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Why We Need to Talk About Doc McStuffins and Race

07/31/2014 01:30 pm ET | Updated Sep 30, 2014
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She's African-American. Kids know it -- and not just kids of color. White kids know it too.

And boys know she's a girl.

And that is all awesome.

Doc McStuffins is a crossover hit ($500 million in sales last year). Her "blockbuster sales" suggest she's adored not only by African-American girls, but by girls and boys from many racial demographics.

But for some reason, we adults seem to have a problem with the fact that our kids know Doc McStuffins is Black and female.

Adult explanations of Doc McStuffins' success reveal volumes about the way we adults -- white adults in particular -- think about race. At the moment, these revelations are pretty disappointing and have huge implications for how we talk about race and model racial behavior to and for our children.

I'll tell you why.

It's starts with "colorblindness," an ideology that's a total dead end if we are serious about the development of white children along a pathway of healthy racial identity. By healthy racial identity, I mean what Janet Helms means: an identity that manifests a genuine and interested embrace of diversity while being comfortable in one's own skin, a strong antiracist sensibility as part of one's own white racial identity, and an ability to navigate a multiracial world without presuming oneself to be the dominant, "generic," or race-less norm.

If any of these attributes fail to become a deep and formative part of how our white children (becoming teens, young adults, etc.) understand themselves and their relationships with others, they will not be the able participants in a truly plural, diverse democracy that those of us who claim to value equality and justice want them to be.

On top of this, colorblindness also erases the interesting and beautiful value of difference (e.g., ask most Latino or Black folks if they want their race to be seen and usually the answer is "yes"). It's also based on the degrading assumption that there must be something "wrong" with "color." If there wasn't, why wouldn't we want to notice it?

So, colorblindness is a big "no, no" in my book. And, I think many of us, white parents included, increasingly recognize it as a big "no, no."

Yet, we continue to talk about white kids as if they are colorblind. We do this 1) as if this were true and 2) as if (if it were true) this were a good thing. Meanwhile, neither of these things is the case.

This all came up for me again while reading a the recent New York Times article on Doc McStuffins' success. Much of the article was great. It explored the importance of Doc McStuffins' visibility for young African-American children, girls especially, in a media market where positive images of blackness and Black femaleness are shamefully few and far between.

I agree.

Go Doc McStuffins!

But the article also repeatedly suggested that Doc McStuffins' crossover success is due to white kids not seeing her as Black (and boys not recognizing her as a girl).

Consider the statement by Doc McStuffins' creator Chris Nee:v "The kids who are of color see her as an African-American girl, and that's really big for them... And I think a lot of other kids don't see her color and that's wonderful as well."

The "other kids" (a.k.a., white kids) don't see her color?

Again 1) I doubt this is true and 2) if it was, this would not be cause for celebration (and the fact that we think it is reveals a lot).

Colorblindness does not exist in the United States. Not even for 2-year-olds. That reality alone has huge implications for how we should be engaging white kids on race.

To the second point: What's going on that so many adults continue to celebrate the fallacious belief that white kids don't see color? More frightening, if that's where we adults are at, how are we possibly going to enable our kids' healthy racial identity development? (I'm pretty convinced here that lots of adult talk about kids and race says a whole lot more about adults' racial identities than about kids'.)

The article goes on to engage Dr. Margaret Beale Spencer, professor of comparative of human development, who explains: "Children's play is serious business... They are getting ideas about who they are from these objects."

As a parent, I didn't need to read the studies to tell you that she's absolutely right. I watch what characters, books and shows do to the psyche and self-image of my daughters every day; how they shape the worlds they imagine to be possible.

And that's is precisely why a character like Doc McStuffins, as a Black female, is so important for all of our children.

Yes, I agree with Spencer's emphasis on how important it is for African-American girls to see a powerful and confident character who looks like them. In a society that denigrates blackness and femaleness, the chance for these girls to identify power and confidence with both is indeed a kid toy success.

The stakes are higher for children of color. But Doc McStuffins is important to my young, white daughters too, and would be doubly so if they were sons. And not because "they don't notice." We who teach and parent white kids should never encourage them to see Doc McStuffins as a raceless, genderless person.

White kids need to associate power and confidence with blackness and femaleness too!

And the thing is, I think (at least in the moment of their adoration of Doc McStuffin's) they already do. Or, they will. Or, they could.

If only we adults would stop relentlessly overlaying our "colorblind" ideologies (anxieties?) over what our white kids are actually racially experiencing in the world. If we don't, eventually they'll absorb our myth, separate themselves from their actual experiences and then live all of this out in ways that will do more to help keep our current oh-so-inadequate racial order just as it is. All while smiling proudly about how "colorblind" they are.

Our kids are not colorblind and we should help them to remain that way.

That's the least we can do for the sake of all of our children. After all, my white kids are going to be the schoolmates, colleagues, coworkers and, I hope, allies of children, teenagers and adults of color now and in the years to come.

So when they think they see Black and female manifested as powerful and confident? And, even better, when they accept and love what they see? Our jobs are simply to say this: "Why yes, yes, in fact, you do."