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In spite of advances, race is still an issue. Why?

Posted by Lylah M. Alphonse  March 12, 2010 10:58 AM

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With minority births on track to outnumber white births, one might think that we're getting closer to the point where people can be accepted as people and race doesn't really matter. 

But I don't think we're there yet.

A few months ago, I received a press release about a new children's book featuring "an ethnic elf princess." Imagia and the Magic Pearls is an adorable story, and I'm sure my 5-year-old daughter would love it -- but not because of the way the main character looks.  

Young kids tend to view skin color much in the same way that they view hair or eye color -- that is, just another trait. A preschooler will identify with a character based on what that character does, not only because of how that character looks. (Also: when did "ethnic" become code for "African American"?)

"Is the general mainstream market ready for African American main characters?" the press release asked, pegging the book to the debute of Disney's first-ever black princess -- and raising my hackles at the same time. The question implies that the bulk of American consumers -- the ones that count, at any rate -- still perceive blacks as "other." I think that offering up a book, movie, or product that underscores this, instead of countering it, just makes the problem worse.

The hype surrounding Tiana from Disney's Princess and the Frog was much like Mattel's renewed focus on a black Barbie: all of the truly ethnic characteristics were whitewashed to create a "user-friendly" black character whose only ethnic trait is the color of her skin. (And it didn't even work: A Lousiana Walmart offended parents recently by cutting the price of black ballarina Barbie dolls to nearly half that of white ones. The retail giant said the black doll had been marked down because it wasn't selling well.)

In spite of the positive message on which the book hoped to focus, Imagia does almost the same thing as Mattel and Disney; though the elf princess has gorgeous African braids, she also has a narrow nose, thin lips, and sky-blue eyes.

Frankly, I think the focus on skin color as the sole indicator of ethnicity is short sighted, and the idea that young kids are worrying about not being able to relate to or identify with a character in a story book is absurd -- parents, maybe, but kids? My 3-year-old says he wants to be a puppy or a robot when he grows up; he relates to Muno from Yo Gabba Gabba as readily as he does to Little Bill (and, frankly, he identifies with Little Bill because the main character is a young boy, not because he has dark skin).

I'm saying this as a multiracial woman of color, and as a mom with kids of all shades of brown: If no one had mentioned Imagia's, Barbie's, or even Tiana's skin color, I probably wouldn't have thought twice about it. Which, to me, makes highlighting their skin color part of the problem instead of the solution.

I think it's important to point out that "race" and "ethnicity" are two different things.A white person whose parents are from South Africa is ethnically African American, as is a white person from Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia). A blond-haired, blue-eyed Cuban is both White and Hispanic. Persians from Iran are Caucasian, not Arabic. And yet, you seem to be saying that you'd identify more with any of them than you would with a black person who grew up in exactly your same circumstances? Why should social cues come from skin color rather than personality, ethnicity, or life experience?

Readers, what do you think? Read the older comments on this post here, and weigh in below. I got into a very interesting discussion with one reader, and it made me wonder if generational issues come into play when we talk about race. Here's part of our exchange:

Big1968: 1.One of the unforgivable offenses that whites make is trying to define the reality of blacks/African Americans/the Others. And when we tell you differently, you argue with us. Why don't you listen sometime and acknowledge that we know more about what we experience, encounter, and endure than, oh, 98% of whites? That would be a good first step towards addressing racism in its various forms. You may fantasize all you want about a post racistl society, but attitudes like yours go a long way toward preserving the status quo. If you have any non-white friends who will tell you the honest truth (most of us are tired of trying to teach to non-learners) ask them their thoughts on your thesis. And listen to what they say. ...

You said: "Is Tiana a role model because she looks a little different from all the other Disney princesses, or because she starts out with a more independent attitude -- and is that attitude attributable to her being black? Again, I don't think so." I'm sorry, but that observation speaks to or documents your limited experience with African-Americans. I'm sorry you missed so much of the movie's takes on the African American (and Creole) experiences.

Now come to think of it, each time (twice) I saw it there were times when the blacks in the audience were cracking up or at least testifying and the whites didn't get what was so funny or meaningful. Maybe you should see it again with a black family and ask what you're missing

From me: Big1968, your point echoes one I made in the comments a few hours ago, about how race and ethnicity are different. I think it's inaccurate to assume that by having a brown-skinned character you've created something that all black children will automatically identify with. Also: My husband, who is African American, grew up in the Bronx. He assures me that it was nothing like growing up on the Bayou. A common skin color does not necessarily make for a common experience. -- LMA

The reader went on to say that she's in her mid-60s and African-American, "defined as those whose roots are planted in the slavery of the American South." And that's what made me think about generational issues -- specifically, the way my mom (who is also in her mid-60s) reacted when she found that I didn't share her urgency about electing a female president. Why not? Because while she is part of a generation that fought tooth and nail for women's rights, I'm part of a generation who was able to enjoy the successes of that fight. I write more about how I think feminism may be a generational thing here.

Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at

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about the author

Lylah M. Alphonse
Lylah M. Alphonse is a member of the Globe Magazine staff and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling a full-time career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day, and about everything else at Write. Edit. Repeat. When she's not glued to the computer or solving a kid-related crisis, she's in the kitchen or, occasionally, asleep.

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