Monday, March 17, 2014

On Minority Children Underrepresented

Over ten years ago I briefly worked at a Barnes and Noble. The following encounter was part of why I kept my employment brief.

A youngish woman, maybe in her 30's, blonde, well-dressed, brought a small stack of books to checkout. As I entered the first couple into the register, she leafed through one of her selections - one of those Anne Geddes books filled with syrupy sweet photographs of babies dressed up as angels, flowers, and butterflies. The customer turned another page, halted, and blurted out, "I need to go back. I grabbed the wrong book. I wanted the one with white babies."

My eyes widened a bit. I glanced at the book in her hands, and seeing that it clearly featured a multiracial array of adorable newborns, couldn't help but respond, "But that book does have white babies. It has all different colored babies."

She huffed and (clearly annoyed with my political correctness) said, "Well I'm having a white baby, and I want the book with just white babies."

Apparently she could identify her baby with total stranger babies, regardless of those stranger babies' varying hair thickness, shade, or length, eye color, and unique facial features, so long as those babies were the same race as her baby.

I thought, what a racist dipshit. 

Wait a minute... apparently ten years ago this customer was able to pull two different books by the same photographer, same publisher, and of the same subject, but one featured multiracial models, and the other featured all (or at least mostly) white models. Did the publishing company orchestrate this on purpose in order to sell to the widest audience (in other words, to cater to this racist dipshit?)

It wouldn't surprise me. In high school I had a friend whose mother flew into a rage after seeing a commercial for a new sitcom which featured a black family. She felt there was already more than enough minority representation on television and movies (ha!)

Whatever one might say about Anne Geddes's work (that it's beautiful or disgusting, touching or shallow) it seems clear to me that her models' skin color is first and foremost an aesthetic consideration. In her color photography, each baby's skin tone is impeccably coordinated to harmonize with all the colors surrounding him or her.

The speculative symbolism here is just disturbing.
I keep reading that Geddes prefers black and white photography, and looking at her black and white work of babies, I see that it is there that she can play most with the contrast of dark and light skinned models. In fact I think the only reason she pairs black and white models together in photographs is because she enjoys the look of such contrast (opposed to any attempt at meaningful social commentary.)

I found this odd photograph of a giant white hand holding a miniature black baby on Anne-Marie Ross's Pinterest album I got the creeps from Anne Geddes. Ms. Ross adds the sarcastic caption:

Giant white hand and minuscule black baby. Racism is cured now.

And now the black angel baby grew up and had
his own white baby? Er, maybe in this fictional world
created by  Geddes, skin complexion skips every other
generation. And there's some chromosomal reason
why the dark-skinned generations also have wings.

I can't help but agree with critics of Geddes's work who argue that because commercial appeal is prioritized, the images are often dehumanizing. Geddes uses models' skin color as nothing more than a formal element, incorporates changes in scale as superficial novelty, and includes symbols loaded with cultural meaning as mere props. She thereby dismisses meaningful discourse about race, ethnicity, or social identity. I can't help but feel it propagates the myth (and false ideal) of colorblindness.

We are not colorblind. Racial identity is meaningful. Our skin tones are not just another color on a painter's palette.

The myth of colorblindness is why 90% of my daughters' dolls (mostly gifts from white relatives) are white. The black dolls were all purchased by me with the intention of creating some balance. There is one Native American doll which was purchased by a relative because it was cute and on clearance. And there is a Dora doll given as a gift, because Dora the Explorer is one of the few racial minority characters who has managed to break through the glass ceiling of children's entertainment. (Doc McStuffin's seems to be making some serious headway, too, which is nice to see.)

The myth of colorblindness is why this still happens:

Of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people, according to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin.
My daughter's baby doll collection; way too monochromatic.
I was surprised to read this article today, because in the children's sections of the Free Library of Philadelphia I find many wonderful titles that feature main characters of color as well as minority authors and illustrators. But now that I think about it, I haven't had to look for those books because they are usually prominently displayed in windows and on the tops of bookshelves. Now I realize that the librarians, sensitive to the fact that most of the children who enter Philadelphia's libraries are black, have been deliberately putting those books out there. What a fine example of how libraries perform a public service.

I'm so tired of people who complain about political correctness. Tired of "political correctness" having a bad connotation. Sure, it can be taken to ridiculous extremes, but most often political correctness is simply about tolerance and respect. We need political correctness because we are still battling a war of inequality. Because the racial and ethnic biases in our society are so built in that we must counter them with self awareness.

In her TED talk The Danger of a Single Story, novelist Chimamanda Adichie gives a much more eloquent and persuasive argument as to why our children need to be exposed to diversity in their literature and entertainment.

So find the books that feature minority characters and buy them for your kids, your nieces, your nephews, your friends' kids. Check out the Coretta Scott King Awards. Go to your local library and ask the children's librarian about books by minority authors and illustrators. Be part of creating a market for books, toys, and children's entertainment that better represents our true diversity.

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