Ask To Loosen the Mind

A mother turns to her 9-year old daughter and says, "It's an incredible moment in history, dear. This is the first time, the FIRST time, that we have come so close to having a woman help run this country! Do you know what this means? It's such a proud moment in our lives. I don't agree with everything she stands for, but the fact that a woman is even on the ticket is monumental. Do you know this? Do you get it?" While that conversation could have been any mother-to-daughter discussion in the 2008 election cycle, it actually took place 14 years earlier. Geraldine Ferraro. At that time, Ferraro was the first woman nominated by a major political power as its candidate for VP of the United States. I remember my mom talking to her friends, cheering, hoping, wishing that this would be the historic moment. They didn't necessarily agree with the political agenda, but they definitely understood the significance.  And, they made sure we - my sisters and I - knew that it was significant.

But, did we? Nearly 15 years later, I can't really say that I held on to the lesson of Geraldine Ferraro. I mean, I get it now. In fact, I'm even more amazed that it happened back in the mid-1980s because I don't recall that decade being a particularly progressive one. Then again, I was 9-years old. The only "superwoman" in my life (aside from my mom, of course), was Barbie. She had a Corvette, a cute boyfriend, an amazing swimming pool, and cute clothes. Because, after all, that was the measure of success to a 9-year old. I also loved Care Bears, and felt it was my moral and humane duty to adopt a Cabbage Patch Kid.

Politics, not so much. I didn't really care. I was nine. But, my mom wanted me to make sure that I knew that it was a significant moment. While I didn't quite understand it back then, I certainly gained an appreciation for the context of her candidacy 15-years later. There were many events that helped to shape my early interest in feminism and gender equality, and I wonder "Was the Geraldine Ferraro event something that shaped it with latent effects?" I can't say that I looked at her and thought, "If she can do it, I can do it too!" related to a career in politics. But, did something stick with me about power and gender?

So, this leads me to a question I've been asked a number of times in the past few weeks: "How much do I make out of Princess Tiana's racial identity to my children?" Do our kids even get it? Do they care? Do we want them to care?

Ask To Loosen the Mind: In anticipation of the new Disney release "The Frog and the Princess", a number of readers have written questions about whether or not they should draw attention to the fact that Princess Tiana is the first Black princess in a major Disney film. Here is a question from Emily H. that sums up many of the questions.

How would you suggest that I bring up the race of (Princess Tiana) in the new movie? I'd like to talk about it with (my) girls, but I don't know how. On the one hand, I don't - at all - want to "pretend" that she's not African American, nor is her race any kind of taboo topic. On the other hand, since my girls seem totally comfortable with people of all races and race doesn't faze them... How do I discuss it with them without ME making it an issue for them? -- Emily H.


If I wasn't too cheap (Wordpress charges me to put video on my blog), I would be able to upload a video I took of me bringing home Princess Tiana dolls to my girls. In the video, my girls open up their Princess Tiana action figures and are thrilled by having a new toy. "Ooohh!! It's Princess Tianaaaahhh!! Thanks, Mom!" they squeal and run off to play. Off camera, you hear my voice: "Girls, come back here! I want to talk to you. Do you know she is the first Black princess in Disney? It's that so great! It's so nice to have a doll that looks like you! See feel her hair, she even has hair like yours!" The girls continue, "Oooh!! Let's play! Let's play!", virtually ignoring my historic lesson in racial identity and politics. I can't b-e-l-i-e-v-e they want to go and just play!

The video goes on for about a minute. The girls talk about wanting to play. I lecture about how great it is that there is a princess that looks like them. They ignore me. I get upset they are ignoring me and my anti-racist lessons. They leave. I shut off the camera. But, before I hit the red button to turn it off, my off camera voice says, "You'll understand it later."

I didn't quite think anything of it while filming. When I watched the video again later that night, though, I felt differently about what I had just done. As Emily asks, was I making more of an issue for them?  Certainly race is not a taboo topic in our house, either, but how much was I pushing this? If you ask my girls to tell you something important about President Obama, one of their first responses (after, "He's the President" or "He's smart" or "He's a good dad") would be "He's our first President with brown skin." That lesson certainly was not lost on them. President Obama has the same skin color as their dad, as their grandfather, as the leaders in their school, and as many of their friends. During the election, we showed the girls pictures of our past presidents and did a lesson on "differences and similarities." They quickly picked up the difference in skin color. They also quickly picked up the similarity that the Presidents were all "boys". My husband and I felt it was very important that we highlight President Obama's heritage. Also important to us was that he was the father of 2 young girls, and my daughters shared that in common with their dad. They liked that the President had 2 little girls.

I don't think my girls completely understand the "FINALLY, a Black Disney Princess!!" response that I feel when I see Princess Tiana. I grew up on Cinderella, Snow White, and Belle. I grew up on Barbies, white Cabbage Patch kids, and white characters in my books. I rarely owned anything that wasn't white. I certainly didn't own anything or read anything that had an Asian character. Now, as an adult with some purchasing power, I seek out dolls that look like my children. These days, I have more options. I recently bought a few dolls that have textured hair, like my children's. And, I think that's what I appreciate the most about Princess Tiana dolls. I like that my kids can play in this fantasy-like world and imagine themselves in it, included in it. I like that they feel her hair, and her hair feels like their hair.

We haven't seen the movie yet, and I hope to write more of their reactions after seeing the movie (where, ahem, Princess Tiana spends most of her time as a FROG. Uh, huh.). But, much of what I have been reinforcing with my children in many examples (when we read multicutural books, play with multicultural dolls) is to point out differences AND mention that differences are a good thing. One of the biggest stumbling blocks that my college students seem to run into is the notion that differences=bad. They have been socialized to not recognize difference; that if you are different, you must be strange. So, if I think of you as the same as me, you must be okay. I find that, on a basic "treat me like a human" level, to be fine. However, pointing out any difference beyond basic humanity makes them socially uncomfortable. This discomfort around talking about differences is why I make a point to discuss it in a very casual way with my children. It's been important for me to point out to my children that differences=good.

With my older daughter's disability, it would be silly to pretend like she doesn't have a prosthetic eye. It has become a part of her. That experience of going through chemotherapy, prosthetic fittings, dozens and dozens of doctor's appointments has shaped who she is. So, to not treat her as such would dishonor her very difficult journey. It would be silly to ignore that she is different; different is what makes her so interesting.

I suggest finding a casual and informal way of pointing out that Princess Tiana is the first Black Disney princess. Perhaps gather their other dolls and do a simple lesson in "Similarities and Differences." They will likely come up with things like, "They all have long hair; they all have 2 eyes, 2 arms and 2 legs; they all are Princesses." They will also likely come up with "This Princess has brown skin; this Princess has white/peach skin." Your reaction, and your leading, is what's important here. It's a good chance to talk about where Mulan comes from. In Emily's case (she has biracial children with an Asian man), they might draw similarities between the way Mulan looks and Asian family members/friends. It might be a neat lesson to introduce them to the heritage of Pocohontas and Jasmine. If you react positively, and casually, to the different characters, your children will pick up that these differences and similarities are just a part of who we are.

I would also add that simply being comfortable with race is very different from talking about race.  Talking about race is something that takes practice and effort. It's not enough to simply be comfortable with "being nice", we need to practice "being nice", right? Same with the race/diversity/etc. My colleague, Donna, the budding athlete, said to me, "It's not enough to just like basketball and to be comfortable watching basketball. If you want to be good at it, you've got to pick up the ball and shoot some hoops." (thanks, Donna).

My kids may not quite understand what that means for them or for me right now, but my hope is that they can look back and connect the significance later in their lives. The more exposure they get to different skin colors, hair colors, and stories, the less narrow their world becomes. So, thanks Princess Tiana!

Now, let's just see if the "live action" Tiana (at Disney or on Ice) is actually played by a woman of African heritage. That'll be the real test, right?