I zoomed around the bend with our double stroller, excited to show my girls, three and one, the Baby Jesus sleeping in his manger, surrounded by Mary, Joseph and the wise men on Alhambra Circle in Coral Gables, Miami. I should have expected it, but was nonetheless surprised to find a blonde, blue-eyed Christ child lying in the straw. Even here in Miami, which is 61.3 percent Latino, the Christ child apparently doesn't have so much as brown hair, much less brown skin. Rather than stop the stroller, I kept zooming around the corner, crying out evasively, "It's the Baby Jesus," when my half-Ghanaian 3-year-old Bianca asked, "Who's that?" I added, "But they made a mistake giving him blonde hair and white skin. He was brown!" Apparently, even Christmas is fraught with racial land mines. Witness Megyn Kelly's recent white Jesus/white Santa comments. We all know Jesus hailed from Palestine and I recently learned that the original Saint Nicholas hailed from modern-day Turkey. Our culture literally whitewashes history, its heroines and heroes. For example, did you know the man on whom the Lone Ranger was based was actually African-American?
My observant 3-year-old points out discrepancies where I haven't seen them before:
"Mommy, I don't like the black Olivia."
"What do you mean the black Olivia? They're both pigs."
"But the bad Olivia is black."
"What do you... [on closer examination] You know, what, Bianca? You're right. The bad Olivia has darker skin. They made a mistake writing this book."
How do you protect your beautiful little girls against the world's "mistake" of always representing blond-haired, blue-eyed boys and girls as the pinnacle of beauty, while barely or poorly representing all other children in a hierarchy directly proportional to the shade of their skin? Not only are black boys not considered by the mainstream to be "beautiful," they are not, as cases like those of Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant exemplify, even considered worthy to live. And black children who go missing fall victim a second time, to the "missing white girl syndrome." According to Missing Children in National News Coverage: Racial and Gender Representations of Missing Children Cases by Seong-Jae Min and John Feaster of Ohio State University, the news media reports white children missing with a 13.7 percent greater frequency than the FBI reports their being taken. The news media reports black children missing with 13.7 percent lower frequency than does the FBI. And cases of non-African-American girls who are kidnapped are more than twice as likely to be reported on the news than the cases of kidnapped African-American girls, halving the black girls' chances of being found.
In other words, our society values black kids less. It's super-obvious to anyone not in profound denial that our society unfairly values white people, and thus white kids, the most.
Since I can remember, I have recognized this. My mother is Italian-American, my father WASP, Irish and Mexican. I have dark brown kinky hair, Mediterranean features and very pale olive skin. As an actress, I am mostly cast in roles as a Latina, though occasionally as a light-skinned black woman, an Israeli, a Palestinian or Lebanese woman, a Romanian, and I even played the title character in the Hungarian film, Lora. Like many American actors of my generation, I fall under the casting category, "Ethnically Ambiguous" or "Any Ethnicity." Let me clarify: when an actor looks at the casting breakdown for a production, the lead characters are usually assumed to be white (as in Northern European) and so the role breakdown may not even mention race, but white is implied. But for supporting characters, the breakdown will read, "Any Ethnicity." So, true to our culture at large, White is assumed and everything else is "Any Ethnicity." Those are the two main alternatives. Whites, usually blonde, are the leads and all the other ethnicities of the world compete for the remaining roles.
But for most intents and purposes, I am white. I inherited white privilege. Adding to my privilege, I enjoyed an upper-middle-class bohemian upbringing in Manhattan, attending the best schools, easily accessing fine culture, and receiving lessons in whatever might interest me. I did not have to grapple with the daily realities that racism brings to bear on its victims, the ubiquitous message, delivered both loudly and quietly, that when you are visible, it is because you are inherently suspect or a predator's target. But mostly, you get the message that you are invisible, that you don't count. For a child, it is all the white Barbies, baby dolls and superheroes, the white protagonists of books, films, television shows and video games, the white faces of kids on toy, game and creative activity boxes. It is the rampant underestimation of one's intelligence and potential. It is white Disney princesses on the stickers your doctor gives you after a vaccination. The way police treat you and your parents. It may be the way your school looks. It is the message, sometimes delivered by members of your own race, that you have "good" or "bad" hair, or that your natural hair would look better straightened, relaxed, or at least tucked out of the way -- while straight, blonde hair needs no correction. (Even if you are white and you have black curly hair, you had better straighten it, if you want to play an aspirational lead. Think of Julianna Margulies as a curly-haired nurse on ER versus as a high-powered lawyer and politician's wife on The Good Wife.) And films are "films," when they feature only white people, but films featuring only black people are "black films."
Now I am the mother two little black girls. Yes, black. You and I know they are mixed-race, and I do not wish to diminish my genetic and cultural contributions to their respective lives, but the world sees them as black (just ask President Obama). The white world they see confronts me at every turn and I become a vicious mama bear as I attempt to regale them with representations of people who look like them, so they know they are beautiful and worthy to be portrayed in the media. When my older daughter started favoring the white baby dolls well-meaning white friends had bought for her, I hid them and began displaying her black baby dolls prominently. My girls watch educational cartoons with ethnic leads: Little Bill, Doc McStuffins, Little Einsteins, Sid the Science Kid, Dora the Explorer, Go, Diego,Go, Ni-Hao Kai-Lan, Sesame Street. "Afro-Barbie" will make her debut Christmas morning. Their shelves are lined with a diverse panoply of books: The Hello, Goodbye Window; President Obama's Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters; All the Colors of the Earth; Mixed; Whistle for Willie; The Snowy Day; Hi, Cat; a variety of Dora and Doc McStuffins books; Anansi the Spider; The Leopard's Drum; Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears; The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses; The Cherry Tree; Tikki Tikki Tembo. For Christmas, a dear friend bought Bianca the contemporary edition of the Seventies classic, Free to be You and Me. The only Disney movie my girls have seen all the way through is The Princess and the Frog. Whereas every girl in my generation grew up with Cinderella as her template, my girls have a strong, hard-working, intelligent, beautiful, African-American self-made princess, who saves the prince, as theirs. Recently, my friend, the great photographer, Jane Feldman, introduced me to Natural Girls United, featuring dolls with natural African and African-American hairstyles.
These books, shows and toys evidence that today's world has improved vastly upon past representations. My girls were born into a United States with many new lenses through which to see themselves, as well as with a half-white, half-African president. But the distance we have yet to go overwhelms me every day, as I try to inoculate my children against a world that instructs them to feel inferior. As James Baldwin writes in Notes from a Native Son: "It was the Lord who knew of the impossibility every parent in that room faced: how to prepare the child for the day when the child would be despised and how to create in the child -- by what means? -- a stronger antidote to this poison than one had found for oneself." Or, in my case, how to create an antidote for something I did not personally experience.
My husband's situation is different. Though we both attended Harvard, only he has faced the barrel of a policeman's gun when he was pulled over for expired registration. The officer who pulled me over for expired out-of-state plates actually retrieved a screwdriver from his car and installed my new plates for me. Though our past experiences differ vastly, our common experience of raising our Ghanaian-Italian-WASP-Irish-Mexican-American daughters unites us in a desire to carve out of the hard stone of the world an experience that allows them to love themselves for all of their heritage and to see themselves as the beautiful, brilliant, strong, vivacious, dynamic, mischievous, complex, caring, hilarious, sensitive, giving girls that they are and the extraordinary women that they will be. There is no reason for the world to "despise" such magical and innocent creatures. And even less reason for them to despise themselves. We strive to instill them with the Ghanaian credo, "Gye Nyame," meaning, "No one is greater than I, except God." Which, if you think of it, is kind of what the Declaration of Independence was getting at.
More than anything, mothering two little biracial girls has revealed to me just how absurd racism is. I always knew it was an injustice. But who on earth could discriminate against my bright-eyed babies? How could that woman at the doctor's office say my little one had "good hair," as opposed to my bigger girl, who sports a big, fabulous afro? How can American Girl dolls only have one black historical doll... Addy Walker, a slave? Then extrapolate this inequity to its extreme, to what Trayvon Martin's mother must feel in a society where a man with a violent record may with impunity shoot her 17-year-old son dead for doing nothing more than walking home with a pack of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea. It is a scientific fact that "genetic variation within any race is much greater than between races." Discriminating based on skin color is just as absurd as discriminating based on a person's possessing a hitchhiker's thumb, an attached versus a free earlobe, or having hazel eyes. And yet whole societies have erected themselves on this absurdity.
Absurd though racism is, it is just as real. Things are changing, for sure -- in part because more and more people of different races are having children together. As more white people have black and brown children and grandchildren, they will become more attuned to the messages to which they are exposed. People of color have been speaking out against racism since it began. But it is an unfortunate reality, to which I must hold myself accountable, that white people often don't realize the extent of racism until they have experienced it firsthand. And it is another unfortunate reality that, until white people feel the sting of an injustice, our society does nothing to change it.
But it's a long road. And sometimes I feel, as so many parents of black and brown children must, like Sisyphus rolling a boulder up a hill in vain, as I dedicate myself full-time to curating my daughters' experience, hoping against hope that the strength of my love can counteract an entire society. But perhaps it would be more constructive for parents like us to think of ourselves, not in the image of one damned to attempt the impossible for an eternity -- but rather as a collective David, going up against great Goliath. And, come to think of it, both this David and this Goliath grow a little bit browner every day.
Thanks to Nova Browning Rutherford for encouraging me to write just such a piece.
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