OPINION: Tracking Racial Self-Worth

My plan has always been to track my daughter’s perception of racial self-worth through her barbie-play. In other words, instead of waiting for that Mamie and Kenneth Clark moment when I sit looking horrified as I find out my kid either hates herself or has some other twisted conception of race and worth, I always wanted to get out ahead of things.

That’s the point of the dolls.

The dolls one of several mediums I use to tell her how I feel about the physical manifestations of blackness. The dolls give her a way of telling me that she hears me, and so far, she agrees.

I grab Bella (an Alvin Ailey Mattel Collector Doll) and gush about how beautiful she is (she really, really is – you should see her) and Leah chooses her as the  main doll every time we play.

[Note: Bella is the doll in the video that is wearing the purple princess gown. The one Leah chooses as the doll she’d like to have the skin and hair of.]

I did a Clark-style doll test on Leah last April and was very pleased with what Leah said and did.

She had to take a bathroom break…but when she came back we continued her interview.

[Btw, I do NOT want her to be rock star when she grows up. I was just so shocked by that answer that reacted in an overly enthusiastic way! Rock Star? no. No. NO.]

We knew she could see color as early as three years old. We were sitting at the dinner table one night and out of the blue she announced, in the most self-satisfied way, “Me and Daddy are brown.”  At the time we were living in Bermuda, a predominately black country, and the message was clear, she felt sorry for her whitey-Momma.

Leah’s favorite doll. This doll was released by Mattel in tribute to the Alivin Ailey Dance Troupe. It has short, natural hair, Ebony eyes and Mahogany skin.

After we returned to the States a few months later, we saw that Leah continued to be aware of color but her sense of the differences seemed age-appropriate and healthy.

Because Leah is black, I will always have to fear the moment when mainstream messages break through and begin to influence her, because the message in the United States is that black women are less attractive than white women. That message comes at us from every corner, in every medium, and it is relentless.  There are other harmful messages too. Blacks are less intelligent. Blacks are less moral.

I will use my own opinion and my own actions to let her know that while she might hear those messages from the larger society – those beliefs do not reign in our home and they do not reign in the homes of our friends (or they wouldn’t be our friends).

Society has been telling us for decades that there is a single standard for feminine beauty.

Playing barbies with my daughter tells me where she “is” in her awareness or compliance with these messages on any given day.   Her play choices tell me in the biggest things in the smallest ways.

I know she finds black women beautiful because she chooses them. Why does she love the dark skinned, natural haired doll the most?  Is it because I do?

Probably. My favorite dolls seem to become her favorite dolls seamlessly.

That’s fine with me. It means she knows exactly what I value. If she makes other choices that’s fine too. The most important things I can do at this point it make it abundantly clear that my values are different than the values that may seek to crush her later in life.

Should we be worried because the doll our daughter loves the most is significantly darker-skinned than she is? Leah’s skin is light brown, her favorite doll’s skin is mahogany. Leah has brown hair. Her favorite doll’s hair is black.

After all, we would definitely be worried sick if she fixated on a BBBBarbie. If that happened I would probably burn a pile of plastic bodies in a front yard bonfire.

Alex Wek is beautiful. From her Ebony skin and eyes to her tiny nose, high cheekbones, very-Sudanese forehead and hairline. I even love the cute little gap in her teeth.

To understand why her adoration of Bella doesn’t bother us, let’s imagine a beauty continuum. This continuum does not address weight (that would be a whole ‘nother post) – it only address skin, hair and eye color.  Mentally place Leah in the middle of that continuum. Imagine mainstream images of beauty at the far right end – so let’s say BBBBarbie or Pamela Anderson Lee. We put someone like Alec Wek on the Left end.

We consider that society’s messages are always trying to pull her further and further right, and further and further from self-acceptance. So as long as she is Left of herself, we are dancing a jig at our house. When she starts to choose dolls on the right side of herself, we will feel we are in trouble.

Mainstream images and messages tell us that being white is supposed to be BETTER than being brown. Mainstream images and messages tell us that having long, straight, light-colored hair is better than having short, curly, darker-colored hair.

So, I do a sort of doll test every single day when we sit down to play and so far, every day, I mentally dance a jig.

14 Comments Add yours

  1. Danielle says:

    Man, I love that kid. Have you ever seen Whale Rider? She reminds me of that little girl. I don’t think you’re going to have any problem with her knowing she’s beautiful. People will tell her all the time. But take into consideration not only what the white majority will tell her but what her own people will tell her and make her feel. I’ve always been on the outside of my race. Even today. Literally TODAY, I was excluded from a natural hair conversation. My hair is natural, but DIFFERENT natural. This is too deep and lengthy to get into in a comment, but how do we (me included) temper their love of self, of their people with the jealousy they’re going to face? I’m actually considering having my girls just claim Puerto Rican and call it a day! (Just kidding!)

    1. I haven’t seen Whale Rider. I will take a look.

      I really don’t want black people complimenting her too much bc I think it makes other little black girls feel inadequate. It’s always so complicated, isn’t it?

      I hate that you feel like an outsider – the blessing and curse of being the light-skinned, Rotini-haired black. You might not like this idea but i think keeping Leah’s hair as short as she’ll let me shows some solidarity and long hair on children is for their parent’s enjoyment anyway. So that’s part of mine.

      I also am thinking about having Leah wear swimcaps at swimming pool bc that also is a a hair solidarity.

      I probably overthink this stuff but I feel that darker black girls feel ike light girls get all the benefits and none of the detriments so I think about how to impose some of the detriments. I know this is weird. what are your reactions and thoughts?

  2. Lola says:

    Lol that Barbara Streisand is the meanest…she is a bit of a diva:D

    1. Love it that you recognized Babs so easily. I routinely say Babs is ME when we play so it’s funny she says that she is the meanest. I thought it was hilarious.

      The funny thing is, I had to use her bc I wanted a blonde and we have so few. I guess in that way I skewed the results but not by much. Leah loves Bella with a vengeance it would and she called Chandra “me” (her) so we are in a very safe place for now.

      Though curiously she was at a black friends house recently, a dark-skinned girl – and the girls were saying they are twins. The dark-skinned mom pointed out to them they can’t be twins bc the skin tone difference. At first I was a little pissed but then I realized the mom might have been protecting her daughter from someone who might point out the difference in a less than loving way. Such a minefield, this race thing!!

  3. Molly says:

    Your thoughtful, devoted mothering words really touched me. I only have boys and realized that these discussions never take place: beauty/worth; they should. I feel relief that beauty or the judgement of beauty is not a “value” we’ve had to focus on, but yes, I know, it will influence my boys too and how they see color and other physical appearances (so many! clothes, disability, and on…). He is white and has lived in predominantly black colored cities (port-au-prince), mix (DC), and now light brown (Bogota). Your process to uncover mainstream messaging will help me become more aware and begin a dialogue at home. Is it wrong to feel such relief that we do not focus on “beauty and choosing beautiful?” To be honest, the emphasis on “choosing” one color over another made me shutter. How do we develop respect, worth and pride without vetting one over another. I wonder what I am missing?

    1. I do envy you that your boy will not internalize nearly as much about beauty. Boys do have issues with manhood however. Frankly, you are lucky he is white. But that mean you will have your own, different challenges. Esp when black or lation boys feel like their manhood is not respected by mainstream means and they feel they need to challenge your boy through fighting or verbal agression. Black and Latino boys routinely feel emasculated by society and need to get it back through agression. If you have him in schools where the parents are highly involved, their manhood will be validated at home and they will learn to see their manhood as vaildated through academic achievement. If he is in a mainstream school where his male classmates have fathers still struggling with their own masculinity, he will be facing the issue alongside his classmates. There are WHITE boys who manage this minefield well. Hopefully you will find a way to raise him so that he manages to convey his respect for these boys and their struggles. I think that challenge is a tough one as well.

      But on a more postive note: What an amazing life you are giving him!! Port-au-Prince, DC and Bogata! I want to be him!! I can tell by your choices you are already doing an amazing job. He’s going to be an amazing kid.Your last line made me curious – “choosing” is not something I ever set out to do. I have to infer you came to my blog from Jezebel. I LOVE her whiteness – I just feel like I have to push her to love her blackness with a vengeance. It will all balance out. THis is just an excercise in preparing her. Now that I write this – I think I do understand what you are saying.

      But I think you might want to besure to convey your appreciation of women of color as well. Actually that might be what gets him through the manhood mess. White men who appreciate (truly appreciate) the beauty of women of color often win the respect of black and Latino men because it translates to a lack of respect for their mothers and sisters. 🙂 There is a solution!!

  4. Paulette Richards says:

    Thanks for a very thoughtful and thought-provoking post. Your daughter is precious and very lucky to have parents who make a conscious effort to help her develop a positive self-image. Very often inter-racial families try to act like color has no significance and don’t prepare their children to explore these identity questions. I got very upset last year when I saw my bi-racial niece choosing white avatars to represent her mocha-colored self in video games. She does, however, say that the Janay doll I gave her several years ago (I chose a doll with a complexion that matches my niece’s and made a dreadlock wig for her even though my niece has curly brown hair) is her favorite fashion doll. She also used her own money to buy a brown 18″ American Girls clone last year so maybe her self-image isn’t as far off as I had feared.

    1. Paulette,

      This was exactly what I was tryign to get out in front of. The choosing of white representations! My niece did that as a child. Her black father responded by getting angry with her (not the right response). She continues to have issues to this day.

      You did an VERY important thing by buying her that Janay doll. Her parents need to now adore that doll endlessly and show her through that example how much they value the dolls physical blackness. Her father (I’m guessing white) must love the beauty of black women or he wouldn’t have married your (sister?) – if it is the opposite there is still someone white in your family who was attrched to someone black – that white person (as well as the black person) needs to let it be known, loud and clear that they value black beauty. I know I DO. I didn’t marry a black man by accident. I didn’t marry him IN SPITE of his black features.

      I like the idea of a Dreadlock wig as well. The reason is because she needs to value the hair decisions and values of her black sistes. I keep my daughter’s hair short bc I want her to be able to have black girlfriends without them automatically resenting her. I also have her hair braided by the African Women who are so excellent at it locally. It ensures she will self-identify as black. I consider modesty in mixed children essential to developing her relationships with black girls. If she is trotting around with butt-length hair swishing it around, those relationships will die on the vine. I remember what it was like to be a girl. I know the effects of vanity.

      The fact that she purchased the 18″ (in brown, I presume by what followed) is an exciting development – and another chance for her parents to rave about how beautiful the dolls features are. I agree with her on the clone. I know of no 18″ doll as ugly as American Girls. At least she has good taste!!

  5. lauren says:

    I just wanted to let you know that you are an amazing mother!! But you shouldn’t be so into race! As a black woman I applaud you for making your daughter aware of who she is. In todays world we see biracial people like Obama treated as though they’re black. It never fails to amaze me that our President is just as much black as he is white, but racist are quick to call him ni*ger, monkey and say racist jokes about him as if hes not half white. That being said, again I applaud you for letting your daughter know who she is. My boyfriends mixed (white mom and black dad) he grew up in a area where he was teased about having a black dad and people always said the ignorant jokes (dancing and basketball). Anyways… He was raised by his mom and she never taught him about his black side. He tells me he was always really ashamed to be mixed and to top it off the only time he saw other black people was on tv (we know how they can portray blacks in the media). In college he made black friends that broke all the stereotypes that he had seen on tv and they actually exposed him to alot of black culture and helped him actually develop a sense of pride in who he was. But the great thing about my boyfriend is that he is proud to be both white and black. He now has a sense of pride in all of himself. Hes has friends of every color and before me dated girls all colors of the rainbow. For him being mixed is a blessing cause he has the best of both worlds and says that in learning both sides he no longer even sees race just people. My point is that I hope you teach your daughter to love both sides and most of all realize that beyond be mixed, shes a human! Shes just a little girl and its great to make her aware but not everything has to be about black and white and race. P.S. I just dont want your daughter not like her white side, cause that would mean she didnt like herself. I hope she realizes that both black and white barbies are nice and beautiful.

    1. Hi Lauren,

      The story about your boyfriend really touched me. When mixed children spend time with only white children, they can get any number of complexes. I’m sad that his mom didn’t teach him how great it is to be black because there are plenty of ways to hear the message that being white is great. All you have to do is turn on the TV or drive through a ritzy neighborhood.

      The test that I do in this case is about race but one could just as easily do it to test a red-headed child’s love and appreciation of her hair. Or a brunettes for that matter.

      I often get asked, “Do you wish you were black?” and “Do you hate being white?” and “Do you hate white people?” — the answer to that is “Of course no, no and no.”

      If as a woman, I find a man attractive, does that mean I want to be a man? Does it mean I hate women? Appreciating black beauty is just that – I marvel at the beauty of some black women, and some black dolls. This in no way implies that I don’t find some white women beautiful. Of course I do.

      What’s important to me is that I vocally praise black beauty as a counter-balance the to deluge of messages all around us that imply that only white women are beautiful.

      Again, at this age I would prefer that she favor black over white because it’s like the continuum I describe – if she makes it through middle school choosing the brown side of the continuum over the paler side I know she will love herself her whole life.

  6. Virgo Nation says:

    I love how you bring this with your daughter, how she views herself. I think so often we’re told by society of what we are and not the other way around and I really think this helps with self esteem and self worth in so many ways. If someone sat down with me and asked me what Barbie I seen myself as, I don’t know what I’d have chosen. Maybe the red headed Midge I was fond of. Growing up in a community that was mostly white, for some reason, I liked to have a mixture of different dolls. I still remember when I bought my Miko with my own birthday money, and still prize her as a beautiful doll. I had more black ken like dolls then white kens. I thought the Kens back then were UGLY. Especially in the early eighties. UGH. not cute. Play was more for the kids then adults and entertainment only for the kids. I hope when she grows up, that she remembers all the fun memories and fondness of play and carries it over to her children. She is really truly learning a lot of life lessons, and surprises her mom with the wisdom beyond her years. I am loving your posts. They are insiteful, positive, honest, and thought provoking. 🙂

    1. gabrielle coffman says:

      I have to share with you that I actually had an O.J. Simpson doll back in the 80’s… funny he was 1/2 the height of Barbie but they were still friends..too bad I don’t have him anymore!

  7. gabrielle coffman says:

    I just wanted to say I am so thrilled to have found this site and cannot stop thinking about barbies and what direction(s) I am headed in with mine. I love the discussions and the thought and creativity that I see is just amazing! Thank God for you people!

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