Being a liberal kinda gal, I did once buy into the myth that the world is all one big smushy melting pot of lurve really and it’s only those nasty, bad racist people who fuck it up for everybody else. Even as late as having kids, my initial instincts were – and I suspect I’m not alone here – to ‘ignore’ colour with my kids. If I didn’t bring up the issue of race and racism, my kids would somehow – miraculously – grow up to be ‘colour-blind’, treating all individuals the same regardless of skin hue.
That this ran directly contrary to how I was going to teach my kids to be ‘gender-blind’ – i.e. bombard the poor sods with examples of gender disparity followed by a long explanation of why they were wrong – passed me by for a bit.
But, oh, the benefits of education! Just as bell hooks showed me, in about three pages, how my feminism excluded any one non-white and I hadn’t even realised it (and just because I hadn’t actively thought about it), a small chapter in Nurtureshock, showed me that my approach to anti-racist parenting was, erm, ridiculous. It was just a massive piece of privilege blindness.
Just as with gender, so with race. Kids see fucking colour – and, equally, the lack of it – everywhere. They get lessons in laissez faire racism every single fucking day. Black women may clean daddy’s office, but they don’t actually work in one. Black men…well, round our way, black men aren’t visible in any work environment my children have any interaction with despite being around in relatively large numbers. My children learn from this in the same way they learn from everything around them: they take the basic facts they see and draw the most obvious conclusions. Colour-blind my arse. Nurtureshock noted studies that showed that children actually invent ‘race’ groups out of virtually nothing: put half a classroom of children in red bibs for a week, the other half in blue bibs and watch in despair as by the end of the week each group denigrates the other as not being as ‘good’ as their group. This occurs, insanely, even when no mention of the bibs is made by teachers throughout the week and the groups aren’t pitted against each other in any way; the kids are just told they have to wear the bibs for a week and thereafter the fact is not alluded to at all.
It was just time to accept it. I am as racist as the next person. And by next person, I mean you. We’re all racist. Just as we all grew up surrounded by gender stereotypes, so we all grew up surrounded by racist stereotypes and, as we know (all hail the goddess, Cordelia Fine!), these stereotypes remain no matter how much we don’t want them to, even if, as Fugitivus points out, the precise nature of these stereotypes may differ depending on where you grew up. [Oh, and if you doubt the veracity of the statement that we're all racist, you really should check out the Fugitivus link.] The only thing that distinguishes our racism (I hope) from that of the next person along is our awareness of it. Which is why I feel like such a fuckwit that it took me so long to really be aware of mine. Oh, sure, I knew I held racist stereotypes, but knowing and knowing are two distinct steps.
So I changed my approach and colour is now on the agenda in the same way as gender.
And so to the point of this post, which wasn’t just to tell you you’re all racist (thanks for that, then), but to talk about children’s books. An odd intro, I know, but bear with me.
Some time ago, I lamented the fact that, whilst I’d managed to find several ‘alternative’ princess books for Boogie, the protagonists in those books were still all white. As somebody who spends more time than I should have to in book shops hunting for female protagonists in children’s books, I can only say if you’re looking for black female protagonists, you’d better take a tent and a copy of War & Peace with you. You are going to be there some time. Black females are rare birds indeed in children’s fiction as, indeed, are black males (did I already say colour-blind, my arse? good). But I did get hold of one: Grace. Of Caribbean heritage, Grace stars in a series of books written by Mary Hoffman.
The first book I got was Amazing Grace, and boy, did I love it. The first part of the book, several pages long, is a hymn to her fantastic imagination, showing an active (in both senses) girl, throwing herself into various exciting worlds. I had a minor gripe that in most of the fantasies she enacts, she’s still playing a male, but moving on… Then her class is to put on the play Peter Pan and Grace wants the lead role. Whereupon one classmate tells her she can’t be Peter Pan because she’s a girl, and another tells her she can’t be Peter Pan because she’s black. As a jumping off point into discussions about sexism and racism, it can’t really be bettered; it fits squarely into my philosophy of getting these things right out on the table. It also struck me how unusual that approach is. Boogie loved it, too; the discussions that followed really illustrated how thirsty she is for knowledge on these mysterious things like ‘gender’ and ‘race’, things which surround her and which she can see are clearly very important things to ‘figure out’ but which aren’t ever really explained by the world that holds them to be so important.
In short, I loved it.
So, I bought another in the series, Princess Grace, in which Grace ‘discovers that there’s more than one way to be a princess‘ and I wanted to love that one, too.
Well, it’s my own fault, really, I suppose. Had I thought it through, I should’ve realised that, whilst I’ve bought ‘alternative princess’ books before, I bought them as a last resort really, because Boogie was at the height of her ‘Disney Princess’ phase, and skewing her idea of what a princess could be was the first and easiest step to start countering the horrendously passive and boring DP model. But Boogie’s DP mania is already on the wane and – in large part due to the books I bought – she’s already bought into the idea that princesses can behave in all sorts of different ways and still be princesses.
And still be princesses. You see? Now it’s really time for part II of my Princess Master Plan: introducing the idea that you don’t have to be a princess at all, and you can still be awesome.
Because for all the ideas about how princess’s behave, there is one fact that remains, essentially, unopposed; princesses, whatever else they may or may not be, are pretty. They can ride horses, tame monsters and live in pigsties but nowhere is it even hinted that princesses can be plain.
So, Grace learns about ‘alternative’ historical princesses and about how they had adventures leading armies etc etc. And at the end, instead of being a fluffy pink princess, Grace is a Gambian princess, wearing West African Kente robes. And what does Grace learn from this experience? She learns that, ‘There’s more than one way of being pretty.’ Kente robes or not, a princess’s main achievment – and basic entry requirement – is to be pretty.
Oh, maybe I’m being over-sensitive. It just spoiled it for me is all.