Late last week this Cheerios commercial was all over the internet, and of course, multiple people were posting it to me on Facebook.
When I first saw it on another mom blog’s page, I was overjoyed. What an adorable ad. It was perfectly understated. Just two parents hanging out with their kid. I am seriously going to go buy some Cheerios even though we rarely eat cereal. They were actually my favorites growing up anyway. Annika has never liked cereal, but it’s been long enough. It will probably become her new obsession. The only thing about the commercial that I thought was unbelievable was the fact that the mom was quietly sitting at the kitchen table reading while the dad was taking a nap.
But anyway, it didn’t take long for my bubble to get popped when I started seeing articles about how this ad brought out the racists. I hadn’t bothered to read any comments when I initially viewed this ad, so I didn’t get to see them. I never read comments unless it’s late and I’m severely bored. Apparently, according to various articles, the racist comments got so bad, they were closed. I saw a few on some of the other articles. They made me a little sick.
It was just another reminder that there are people in the world who view me and my daughter with quiet hatred every time we go out in public. Just when I start to become complacent, out it comes.
For the most part, I figure it doesn’t matter to me. There is hate all over the world. But it worries me, how people view Annika. I worry about how she will manage as she ages and how the racism will affect her self esteem. Or how it might affect her in situation where she might stick out just a little more than a white kid.
Annika has been saying things this past year about her skin. Negative things. Mostly she says she wishes she was white and had “hair that falls down” (straight hair).
Every time, it pains me. I grew up wishing I was taller; had better hair; or bigger/smaller boobs (depending on my phase of life), etc. etc. But disliking the color of my skin never entered into the picture. You can change your hair color and texture (temporarily), lose weight, and adjust clothing to make yourself bigger or smaller, so when you’re young and experimenting with your looks, one can achieve temporary perfection occasionally (very temporary). I’ve tried lots of different looks over the years.
But you can’t change your skin color. No matter what Michael Jackson tried to convince us that was true, it just isn’t. The only thing you can do is learn to love it.
I have no idea how to teach Annika to love her skin color other than to love it and hope she mimics me. So, what I’ve been doing is inserting comments about beautiful brown skin. Showing her images of beautiful brown people and pointing them out when we see them in real life. Talking about beautiful brown skin.
I’ve never really mentioned my own skin much, except in comparison to hers. But the other day, I was putting on sun block and Annika asked me why I was putting it on. Without thinking, I said something like, “Well, I really don’t want my skin to get tanned.”
“Why mama? Don’t you want to have brown skin?”
Whoa. That stopped me in my tracks. I suddenly had this realization that while I was telling her all the time how pretty brown skin is, I rarely mentioned mine on its own. And I had never explained that while I think brown skin is pretty, I wasn’t necessarily wishing for my own (brown skin).
So I said to her, “I think brown skin is beautiful. But I’m not brown. I’m white. And I think I look pretty with white skin. We’re all beautiful the way we’re born.”
She seemed to like that and went about her business of watching one of her current favorite television shows, “My Big Big Friend.”
When Annika was a baby, I once casually mentioned to Toyin that I’d like to dress her as Snow White for Halloween. He rolled his eyes and scoffed, “You can’t dress a black child as Snow White!” He was joking, mostly.
But even so, that year, I dressed her as a kitty cat, because she could say cat.
Oddly, Toyin doesn’t remember that conversation, or perhaps, remembers it differently than I do. A few years later, when Annika was 3.5, one of his family members sent us a Snow White costume for a Christmas present, which we both enjoyed watching her get excited over and immediately put it on and dance around. By that time, it was no big deal. Or was it? As I watched her pull it out and realized what it was, I flashed back to that conversation, when all of this was so new.
Thinking about race and skin color enters into the most mundane of choices when you have a mixed race family.
If the opposite had happened, let’s say my white daughter wanted to dress up as say, Diana Ross, I would probably be thrilled with her choice, glad my child was so multiculturally aware and being the raging liberal that I am I would brag about it to all my friends.
So when my brown-skinned daughter wants to dress up as a white character, coincidentally, also Daphne from Scooby Doo, why do I feel mildly ill at the thought?
I posed this question on my Facebook page a couple of days ago and got the same thoughts back at me that I’d been thinking myself.
The gist of the commenters said what I’d been telling myself, “She can be whomever she chooses. It’s not about race. It’s about what she likes to watch on TV. It’s no big deal.”
And they are right. I was right. I went ahead and ordered the costume. She wants to dress as Daphne for her Scooby Doo themed birthday party. I will not say a word when she puts on the costume as I didn’t when she dressed as Snow White. When she dressed as Ruby Gloom/Tinkerbell.
I think what all these thoughts are telling me is this.
It’s not that fact that my child wishes to dress up as a white character. It’s the fact that most characters are white. It’s that there are so few reflections in the media for her that she only sees white.
It’s true that what we see reflects back on us, in all walks of life. And if the equality in children’s programming was more balanced, I would have less of an issue with it. But it’s not.
Basically, there’s nothing wrong with my child. What’s wrong is societal messages and media reflections. It’s time to change that.
I can’t do much with that. Sure, I could lobby and join groups that support media issues. But honestly, I’d rather spend my time being a mom and doing the best with what we’ve got. In time, all of this will change. I know it because I see it happening.
Every generation keeps the talks going along and eventually, equality and fairness will win out in the racial divide. I believe that wholeheartedly, although, I don’t think it will happen in my lifetime.
But for now, what I have to do is go out of my way to ensure that my daughter see whatever reflections that are there.
I’ve started coming up with a list of non-white characters that I will do my best to insert into her regular viewing. I’m not going to try to cut out white characters, but do whatever I can to show her that the others exist.
Off the top of my head I can think of exactly one black female cartoon character that Annika watches semi regularly.
Years ago, long before I met Toyin and long before Annika was a sparkle in my brain, I have this vague memory of being introduced to the idea that it’s important for people to be properly represented in the media.
This notion came by way of watching an interview with a Hispanic comedian who talked about his goal of finding ways to have more Latin faces on mainstream television, not just in their own shows, but in pop culture.
Initially, knowing me, I probably rolled my eyes. But it didn’t take long for the message to sink in when I began studying communications and found out just why representation is important in the media.
I could go into a long, boring explanation, but the gist is, media is part of our culture. Culture provides a reflection. And when you are not reflected in the media, there is a sense of loss. We are constantly looking for our reflections somewhere. In our parents, in our friends, in our daily lives. And that includes media. (It also probably explains a lot about why Facebook is so popular.)
There are people who will say that it doesn’t matter what’s on television, internet and magazines. That it only matters what’s inside. And I agree that it is important to have a solid sense of self. But what we see in our daily lives reflects back to us. Especially children, who are still building a solid sense of self. And since we cannot protect them from everything in the world, what they see in the media DOES matter. And it’s important that kids see positive things to reflect on.
While I’ve known that all this stuff is important, and that there are negatives reflected in the media, until the Trayvon Martin case and subsequent articles on the philosophy of our culture, I hadn’t done much research on what the media reflects back on black women.
According to this study, “Media, in short, are central to what ultimately comes to represent our social realities.” And, “… how we come to understand and perform gender is based on culture.”
The study goes to say that the majority of the representation of black women is either hyper-sexualized -think music videos, bitches and hos- or the traditional “mammy.” This study, btw was done on media from the mid-to-late 90s up through the mid 2000s.
The biracial female is raised up in status, making her the most desirable with lighter skin and typically straight hair. But she is also a “tragic mulatto.”
The study goes on to say that men of color are often just as guilty of perpetuating these stereotypes, as they are typically working for industries run by white men.
The study moves on and discusses other races, Asian women are exotic, yet subservient and ready for sex. Hispanic women are also exotic, but often portrayed with as little culture as possible, acting “white” or they are in very traditional roles, like maids (think Jennifer Lopez).
And Native American women are recast into a Western context, ignoring their culture completely.
Overall, none of this is all that new to me. But it burns a fire anew inside me to do my best to ensure that Annika gets as many positive characters inside her media intake as possible. It’s going to be hard though. She has recently taken a huge interest in fairies. And guess what, yeah, there’s only ONE black one.
I know that by now Trayvon Martin is yesterday’s news to many, but the fact remains, he is still dead and his parents will have to live with that for the rest of their lives.
No matter what happens, George Zimmerman killed their son. If he goes to prison or if he goes free, Trayvon’s parents will still have lost their child.
I can’t stop thinking about them. About him. But mostly about them. Because while he is gone, they must still wonder every day if they could have done something differently in their parenting that would have saved him. Maybe his father wishes he had driven Trayvon to the store that night. Maybe he wishes he would have told his son these things about being a young, black man. Or maybe he did, and he’s thinking that he missed some other teaching moments.
Now, I’m not saying that they did anything wrong. Not in the slightest. But if it were me, I’d probably obsess over these details for years.
Parents tend to believe they can safeguard their children from everything if only we tell them all the stuff they need to know.
I think this. At least, I tell myself regularly that if only I make sure to mention this thing to Annika, yes, then she will be okay. Her life will be good.
But I worry. I worry that I won’t have a clue what to tell her about race or about being a black woman in the United States. And Toyin won’t know all that stuff either, because he’s a man.
Trayvon Martin’s murder was a huge wake up call to me. After reading articles about all the things we need to tell black boys about being a black male in the U.S. I started to wonder, “But what do we tell the girls?”
I used to plan and think of all the ways I could ensure her happiness and contented life. Now, I wonder what things I need to stress to her so that she will just stay alive, and/or without suffering an assault.
Maybe it’s selfish of me. But I don’t have a boy. I have a girl. What do I tell her?
I don’t know. I have vague memories of learning such things about black people, black women, when I was young, but I have forgotten them all. They came from a place of ignorance, immaturity, and just plain stupidity. I came to learn that they were not true. I forgot them. And I am sure that with a new generation of youngsters, there are probably many things I have never even known.
I am that place of mid-life where past memories have become hazy and new information is not always so easily accessible. It’s a dangerous place to be when you are the mother of a child of color.
I need to know these things. Or at least, I need to find out how Annika can learn about them.
Annika will grow up having to learn much of these things on her own, from friends, from relatives, but not from me. Sure, I can ask around. I can assist. But I do not know what it feels like to have certain stereotypes put on me. I think that I’m not even sure what they are, and even if I do know some of them, I don’t know what it feels like to be in those shoes.
It worries me. And for the first time since becoming a parent, I feel completely absorbed with the not knowing.
Before, and especially when she an infant, I told myself there would be time. I could learn it all. But there comes a time when you are faced with the fact that there are just certain things you will not be able to protect your child from. And there are some things you will never even know.
When I first heard the term “swirling” I rolled my eyes.
I’ve really gotta stop doing that. Because last week it came in handy when Annika said something that freaked me out and I suddenly realized what a delectable term is in the biracial/multiracial world. It’s one of the few cultural terminologies I’ve ever heard that doesn’t come with any baggage. I like it.
So, Annika and I were driving down the road and she says to me from the back seat, “Mama, I washed my face before we left, doesn’t it look nice?”
“Yes, baby. It does.” I agreed.
“Mama, if I wash my face it will get lighter, right?”
My heart skipped a beat. What the hell? Okay, my brain said, don’t freak out. Maybe she doesn’t mean what it sounds like.
“Um, lighter, like your skin color getting lighter?” I asked.
“Yes, Mama, my skin will get whiter.”
Shit. Don’t freak out. Handle this with dignity and grace! She’s not even 4 yet. She can‘t have developed a neuroses about her skin color yet! Don’t give her one.
As I pause to think what I can say to her without turning this into a big thing, the latest images flash through my mind of her imaginary brother Freddie, who’s white; And her penchant for pretending to be the blonde/blue-eyed characters from shows and storybooks and never being the dark-skinned people.
Am I fucking up? Does she not get enough exposure to people who look like her? What the hell?!
I realize that this seems like I spent a lot of time hemming and hawing, but not really. My mind was racing.
So I said, “Honey, your skin will never get lighter. You will always be brown and beautiful. Your skin color is beautiful and you are beautiful. I think that brown skin is lovely. You have lovely light brown skin. Daddy has beautiful dark brown skin. We are all beautiful with the skin colors we were born with.”
She beams up at me and says (she’s been learning Spanish, btw), “I’m café!”
Then, she had a realization.
“Mama, I’m a mix of you and daddy! You’re white and he’s brown and I’m like a mixture of you both!” she squealed. Seriously, she was so excited.
“Yes,” I said. “You’re swirled. You know like an ice cream cone that has half chocolate and half vanilla? That’s you!”
I’ve come to realize that I no longer see the world in black and white (and red and yellow…. or really, dark brown, light brown, dark beige and light beige).
I no longer see humans with simply one background, one skin color, one mindset, one reality.
Before Annika was born, I liked to think that I was a huge liberal with an open mind and a love for diversity. And I was.
But it took my mind blooming and morphing, becoming the mother of a biracial child to fully grasp the diversity that I once accepted externally, it is now fully internalized.
Earlier this week, I was talking to Toyin about my last couple of posts and I verbalized something that I had not yet even though I’ve known it for a long time. It was, “I see biracial children.”
I see them everywhere too, with or without their parents. When Annika was a baby, I often felt alone. In playgroups and out shopping, in school, in the library, it seemed that most moms and kids were the same. As proud as I was to be Annika’s mom, I often wished I was able to easily mix into the crowd, without a need for explanation or wondering what other people wondered.
But now, I realize that biracial kids are really everywhere. They are seeping out of the cracks of society. I love to see the older kids, especially girls, because it gives me a window into Annika’s future.
People tend to really notice biracial babies, but as they age, they begin to assume racial roles from one side or the other, based on what their skin color might be.
I think that is changing.
For the past few years, I really see biracial adolescents now. I’m sure I noticed them before, but they were just like any other people whom I shared no common bond with and didn’t understand or empathize with their similarities.
I fully admit that many times, I assumed children were adopted when they may have not been so.
Even after Annika was born, crazy as it sounds, there were a few times when I wondered it, and then chastised myself for assuming anything that was so clearly not obvious, having been through that assumption on the other end myself.
Now, I fully accept that parent/child bond without thinking of it much. It does not matter whether a child is adopted, biracial, or multi-mixed from generations of race mixing.
Last week I met a mom with a child who did not reflect her mother’s ethnicity. I easily recognized her as the mother, and as we spoke, I noticed that they really looked alike even though at first glance, one might not have immediately thought that they were related.
Now when I see biracial kids with their moms of another color, I smile. Because now, when I look at those kids, I see biracial kids. I know, without wondering that the parent with them is their mom or dad because I have finally internalized how to look past the skin color. I notice facial features, hair texture, even the way biracial children hold themselves, in many cases, is different than children who come from non-mixed unions. It is uncanny. They are an entirely different race of humans that we are forming. Outside the boundaries of stereotypes. Outside the boundaries of racial profiling. Outside the boundaries of categorization.
In my last post I wondered how much Black History Month, which happens every February, will affect Annika’s when she’s old enough to understand the racist history of our country.
It got me to thinking, as I have every February for the past few years, about the history of being biracial. Since becoming pregnant with Annika, the notion of being biracial was something I’ve thought long and hard about.
Toyin told me a few times early on that Annika is simply black, at least, in the eyes of society and the rest of the world. I’m not entirely sure that he really believes that deep down, it’s just one of those things that is ingrained into the mind and society of African Americans.The belief is held based on white history as well. The one drop rule is something whites forced onto blacks during the years of Jim Crow and slavery.
Ironically, the one drop rule has been perpetuated by the black community and accepted by many biracial people. In recent history, they would have been, most likely correct more often than not. I believe that is changing because of people who aren’t afraid to speak out about their inner beliefs.
I came across these videos from The Phil Donahue Show from the 1990s. Eight video clips show light-skinned blacks and biracial people talking about various topics like, “passing” for white, being the victim of unwitting blatant racism, and struggling with the creation of their own identities. Passing is huge part of the biracial person’s history, as is struggling with finding acceptance from both the white and black communities. These videos are very telling, very interesting, and the relative recency of them makes me wonder how much will have changed in another 20 years, when Annika is a young adult.
Speaking about the identity struggle based on race mixing is new, in the historic sense. And it started with people like you’ll see in these videos, not afraid to share their experiences, and demanding the right to choose which culture they felt most comfortable with, no matter what their skin color said about them to other people.
This stuff is a big part of the biracial person’s history. It is a struggle that separates them from both black and white, and at the same time, gives them access to both. Historically, the African American/Caucasian biracial person has struggled with identity in ways that blacks and whites cannot identify with fully.
It’s Black History Month. Every year around this time (and other times) it brings up my own mental rambling about just how Annika will fit in to the world of African Americans, or more accurately, black Americans whose history includes oppression from their own culture.
For all outward intents and purposes she is a black citizen of the United States of America. She will be/is viewed as black, I suppose.
The irony is that Annika’s black roots do not extend back into the hideously oppressive American history that includes Jim Crow laws/segregation and slavery.
Her father is an immigrant. He has told me in the past that he doesn’t necessarily relate to the black culture of this country, not fully. He is Nigerian first and foremost. He is an American citizen, but he and his family do not hold on to a lot of the American racial injustices of the past. They can relate to it on some levels because of certain stereotypes they have encountered along the way, but they do not hold it in the hearts and bodies the way it is held for many black Americans. Their minds extend back into Nigeria when they view their past.
Since my past does extend into this country’s history, but on the white side, I do not know how much Annika will take to heart the Black History of our country.
Will she relate? Will she feel pressured to relate even when/if she does not?
When Annika was an infant and President Barack Obama was running for office, I read his book, “Dreams from My Father.” He writes about the pressure in college to conform to the world of black oppression, even when he had come from a mostly white world and had barely known his own father, who was Kenyan, and had not lived most of his life in this country.
As I read that, holding my tiny baby, I projected into the future, noting my daughter’s similarities with our would-be president, and wondering if she would feel the same pressures.
I know that our world is different even now, than it was then. And will be even more different when Annika is that age. But I also know that the culture still clings together. Many black friends have shared with me that they feel the need to continue to view the world from the perspective of how someone else views them. It is not something they choose, but is done for self-preservation.
This will not be something Annika learns from me. And Toyin will give her an entirely different viewpoint, from another culture and a skin color that looks the same, but does not relate.
I don’t worry or feel concerned. But I do wonder how I will handle this when/if she feels the pressure to collect and hold the anger and oppression of a culture that, in all reality, is not fully hers. I wonder how much she will relate. Or if she will accept that many will see her one way, but she can choose to show them who she truly is.
I just wonder.
As we go in to February every year, I start to ponder this and I wonder how much I should share with her and when it is appropriate.