Isn’t it interesting that the most innocent of things, like children’s books, toys or movies, can send powerful messages of who we are and what we can become? I often wonder how aware parents are of the lack of diversity present in children’s media. Ordinary experiences with my daughter remind me just how important positive images and stories of people of color might be in truly eradicating America’s ugly history of racism.
Two Christmases ago, my husband and I decided to spend time with our then 15-year old at Surfside Beach, South Carolina, about six miles outside of Myrtle Beach. On the drive there, she wanted to know demographics for the town. She knew we were heading south and wanted to know if she would see any other black folks around. We Googled it. As we pulled up, her first reaction was that she didn’t “really feel comfortable staying in a division called a 'Plantation' in a town that’s only 1% black."
My daughter’s initial discomfort aside, we had a fantastic trip! We were welcomed generously everywhere we went--including Brookgreen Gardens, a local park that houses beautiful gardens and exhibits year-round. Which brings me to the photograph that inspired this commentary.
On exhibit was a huge antique model train collection taking up nearly three rooms. Of more than one hundred figures, this was the only black figure I found. As I shot this photograph, I wondered how many future leaders in law enforcement and law creation grew up playing with toys only depicting black citizens as "the help"—if, that is, they had any black characters in their collections at all.
As an educator and early childhood researcher, I know that implicit messages of status and opportunity are important to children's development of self-image. Children need to see positive examples of people who look like them as they develop their self-image. Don’t believe me? Just ask Marley Dias, who recently launched #1000BlackGirlBooks to raise awareness of books featuring black girls -- and people of color -- as main characters. Or Eunique Jones-Gibson, who developed Because of Them We Can to introduce our youth to current and historical leaders of color using photography. Or Sandhya Nankani and Kabir Seth, who in 2015 started Diversity in Apps to address the diversity gap in children’s mobile content. These social innovators each saw a void and created a movement to begin filling it.
Just as children need positive images of themselves to develop a positive self-image, it would follow that children need to see positive examples of their peers during their formative years as they develop self-image, empathy, and their concept of “others." In the Toy Story series, one of the most successful franchises in children’s movie history, not one of the named characters--human or toy--is a person of color. Toy Story isn’t an outlier. A recent University of Wisconsin study found that of 3400 children's books published in 2015, less than 1 in 10 depict people of color.
Children’s television, however, may be improving -- a recent study found that tv shows produced by The Walt Disney Company in 2014 were “largely inclusive” of underrepresented minorities. While 37.9% of America’s population is non-white, 30% of shows produced by Disney portrayed underrepresented minority characters. Of course, inclusion does not equate to positive portrayal. A 2012 study found that for girls and children of color, watching more television predicted lower self-image. So, having shows that include “some brown people” is insufficient.
When children of color and their white peers (who may grow into positions of power and authority) are educated to only see black and brown children as peripheral to society--if they see any representation--how surprising is it that we continue to see black and brown lives in danger still today? In fact, a recent “viral video” of two young white girls receiving black dolls from their aunt -- and their immediate negative reaction -- demonstrates just how early the seeds of racism can be planted.
And, unfortunately, we know the feelings displayed by those adorable preschoolers on Christmas morning are not an anomaly. A 2010 study commissioned by CNN -- 60 years after the famous baby doll study conducted by Kenneth and Mamie Clark -- was quite telling. Lead researcher Margaret Beale Spencer found that while black and white children had some level of “white bias”, “white children are learning or maintaining those stereotypes much more strongly than the African-American children”.
We all know genuinely good people who “don’t see color”, but 21st century joint researchfrom UCLA and Stanford has demonstrated that the lack of overtly racist beliefs does not shield participants from unconscious racist associations. Yes, diversity awareness is not limited to race, ethnicity or color, but we have not moved beyond it to the “post-racial” ideal of some, either. There is work yet left to do.
The brain's most malleable phase is between birth and five. Messages we give children at this age in large part shape who they will become, enlightened anecdotes aside. Early messages of success, of opportunity, are critical, including in the toys, media, and books available to children of color. By starting early, we can shape worldviews so that success for black and brown Americans becomes the mental rule in whatever profession we choose.
If brain research is true, however, it is just as important for the little white boy in America’s classrooms to see a black female scientist and young Latino male excelling in school as it is for our black and brown children.
#blacklivesmatter and #brownlivesmatter have to be more than social media mantras. Black and brown lives must matter to people in the position to take our lives with impunity, or disproportionately incarcerate us for similar crimes perpetuated just as frequently or more often by our white counterparts. The system has to change, and get these messages right for all children, from birth.
Systems are made of people. In our shared role as parents – black, brown and white – we have an important opportunity to be mindful in sharing media with our children that depict the diversity of our society and highlight children of color in a way that builds respect and empathy for self and others, because of -- rather than in spite of -- differences.
As parents and consumers, we need to demand that our children’s book publishers, television and movie producers, and app developers continue to expand offerings of high quality, engaging content that positively portrays and explicitly features children of color. And, we need to engage our children’s schools to ensure our public dollars are being spent on material that represents and celebrates the diverse society our children inhabit.
More importantly, I’m hoping we will all start an important conversation with our children about race, equity, and opportunity that extends awareness and appreciation of racial and cultural diversity above and beyond what happens to be “trending”. We may not ever “go viral” for parenting from a place of inclusion. Perhaps, though, we can begin a movement in our own homes to eradicate the disease that is racism one book, movie, or app at a time.