Sh*t Asian Mothers in Law Say to their Black Daughters in Law

My daughters have taken to calling one of their Barbies "Black Girl." Here's how I'm handling it.
Publish date:
January 10, 2012
parenting, race, in-laws

It’s now almost two weeks after Christmas. My daughters did very well in the gifts department, and I daresay that my huzza and I didn’t have much to do with it.

Our gifts are more “strategic” in nature if anything, which means that we privilege books and crafts and things that we perceive to be both educational and fun. Also, our girls don’t just get things simply because they’ve asked for it.

Mind you, we’re not total killjoys either; so they got stuff like Barbie, groan; a life-sized wooden play house, double groan; a plastic kitchen that will likely live longer than they will -- my sincere apologies to Mother Earth. Plus the few odd things that they believe will enrich their little 6 and 3 year old lives respectively.

When it comes to Barbies, my girls know what time it is. They know, for example, that Barbie isn’t real. They know that Barbies are anatomical aberrations and that no earthly human being, much less a woman, could function with the fantasy-like proportions imagined by the creators of said plastic abominations.

More importantly, they know that dolls, like people, come in different hues, shapes and sizes, and are not just “model thin” tallish white women with long blonde hair and blue eyes. No really, this is a “fact” we commonly take very much for granted in girl-culture because, “back in the day,” dolls were very much a fantastical representation of white male-imagination and it was most certainly a Big Deal when they weren’t.

You’re also aware, I’m sure, of that bogus study/video in which a black child and a white child are asked to choose dolls and to describe what each doll “represents” to them? The faux-shocking result with the faux-subversive message is that the black child will *always* choose the white doll because she is “good,” “well-behaved,” “clean,” and “pretty.”

Conversely, when the black child is shown the doll who supposedly “looks like her” she will describe her in alarmingly negative terms, but not so alarming, if you consider the prevalence of racisms in our culture.

So here’s the thing: As parents of multi-racial children, my huzza and I are big on telling it like it is when it comes to race and appearance. We endeavour to answer questions— -- when asked, and this is key -- as honestly and openly as we can so that our daughters feel good about themselves for who they are, and not what they look like.

Looks take on "special" meaning and significance for multi-racial girl-children, not least because they are more favoured for being not *just* one race, but because there is a peculiar tendency to isolate and favour physical attributes such as hair, nose, lips and let’s be frank, skin.

Which leads me to what happened recently.

My girls were busy playing in their play area when all of a sudden I hear my 3 year old blurt out,

“Black Girl! Black Girl! Where are you Black Girl, you need to get ready for the dance!”

Moments later, her sister chimes in with, “Black Girl, Ken is waiting, are you ready?” And cue Mommy.

“Girrrrrls!” I holler. “Can you come here for a second please?” After a few giggles, they come scrambling over.

“Yes Mommy?” They laugh in unison. I take a deep breath.

“Why do you call your Barbie, “Black Girl?” To which my 3-year-old replies, “That’s what Grandma D calls her.” (Grandma D is Asian.)

My 6-year-old nods her head in agreement.

“Doesn’t your Barbie have a name?” I gently inquire. “Why don’t you give this Barbie a name? All the other girls have one.”

Silence ensues. Neither of them responds and as I compose my thoughts and steady my resolve so as not to come off as angry or weirded-out by the fact that since the arrival of “Black Girl” Barbie, my mother-in-law has saw fit to describe her thusly while simultaneously spending an inordinate amount of time chatting about the skin and hair of “Black Girl Barbie.”

I begin, “Well, it’s impolite to refer to people by their skin color, and besides, everybody has a name so you might think of a suitable name for your Barbie.”

“But Mommy,” protests my 6-year-old, “Barbie is not a real person!”

“Yes, you are correct. Barbie is not a real person, however all of your Barbies have names, and this Barbie needs a name.” They soon run along and I’m left sitting there in hoping that the message sunk in.

It’s no secret that I’ve had mixed-feelings regarding pink/girl/Barbie/culture. However, since my daughters have expressed an interest in dolls, I’m hell-bent on ensuring that they have a wide selection of dolls to play with because that’s the world we live in. In my wildest dreams however, I did not foresee, nor could I fathom why my Asian mother in law would find it any more necessary to holler “Chinese Girl” or “White Girl” at a doll, so why, I pondered, did she find it necessary to screech “Black Girl” simply because this Barbie was black?

After the incident, I emailed my sister who is a mom to two biracial children herself. She replied with an “Oh dear.”

The conversation begins on a contemplative note with words like, “That’s unfortunate,” and “Already?” Because you see, we’re pretty much convinced that children aren’t conditioned or programmed to see difference until adults make a point of instructing them on how to privilege difference.

In light of this discussion, a Twitter friend sent me this article about Colorblind Ideology and how those of us who profess to be liberal, and/or open-minded by “not noticing race” are actually engaging in a non-too subtle form of Racism.

I agree in many ways, because when you, the adult, claim to not “see” my race, you are negating what is so obviously in front of you in favour of what makes you comfortable. In other words, by denying the very clear fact of a person’s colour, we are suppressing the reality of their unique lived experience-- experiences that are good, bad or indifferent which may or may not happen as a direct result of skin tone.

This is a much different conversation than what we might typically have with children at the beginning of their young lives because depending on that child’s particular set of circumstances he or she might be unaware that the effects or the harsh realities of racism, prejudice and privilege are race-based, or racially motivated -- until of course, they are.

Growing up, my mother often told my sisters and I that we had to be “twice as good,” however she did it in such a way so as not to make us feel like victims or hostages in our own skin. The biography of Condoleeza Rice bears the same title.

So how do I move forward with my children and my mother-in-law, you ask? Well, we begin by using these opportunities as Teachable Moments; by talking about issues like race and difference in context, apropos of the situation at hand, and we tackle the issue as soon as it arises. It’s not an easy conversation, but it’s one we need to have to raise smart, resilient children who can successfully navigate our culture around race.