a useful set of resources, including this short guide to talking about race with children in K-5.
Julia Landry over at Parents.com has written a short piece about what we do when we tell little girls how pretty they are. She thinks that by focusing on appearance we send the message to our girls that their appearance is what is most important or valuable:
What’s wrong with “You’re such a smart girl”? “You’re so creative”? “You’re so good at drawing”? “You know so many words”? Sure, tell her she’s pretty, because she is… because all children are. But don’t leave it at that. She isn’t even three yet, but everything anyone says to a toddler leaves an impression, and so a repeated focus on “prettiness” only tells her that it’s her appearance that is important, that it’s her blue eyes or her blonde highlights that people think are her best qualities, and not her big vocabulary or her sharp curiosity about everything around her.
I couldn’t agree more. I noticed when my daughter was in the 2-3 year age range that everyone would note how pretty she is–and I feel into this trap too of commenting on her appearance. I tried not only to refrain from this but to praise her other attributes and especially her behaviors and accomplishments.
Chapter 1 of Bronson and Merryman’s Nurtureshock discusses how praising someone for being smart actually inhibits their motivation to work hard. It is much more important to praise what our children do rather than what they are if we want them to strive for achievement and excellence in whatever they do.
So praising the appearance of our young girls sends them the message that this is what we value most about them and directs their attention away from what they can accomplish, towards what they have genetically inherited.
According to radio host Jay Smooth, being non-racist/anti-racist is not something some people just are and others are not. Instead, it is something we must constantly maintain through our actions. It is like being clean–staying clean requires constant monitoring and maintenance. You can see his short TEDx talk on we can effectively talk with others about race here.
Here’s a link to a great blog I just ran across: http://yoisthisracist.com/ I think it’s a useful source for everyone, but especially whites, who are sometimes unsure whether something should be seen as racist.
My short answer to this is if the thing or action in any way perpetuates the system of racial oppression (rather than undermining its reproduction), then it is. Take this for example:
Victorian Family dolls
"Black" Victorian Family dolls
Nothing wrong with the dolls on the left–just a doll set with Victorian era clothing. And there wouldn’t be anything wrong with this if it weren’t for the matching set of dolls shown on the right.
Why note that this doll set is a “black” family? Why does it matter that the racialized identity of the black dolls and not of the white dolls is noted? It matters because it makes white racialized identities invisible. Such identities become the norm, the background against which everything else is seen as different, other, not normal.
So is this racist? Yes, because it contributes to the reproduction of a racial system in which whiteness is made into the norm and made invisible. Doing so makes all other racialized identities non-normal, different, and problematic (according the the ideology of the racial system).
This picture captures perfectly why I have a problem with Disney princesses. My 4 year old daughter knows that I don’t like princesses (she conflates all princesses with the Disney ones), but I have so far failed to explain to her in terms that she can understand why I don’t like them. I have suggested that they rely too much on obtaining a husband or the affections of a man, that they generally are not independent and do not take care of themselves, and that they are too focused on getting married. All to no avail. So how can we begin to cultivate in our young ones a critical consciousness such that they can at least understand what might be wrong with these princesses?
And, of course, let’s not forget Tiana, Disney’s latest princess:
What Tiana teaches is:
Black women can only be recognized as tokens and will play a marginal role (as a frog for most of the film no less!) even when billed as the title character.
I have a paper entitled “Fathering for Social Justice: Raising Children with Open Eyes and Open Minds” that has just been published in Fatherhood: Philosophy for Everyone (Blackwell, 2011). A poor quality scan is available here: Fathering.final.scan. In this paper, I propose a framework for socially just parenting. In particular, it is important to cultivate an ability to see and value difference while at the same time recognizing the common humanity we share. I also that we need to approach parenting with a solid understanding of how individuals and communities/societies are mutually formed. And, socially just parenting shouldn’t just involve how we think about parenting, but more importantly what we do. In this vein, it is important to cultivate the knowledge and practice of social justice, as well as a certain kind of character, in our children.
The next Socially Just Parenting Project event will be a screening and discussion of Mickey Mouse Monopoly: Disney, Childhood, and Corporate Culture. Wednesday, April 13, 5:00-7:00 p.m. at the Cultural Center on UofL’s campus. This is a family friendly event and dinner will be provided. Please rsvp to Marian Vasser at firstname.lastname@example.org
What are parents to do when our children are bombarded everyday with negative imagery and stereotypes? Our culture is saturated with images, values, and stereotypes that we as parents do not share. Protecting our children from such images and values is not a real option since they will unavoidably be exposed to them–on TV, at the movies, in magazines at the checkout stand, and when they play with their friends.
Watoto from the Nile
Jabari Natur has an answer: encourage your children to engage in thoughtful critique and then to take action to attempt to change the culture. Mr. Natur is the father of the young artists who call themselves Watoto from the Nile. He explains in an interview with NewsOne, he explains how he encouraged his daughters to write a letter to Lil Wayne explaining why they thought his lyrics are disrespectful to women. He then helped them create a song out of the letter, which has now become an internet hit. This is just the type of critical engagement that we need to encourage in our children so that they can develop not only a critical consciousness, but also to act on their critiques in order to re-make the world in the name of respect and justice.
Thanks to my colleague Diane Pecknold for bringing this wonderful example to my attention.
If you are in or near Louisville, Kentucky on March 2nd, you may be interested in this forum on how we can raise our children to be socially conscious and committed to social justice.
- Wednesday, March 2, 2011
- 5:30 p.m. – 7:00 p.m.
- Family friendly (children welcome)
- Buffet dinner available
- University of Louisville, Student Activities Center, W314
- RSVP: Marian Vasser at 502-852-2252 or mrvass01 AT louisville.edu