"Of course she's pretty!": What happens when kids only see white people in books

Seeing yourself in a book means the world sees you as a subject worthy of art and adventure. Everyone needs that

Published May 22, 2014 10:59PM (EDT)

Emma Watson, Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint in "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban"
Emma Watson, Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint in "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban"

"But a black doll isn't pretty!" said the little girl. She shook her silky blond hair and pushed the black doll to the side. She grabbed a white doll and placed it next to the boy doll.

"Of course she's pretty," I replied. As her 24-year-old caregiver, I was trying not to let my dismay show. "I think she's beautiful." The girl did not reply, busying herself with the rest of her fantasy in which two of the dolls went on a cruise.

In 2001, her parents had hired me as a nanny in exchange for free rent in an in-law cottage at the back of their property in the Berkeley hills while I was going to law school. I thought it would be a good deal because I love kids. But the doll episode was not an isolated incident and their daughter's claims about the doll's attractiveness weren't limited to the realm of make-believe. Every day, when I dropped her off at school in the mornings, the little girl daily ignored and avoided a black girl in her class who wanted to be friends. I asked her why, but she looked uncomfortable and shrugged in reply.

The little girl's words had struck a nerve. I was studying critical race theory in law school at the time, and although she was just one little girl, to me she represented a huge failure in America's attitude toward race. It also made me think back to how conscious I had been of my outsider status as an immigrant Indian-American child, made fun of for the food I ate not only by students, but also by teachers. It made me think about how later, as a teenager, my mother was distraught to find that year after year I took a black Sharpie to my picture in the middle school yearbooks.

Although I was a voracious reader, I never saw myself in any books or on television. Recognizing myself in media, even just a little bit, wasn't something I experienced until I read Jhumpa Lahiri's "The Interpreter of Maladies" in my early 20s. It is still painful for me to look back at the little girl I was, knowing that she didn't see herself as pretty or worthwhile because of what the world reflected back to her. It can do a lot for one child of color to see him- or herself represented. It can give him or her a sense of belonging in the world.

In one discussion I've had on this topic, an Asian-American friend commented that he didn't really get why people feel the need to see themselves in movies. It seemed to him to be a kind of narcissism because he didn't need to see himself. But as I watch #WeNeedDiverseBooks trend and so many people express what I've been feeling for decades, I also think it's important to underscore that the issue of representation is not only about one child needing to see him- or herself represented. It is also about the world seeing you as a subject worthy of art and entertainment, adventures and stories.

But, as the parent of a child with white skin, I am becoming fully aware that it can do just as much for a child who is not of color, who identifies as white, to see children of color represented in books and on television. So many people who are not from mixed families or families of color dismiss the issue of representation as an "identity politics" issue. But it is critical for all people, including white children, to develop empathy and love for people who don't look like them and one way we develop that empathy is through the media we consume.

Recently, I have noticed the paucity of images of mixed-race couples in media. Social media does a little bit to rectify that, but not enough. Last summer, for example, I added a Facebook friend of mixed background. It was only when I saw one of her family pictures on Facebook — her dark-skinned Indian mother and her pale father — that I realized how much it had been bothering me that my white-skinned daughter might not see anything like her family anywhere as she grows up.

I found myself tearing up with relief and recognition at the online images. "That could be us in 30 years!" I said to my husband. I hadn't even known how much it bothered me that my daughter would see my husband reflected everywhere and not see me. According to Pew Research Center, new marriages between spouses of a different race or ethnicity from each other increased to 15.1 percent in 2010. That number is only expected to grow. Statistically we're not rare — I just thought we must be, since there are so few representations of interracial couples outside of Shonda Rhimes' television shows.

The thing about contemporary picture books depicting families of color or mixed families is that they are very rare. When they are published, they tend to feature "exotic" cultural traditions or themes of difference. Why don't we have more books and television shows showing my reality or the reality of so many people I know? People of color, including many immigrants, identify as American and have conflicts and dramas having little or nothing to do with their cultural differences. We've made progress on the doll front (thank you, American Doll), but we need more books and media that show our common humanity, rather than solely ones that emphasize our differences.

As Chimamanda Adichie suggests in her recent novel "Americanah," perhaps it is only deep love—breathing through the nostrils of the other—that will change our perception of race in America. Not books, not media, not this piece. Adichie is more pessimistic than I am. Perhaps that is because I'm neither black nor white and am standing outside that binary, but it's also because I am watching that kind of love unfold in my life and because, thanks to social media, I finally had an opportunity to see how many people are in the same or similar positions as mothers, anxious about the world their children will grow up in.

Recently, we were watching a movie when my daughter leaned over and tapped my head. "Yes?" I turned to look at her. She leaned into my face and took my cheeks in her hands and tapping them gently whispered, "Pretty. Pretty." Being seen as pretty stopped being critical to me many years ago, but it was still such a moment of hope for me: that her sense of what's beautiful, what's important will continue to transcend what she sees in media until publishers, media moguls and the rest address this need.

By Anita Felicelli

Anita Felicelli is the author of Izzy and Poe. Her nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times, Brain Child, Babble, PopMatters, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Follow her at @anitafelicelli.

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Books Diversity Dolls Editor's Picks Gender Race Racial Diversity Racism Sexism White People