A few weeks ago, Paul and I were coloring with chalk outside on the driveway. I decided to draw a princess, and chose a medium brown chalk piece for her skin color. Paul looked over at what I was working on, and said “Mama…why does your princess have brown skin? Princesses don’t have brown skin.” I sucked in my breath and my heart beat a little faster. “Paul, why would you say that?”, I asked. He got a thoughtful look on his face and said, “Well, I just haven’t SEEN any princesses with that color skin mama!”
We had a little talk. I mentioned Sofia the First and her black friend that is on there sometimes. I pointed out the existence of Princess Tiana from Princess and the Frog (which he hasn’t seen, by the way, though he has a princess puzzle with her in it.) and the fact that anybody can be anything they want, that all skin colors are beautiful…etc. He got the point, I think.
But this conversation startled me. If a half-black kid who regularly spends time with his darker-skinned cousins (who are all boys except one, by the way) can say something like that…what does it say about the images we all are offering our children, in the media, in books, in LIFE as they interact with people around them?
Paul has been watching quite a bit of TV & Netflix lately. It’s the thing that saves our sanity in the mornings when he and my husband are getting ready to head out the door, and after I’ve picked him up at preschool and have two children to manage–one of them a constantly hungry infant. So, it’s given me even more opportunity to reflect on the media content that is available for consumption out there for a preschooler to saturate their brain with on a daily basis.
It was actually fairly difficult to find accurate, Google-able statistics on media use in preschoolers that were recent enough to be relevant to this blog post. The AAP and CommonSenseMedia.org do not issue recommendations on TV/media consumption, persay, but rather guidelines for families on screen time and tech use. But I think it’s fair to say that most kids, even very young ones, are not hurting for TV, Netflix, or YouTube time! This post is not about how much is too much, but it is logical to start with an assumption that *most* kids spend a significant amount of time consuming popular media, and that it IS AFFECTING their little brains.
If you look at the lineup of shows on the major kids channels–Disney Jr., Nick Jr., and Sprout, you can see why my child’s comment about brown-skinned princesses isn’t entirely off-base. With the exception of Disney Jr.’s Doc McStuffins, there are no shows that feature a black lead character. Nick Jr. has Dora the Explorer/Dora & Friends and its counterpart, Go Diego Go!. which feature Latina/o leads. Other than that, you have a host of shows that may include characters of color, such as a couple of Sofia’s friends on Sofia the First, or Izzy on Jake and the Neverland Pirates. There are several shows that do not have leads, persay, such as Little Einsteins or the new PJ Masks. These shows include racially diverse characters as part of a team, but almost without exception there are always Caucasian characters, usually male ones, present in addition to the ones of different races. We also watch some Netflix at our house–currently Power Rangers (Caucasian leader, racially diverse sidekicks) and the plethora of super hero shows available, which includes mostly Caucasians with a few minorities–mostly African-American, but again…not the main characters. Another favorite is RescueBots, which feature an entirely Caucasian main cast and transformers with Caucasian affect. There are few townspeople who are minorities.
A recent study I read highlighted the fact that Caucasian boys are the only group who experience a boost of self-esteem from watching TV. Black boys, black girls, and white girls all experienced a decrease in self-esteem. This makes complete and total sense when you consider the offering of shows out there for children to consume. Most shows have a Caucasian, male lead. The latter three groups, to see people who look like themselves, most often must look to “lesser”, secondary characters.
And it’s the main characters that kids remember and later want to embody in their imaginative play. We just had Halloween…how many Doc McStuffins and Princess Tiana’s did you see out there, compared to the Elsas & Annas & Cinderellas? How many Nick Furys or T’Challas did you see out there, compared to Captain America, Iron Man, or Spiderman? (Paul was Wolverine, by the way.) When a boy “plays Jake & the Neverland Pirates”, with imaginative role play or with toys, he is going to want to be Jake–not Izzy or Cubby. “But there are so many exceptions to these generalizations!” you might say. And you are right–there are. “What about the shows that feature animals…not humans?” Animals still have a racial affect, when you pay attention. Think Arthur, or Peppa Pig, or any Octonauts character, or Halley from Doc McStuffins. When you look at the big picture, you will see that the generalizations apply 95%+ of the time.
Side note: This post is essentially just examining the issue of Caucasian vs. Black characters, and touching on Brown characters. There are so many ways to think about inclusivity and diversity–other races, gender, people with disabilities, etc.–but that would require an entire chapter, not just a blog post.
This is really important stuff to think about folks! What we give to our kids to consume has a huge effect on them and their development. As the evidence shows from my anecdote above–just simply having certain beliefs, being a certain person, having a certain genetic makeup, etc., does not mean that you automatically understand these big concepts about race. We have to teach them to our kids by talking about them and by helping them choose wisely what they watch.
You aren’t even off the hook so to speak if your kids watch limited TV and spend more of their time reading. Good for you…BUT…nearly all of the children’s classic books from preschool to high school fit the same characteristics we just talked about in terms of the most popular kids shows. After you read this, go look at your kid’s bookshelf and see how many minority characters–MAIN characters–that you find. The positive difference with books though, is that there is so much MORE choice available. You aren’t limited to a few channels or what Netflix decides kids want to watch.
I’m no expert on how to deal with this, obviously! I just have had ample opportunity to think about it. I would like to encourage all parents (or aunts/uncles/grandparents/etc.) to be very mindful of what the children in your life are watching and reading. Talk to them about what they consume as much as you can. Help them choose diverse TV shows, movies and books that allows them to learn about people different from them. Talk to your kids anytime it is logical about their racial perceptions. When you hear people around you (especially those in your age or racial group) poo pooing the value of diversity or inclusivity, don’t join in, or better yet–say something about why it is important. We all have this responsibility regardless of ethnicity, but Caucasians and other majority groups have a particular responsibility.
Ideally, our boy children (of whatever race!) should look at the image of an African-American princess and not even think twice about it being normal and beautiful. Let’s all help our kids sort through these grey areas and be people that can see value in each person they meet. Let’s make choices that show the companies that make these shows and toys and costumes for our children to consume day in and day out that we value diversity. Because that’s not crazy or liberal–it’s just what we should do to equip our children with what they need to be global citizens and decent human beings!
Thanks for reading, as always.