“Guess what?” I gush to my four kids while they eat lunch. “The new The Little Mermaid movie is going to have a black Ariel!” My kids’ eyes widen and they cheer, asking when the movie is coming out.
Unfortunately, the release date of the live-action version of Little Mermaid is TBD. We have a long wait, kids. But thankfully, we also have a lot of great media to keep us occupied until then.
Every time we learn about a new book, movie, or show that is going to star a black person—a person who looks like my kids—it’s a big freaking deal. My kids are each at different stages in life, ranging from a toddler to a tween, but they each understand that representation really does matter.
Every opportunity I get, I shamelessly point out black people accomplishing great things to my children. Recent years have given us so much to celebrate. We were enamored by Simone Biles’ gymnastics talent in the 2016 Olympics. Barack Obama was elected President a few days before our oldest was born, and we spent eight years—and counting—watching he and his family do great things. My oldest just completed a year of ballet class, all thanks to her inspiration, Misty Copeland.
There is black excellence everywhere, and we’re going to point it out every time we see or hear it. For example, there are five major country artists — yes, country — right now who are black. Turn on the radio, and you’ll hear Mickey Guyton, Darius Rucker, Kane Brown, Jimmie Allen, and, of course, Lil Nas X.
We notice skin color everywhere, including in advertisements, on wrapping paper and greeting cards, on product packaging, and on magazine covers. Recently, a diaper box featuring a black dad and child became a national news story—simply because of the image on the box. These details may seem minor to some, but for us, they are little victories.
The emphasis on representation matters began about 11 years ago when my oldest, now a tween, was only a toddler. We were shopping when a woman strolled into the store. My daughter pointed to the woman’s afro and yelled—yes, yelled–“Mom! She’s brown like me! Look at her hair!”
“Brown like me” became a phrase I heard on repeat from my kids over the years. Interestingly, so many white people claim that they are colorblind and similarly, children “don’t see color.” But I beg to differ. Our experience has been that kids very much notice color, and they want their parents to acknowledge it, too.
When my oldest started preschool, I was waiting for her to be dismissed. I stood in a crowd of parents outside the school doors. One of my daughter’s classmates, a white boy, was the first to burst out of the doors. He ran into his mom’s arms and exclaimed, “Mom! There’s a girl in my class with brown skin!” He was clearly excited. But his mom? Not so much. She shushed him and quickly ushered him into the parking lot.
That was the first time I realized that white adults are really uncomfortable discussing race—like really discussing it. Even though a widely-circulated scientific study from the University of Toronto demonstrated that children can show racial bias as young as six to nine months old. Yes, you read that correctly. So it’s fair to say, even babies see and recognize racial differences.
The reality is, white people can pretend color doesn’t exist and matter, but my kids can’t opt out of their blackness—nor should they feel driven to do so. As a family, we believe that race should be acknowledged and celebrated, not ignored. Therefore, we take every opportunity to point out similarity.
I’ve been accused by a few white people of over-emphasizing race. Isn’t doing so somehow racist?, they say. Simply put, NO, it’s not. Racism is a belief and a system based on white superiority and advantage. Racially affirming my children is absolutely not racism.
And if we think about it, many of us who are white grew up with little to no awareness of race because everything was created for us. Our princesses and superheroes? White. Our dolls and action figures? White. Our movies, television shows, and books? They all starred white people. Our history books? The whitewashed stories of how our great country was built.
There weren’t options of skin-tone bandages and skin-tone ballet tights like there are now. There might have been one black doll option, propped on the lowest shelf and surrounded by dolls with blue eyes and blonde hair named Heather, Jessica, Brittany, and Amanda. To put the magnitude of this into perspective, take a look at this iconic photo in O Magazine. A white girl is standing in front of a mountain of shelving packed tight with black dolls. Whoa.
When there was the occasional black character, they were always assigned the role of the sidekick whose job was to glorify the white hero. The black girls were loud and sassy, with plenty of street smarts but no book smarts. The black boys were cool and tough, often looming, and cast as the villain.
Then, in 1997, a made-for-television movie aired. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella starred Brandy, Whitney Houston, and Whoopi Goldberg. Cinderella wore micro-braids! The movie was unapologetically black. At the time, I had no idea that I would later become a mom to four black children and show them the movie.
Thankfully, there are more options today than when I grew up. I took my kids to the theater to see Black Panther and we got all the merch we could—action figures, tee shirts, even wall art. We were just as excited to see Miles Morales, a black teen, in the animated movie Spiderman Into the Spiderverse. My toddler loves watching Doc McStuffins and Motown Magic, squealing in delight and proclaiming that the characters are brown like her.
It’s not lost to me that though this media is powerfully affirming my own kids, it’s also teaching white children that people of color can be incredible, too. The hero of the story can be melanin-rich with cornrows who leads a nation and saves the day. White doesn’t equate good, and melanin doesn’t equate bad.
Ignoring race has gotten our country nowhere, nor is it an option for people of color. Instead, we need to talk about race, engage with it, and cheer for the accomplishments—real or fictional—of people of color. That’s the gateway to progress.
Even a curious teen mermaid can make a difference—to my kids and to yours, too.
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