Saturday, February 6, 2010

Every child is entitled to have items at home that are made for and by people of his race.

Tuesday afternoon was a big one for us in some ways. On Tuesday we had our last formal visit with Karen, our WACAP social worker. Marla came along as well, to our delight. This last visit was so very different from the day over a year ago when Karen did our homestudy. That day was preceded by a week of cleaning, re-organizing, and agonizing over childproofing and fire extinguishers. I had to have everything just so. This time we spent the hours before Karen and Marla arrived studying in our separate chairs, baby sleeping in the bedroom. When the phone rang to announce that someone was at the front door I belatedly noticed that the table needed to be wiped down and we probably should have swept the floor.

But I've learned that this is not the stuff that a good social worker is looking for during home visits. We easily whiled away 2 hours chatting with Marla and Karen about baby J, who joined us when her nap was through. We covered everything from the new info on Z to J's eating and sleeping habits to the various and sundry plans I have simmering for future family planning. Again, lovely, like chatting with old friends who just want to hear everything about you.

"So," said Karen at one point. "You mentioned last visit that you had been hoping to get some books for J that were focused on an African-American perspective."

"Yes!" I went scrambling through the condo to grab the various books that we've collected, mostly through gifts, that are full of brown baby faces. "Here's Whose Knees are These, Whose toes are those, Please Baby Please, Let's Count Baby, Beautiful Brown Eyes, and Blueberry Girl."

We spent some time thumbing through the books with our guests. I have to admit, I'm pretty fond of our little collection. While I was conscious of the (overwhelmingly white) racial images in storybooks and children's literature before we met our daughter I am doubly aware of them now. We have a couple shelves full of books for her, blessed as we are with literary friends who send them by the boatload. Lots of kids' books like Good Night Moon, the Dr. Seuss books, and other newer classics like the I Love You Book either use animals or multi-colored rainbow people whose ethnicity is non-specific. But many of the books I loved growing up feature distinctly white heroines. That's not all that odd - most of them are written by white people.

Every child is entitled to have items at home that are made for and by people of his race.

This item on the TAC Bill of Rights was extremely intimidating to me at first. When I read through the list the first time this was one item that I drew a blank on when I tried to brainstorm a strategy. But, I was thinking mostly about obvious cultural artifacts back then, before there was an actual brown baby in my life. The things that came to mind for me were items like artwork, music, and clothes. How will I know what to pick? I thought. What to pay? I don't want to feel like a giant phony, filling my house with art by and for black people, when I'm not black. I felt especially sensitive to the white tendency to appropriate items and practices from other ethnic groups cultural lives and turn it to our own purposes. I didn't want to do that, or to be perceived that way. I tried to imagine one of our black friends coming over to find our condo made over with black images and artwork everywhere. Awkward.

I was forgetting the obvious. The reason to have items in the home, most of the items we have in the home anyway, is in order to use them. And what do we use the most? Things like hair and skin care products, clothes, and if you are a baby or child toys and books. (If you are an adult maybe books as well!) One of the reason that my child is entitled to have these items in her home that are made by and for people of her ethnicity is that they will work better for her than items made by and for people of my ethnicity, right? Oh yeah, right.

So, right now, we are concentrating on books and toys. Most (with the exception of Blueberry Girl and Beautiful Brown Eyes) of the books that I pulled for Karen and Marla are written by black authors and illustrators for black and brown children. There isn't anything especially remarkable about them except that the pictures inside are of brown babies counting, finding knees and toes, etc. But I don't think we could overestimate the importance of finding engaging reading materials for our daughter that is written for her - board books and story books and eventually literature that she can read and find herself in.

So, the books part is easy and fun. But what about other stuff? Other items? Some things - hair products for example- will come naturally, because I want what works best for baby J. Others, like artwork and home decor, is a little more difficult.

There is a fine line, I think, between creating an environment that respectfully supports my child's racial identity and appropriating something that doesn't belong to me. I am not sure, just yet, where that line is. I know that anything we buy especially for baby J won't cross it. When it comes to things we buy for our family it gets a little fuzzier and will require me to feel things out a little bit.

I looked around our house and took inventory of what we have on our walls. If I don't count pictures of Andrew and I or of J, we still have several pieces of art that contain images of people in them. Two are wall hangings from Africa - one of a mother and child that K. brought back from Cameroon when he was doing work there, and an image of three gender indeterminate people that our neighbors brought back from Kenya for us this past summer. The painting in our bedroom has two children, both of whom are white. Then there is a more abstract digital painting with a woman's face (lots of women on our walls!) and she is definitely white. Finally I have a wall space that is dedicated to religious art - a couple of icons, a Mary candle, and two small nativity scenes that stay up year round. I have two more nativities that come out at Christmas time. All of these except for one reflect white featured people - one of the permanent nativities is from New Mexico and the figures are Latino in appearance.

I think there is some room for growth there. I want that growth to be natural, however. Hopefully our home always reflects who we are as a family. I am sure this is true in intentional and unintentional ways - remembering the Montessori principle of the unspoken lesson. As baby J grows, and we grow as parents with her, we should remain mindful of what unspoken lessons about the value of her racial identity within our family our home is teaching her.

This item on the TAC bill of rights is something small but very important, I think. I take for granted, as a white person, how many of the items that surround me are made just for me. My digital camera will never ask me if someone blinked after taking a picture when everyone's eyes are open, as happens to Andrew's Vietnamese classmate and her family. If our webcam had face tracking technology it would follow my face just fine. No one ever gave my mother a "classic" children's book with no white faces in it. The soaps, shampoos, and lotions in most supermarkets and grocery stores are made for hair and skin just like mine. And much of the art and religious imagery I might be drawn to contains images of people who look, well, like me. This is not an experience I can replicate for baby J. But I can work to make sure that she, too, grows up surrounded by and with access to items that are made by and for people who look like her. It might not always be what feels natural to me, and it will take research and effort. But it can be done - and it is her right to have this experience.


  1. Thanks for good ideas on your book collection! I'm always looking for books for babies and kids that reflect diversity and will represent people whose skin is the color of our future son's. Thanks again!

  2. I have 2 books for you to add to your list: "Ten, Nine, Eight" by Mollg Bang and "Baby Dance" by Ann Taylor and Marjorie Van Heerden. Phinney loves them both, I'm sure baby J will too. :)

  3. There's one book you might like (I believe it was a Caldecott honoree) called _"More More More," Said the Baby_; it has three babies, one white, one black with a white parent, and one Asian.

  4. Our boys loved "Please, baby, please!" I don't think we ever bought it, though. I think we just renewed it from the library several times.

  5. Of all the art you have described, I think making an effort to diversify your religious section (although still things you like, just with brown skin) would have the most positive impact.

    More book suggestions: The Colors of Us by Karen Katz, and some children's books on inspirational African-Americans like MLK or President Obama. I have Martin's Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Doreen Rappaport.

    Other suggestions:
    Under the Nile makes a doll set called "harmony" that has a white-faced doll and a brown-faced doll. It's on Amazon, in either blue-striped or pink-striped outfits. Later, if you are ever ready for the Princess or Barbie doll invasion, there are options available that will match J's skin color.

    Ziggy Marley has a children's album called "Family Time," and there is a book called How Sweet the Sound: African-American Songs for Children by Cheryl and Wade Hudson and Floyd Cooper, which apparently comes with a casette.

  6. ooh, good recommendations! Thanks mamas!

    Lane, I think you're right. Religious imagery is top of my list at the moment..

  7. love those book suggestions and will be placing an order with amazon shortly!

    a few weeks ago i was at the mall and picked up a board book just for fun but as i flipped thru the pages i realized that the pictures of babies were multi-racial and in the end there were more pictures of brown babies than white. i bought the book!

  8. For what it's worth - "black" art isn't just for black people. I don't know where you've travelled but art from all over the world is relevant to a black child. You can discover pieces together as you go along.

  9. awomanmyage - you're right. And I think that there is art out there containing images of black faces and bodies that does belong in my home. As well as other art, of course - from wherever I've been or places that become meaningful to me and to baby J. I just want to resist the knee-jerk desire to buy and hang pieces just because they depict black people. I hope that makes sense...

  10. Hi, new commenter here, was wondering if you have checked out some of the Ethiopian religious art, even my cousin who is white but with very dark hair prefers the angels to your classic blonde/blue-eyed angel.

  11. Have you seen the Jump at the Sun books? They are the classic fairy tales, Cinderella, but with black characters. I have a few of those (Target online carries them).
    I've thought a lot about the art and decor side of this and looking around our home 95% of things on our walls are family pictures so anything we purchased would look out of place. But I have looked at some small figurines and such for our shelves and hers to bring in to our home. Only found one that fit us and it was too pricey. It was a little black girl quilting, we have lots of quilters in our families so it would fit perfectly.
    Then of course there are all the baby dolls. I know as J gets bigger you'll have a variety of dolls in the toy box for her. That's what Isabel plays with most so I'm always on the look out for dolls like her.

  12. This week, I wrote about dolls & books (& there are links to some books/dolls) you might find helpful in the post ;-)