27 June 2013

My Daughter the White Girl, Part 3

"A rainbow would be boring/if it were only green or blue/
What makes a rainbow beautiful/is that it has every hue/
So aren't you glad you look like you?"
From We're Different, We're the Same.
(Photo by Kevin Miller)
(Continued from Part 1 and Part 2)

At first, I followed the red herring that the word “pretty” represented. I told her, “I know all the princesses you see have light skin and yellow hair, but that’s not the only kind of beauty. There’s lots of different ways to be pretty.” She said, earnestly, “But some of the princesses have brown hair, like me.” She nodded for emphasis. I realized I’d gone down the wrong path in the conversation.

Silver was telling me that people’s value hinged entirely on their “prettiness,” a value inculcated in her by books, videos, and toys, most of them by Disney, and most of them outside my house—at her day care, at friends’ houses, at the doctor’s office. Girls also cannot escape the peer-pressure of “prettiness.” It doesn’t help when adults reinforce this value by constantly commenting on little girls’ outfits and looks. (Latina Fatale made me notice my complicity in this.)

I found myself facing two fronts instead of one. Now, it was not just the question of working against cultural messages of race, but also gender.

It was actually Po Bronson himself during a live chat about NurtureShock who gave me the word I should have used in the first place: wrong. “People with light skin didn’t want people with dark skin to go to the same schools or eat in the same restaurants or live in the same neighborhoods because they thought they weren’t as good or pretty or smart as people with light skin, but that was wrong. And people with all different colors of skin, they fought long and hard to change that. They said, ‘No, that’s not fair.’ And they got hurt because of it. Other people hurt their bodies. But they did it anyway because it was the right thing to do.

“And Silver, it doesn’t matter what you look like on the outside. Whether you’re pretty or not, it’s not as important as being a good person. People stood up for what was right, for what was fair, and that is the most important thing.” I could feel pressure building up inside, the urgency to pass it on. Miraculously, she was quiet, her eyes fixed on me.

I said, “You know, if they hadn’t stood up for what was right, then Grandma wouldn’t have been able to marry Mezhaidig, because Grandma’s skin is brown and Mezhaidig’s skin is light, and I wouldn’t have been born.”

Then her eyes lit up. “And you wouldn’t have been able to marry Daddy, because his skin is light and yours is brown!” “That’s right!” I said. The pressure eased. Daddy was ready. I helped Silver put on her shoes, hugged her tightly, kissed her, and said, “I love you, baby.” “I love you, too, Mama,” she said, and walked out the door.

No bunny's really color blind/Maybe it's a fact/We all should face/
Every bunny makes judgments/Based on race.—
with apologies to Avenue Q.
(Photo by Anoosh Jorjorian)
I have to keep reminding myself that I can’t overcome racism and sexism in a day, not even with my own children. It’s a process. Just as absorbing racism and sexism is something she has learned little by little, every day. I have to remain vigilant and pounce on the moments when I can change her perspective and reveal the prejudice for the injustice it is.

But I can’t help but feel a little sadness and distance. For her, these discussions will continue to be abstract. She is protected by the privilege that her skin color provides her. For me, racism is something that I will always take personally, as an attack on my very being.

It’s funny how we can wish for our children to have it easier than we did. And yet, when it comes, success is bittersweet. We pass on our wisdom, but will they really know it if they don’t live it? The only president Silver has known is Barack Obama. While I grew up at a time when being biracial was so unusual as to be almost freakish, she is growing up at a time and in a place where being biracial is almost the norm. I have to console myself with the knowledge that, in our microcosm at least, this is progress.


  1. Responding just to a teeny sliver of this, we're having some ongoing conversations with our 4-year-old daughter about "pretty," and I continue to be shocked at how early she's picked up that this is a very high priority attribute to seek. How much acculturation plants its seeds in pre-school? Apparently a great deal.

    1. Hi, Adam! Yup, "pretty" rears its ugly head quite early. Silver was invested in it by 3, with the whole attendant fascination with princesses. Oh god, how I hate the princesses! I haven't read Peggy Orenstein's book yet, Cinderella Ate My Daughter? I wish I'd started it earlier! Now the Mighty Girl blog is like my bible, and I'm focusing on asking for books for her that are about girls who DO something.

  2. This is something I wish had been around when I was inundated with princess stories. Some academic/parents I had in uni are involved in writing it =]

  3. Hey Anoosh!

    Came upon your blog purely by chance. I am loving it so far, not planning to have kids but reading these is giving me insight into what kind of language/wording and ideas/concepts children pick up or don't. REALLY helpful especially for an aspiring teacher/educator, so thanks from the bottom of my heart!

    I also wanted to let you know about a BEAUTIFULLY written book by Beverly Daniel Tatum called "Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?" http://www.amazon.com/Black-Kids-Sitting-Together-Cafeteria/dp/0465083617

    She is a clinical psychologist who specializes in racial development theory among kids and this book gives you great insight into not only how to handle such situations but also examples on how to answer questions/comments/remarks made, like the one you illustrate. :)

  4. i wish i could say sorry
    for all the ancient ignorance
    i paid forward