How many times have you heard this one from your darling daughters before? “Mummy, I want long hair… like the princesses”.
Or, how about this? “Mum, I can’t be Superman without a mask. My skin is too brown”.
For Mums of brown skinned beauties, the words coming out of our children’s mouths seem to take on a familiar repetitive theme.
Perhaps we all take it for granted that little girls will all want long straight hair. And perhaps it’s not as big an issue as we’re making it out to be. Something they’ll grow out of.
I think this is a flawed way of thinking. White kids don’t go around thinking or wanting black skin. They don’t fantasize from 2 years old of having curly afro hair.
They don’t need to. Advertisements, magazines, books, models all show a one-dimensional version of beauty that mostly embraces the white-skinned, straight hair version of beauty. Our children can’t be expected to be immune.
Whether it’s conscious or sub-conscious. Our children absorb everything they see in the world. I remember the day my daughter said to me ‘superheroes are for boys’. And that ‘princesses have blonde hair’. It’s because they had only been exposed to the single story.
With time, the story narrows even more. Black men are dangerous. Teenagers are scary. Rich people are white. CEOs are men. Scientists are old.
I am raising 3 mixed race daughters (half Nigerian, and half Iranian/English). And from an early age, my daughters became aware that their skin colour was different to mine. That their hair is curly and thick while mine is thin and straight. And that much of the television shows, ads and books that they adore feature white, blonde, blue eyed princesses, mermaids and fairies.
When my oldest, at 4 years old, came to me and said she wanted “vanilla skin like you Mummy”, I knew we had our work cut out for us. Self-assurance and acceptance of who you are does not just happen haphazardly. And while I thought she would have a healthy sense of who she was just by virtue of the fact that her family is so diverse, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Our children are bombarded with images and advertisements, role models and authority figures who are more often than not, white. I realised that if we were going to give our daughters a fighting chance of remaining positive about who they are, we needed to be intentional about it.
Thus began our journey to #readtheonepercent- searching out the one percent of books that feature a black or mixed race protagonist as its main character. Being intentional about buying black or brown skin dolls, choosing television shows and movies that feature brown skinned characters.
It’s not easy, I mean, at times, it’s a battle. I went into London’s largest department store and found not a single black doll in their display. When queried, the salesperson suggested it was because the demand is high and so they go quickly off the shelf. ??? That didn’t add up to my basic understanding of supply and demand economics but it reinforced one thing for me. This is a lifetime of effort.
The premise that #representationmatters was highlighted a few years ago during the Oscar’s debate when a number of talented black actors and actresses were bypassed for the prestigious award despite stellar performances that year.
It’s been highlighted by black singers, artists, scientists and celebrities who understand that their success is being watched not just by the general public but by countless children around the world who see themselves reflected in their image.
The impact of Barack Obama’s presidency cannot be overestimated in terms of its effect on black boys and girls in America. Serena Williams’ understands her achievements are being watched closely by little black girls around the world who aspire to play tennis but can’t see a single black face on the court.
These images and faces are impactful. And each sighting is another cog on the wheel of positive reinforcement for your little ones.
I’ve got 3 daughters so an obvious gap in their obsessions was the lack of brown princesses and superheroes. It’s been harder to find but authors, publishers and toy companies are starting to wake up to the reality that children’s toys, books and activities need to reflect the world around them.
I’ve harnessed that momentum and launched a line of t-shirts for mixed race girls and boys so they can see themselves reflected in what they wear. My girls were delighted to see images of curly haired princesses, superheroes and ‘curl friends’ imprinted onto their favourite colour t-shirts. (https://mixedracefamily.com/shop).
For us, it’s about being intentional and searching out every opportunity to make representation matter. It means going further afield for that dance class, ordering abroad sometimes if a book isn’t available over here or, sadly, ordering online if local stores do not stock diverse doll collections.
Set your mind to be intentional and see your child’s eyes light up when they see images of themselves reflected in everything they