A White Girl Can Dream, Too

Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream.

I have dreams, too. Most involve giant penguins and the number 47.

As for that famous speech, I’ve always believed that someday it will truly become reality.

But who am I to stand from the curvaceous slopes of California and shout my opinions? As a person of Middle Eastern and Irish descent, I am considered Caucasian. Yet, as a child, I never understood why I had to check the box that said “white,” because my skin is a golden brown. When people ask me what I am, and I reply, “white,” they look at me like I have lobsters crawling out of my ears.

So, I always looked different, but felt the same as everyone else. They really should add an “ethnically ambiguous” box on the next census.

When my husband and I discovered we were expecting, we had visions of an exotic little baby and gave her a Hawaiian name. Boy, were we wrong. Due to the amazing lottery wheel of genetics, my daughter has fair complexion, blond hair and blue eyes. Perfect strangers have expressed skepticism that she’s actually ours. We even joke that if we hadn’t both witnessed her come out of me, we’d suspect we were the victims of a baby swap. (For the record: No, I’m not the nanny. No, I didn’t adopt her. And, no, for the last time, she isn’t the mailman’s kid.)

Who knew that the Ethnically Ambiguous Duo could produce a child that Hitler would be proud of? (Not that it should matter whether Hitler would’ve been proud of our kid, mind you.)

Raising a child can be rewarding, demanding, frustrating and exhilarating, all bundled together like some evil cell phone plan of parenthood. There’s Play-Doh embedded in my carpet, my arms are sore from swinging a three-year-old around the living room, I can recite Goodnight Moon from heart, and if I have to watch one more episode of Dora the Explorer, I may just scream. Thank God she doesn’t know of the existence of a certain demonic purple dinosaur.

Aside from my job as my daughter’s entertainment director, I do realize that I have a greater responsibility: to raise her to be accepting of the world around her. And I assumed that her innocent and loving heart would naturally lead her to practice not just tolerance, but colorblindness, as well. (Incidentally, I think “tolerance” is a horrible word to denote someone who is NOT prejudiced… like, I just “tolerate” you, even though you’re different. Or, you are “tolerable,” even though you don’t fit in with the “norm.” Tolerance. Blech.)

To teach tolerance, color-blindness, acceptance, sympathy, understanding, mercy, kindness, perfection… whatever you want to call it, I didn’t think much past raising my daughter with love and a loving heart. (Don’t worry, I feed her on occasion, too.)

Then I stumbled upon the 2006 documentary, A Girl Like Me, by teenage filmmaker Kiri Davis. In it, Davis conducts her own version of the “doll test,” originally created in the 1940s by Dr. Kenneth Clark.

In the film, pre-school-aged black children are given two dolls, one white and one black. They are asked, “which doll looks nice?” Most pick up the white doll. Then, “which doll looks mean?” Most pick up the black doll.

Why is the doll nice? Because it is white. Why is the doll mean? Because it is black.

That’s right, folks. Even in the 21st century, young black children are identifying that being black is not a good thing.

White children are given a similar test in a CNN pilot study on children’s attitudes on race, only now, there are five cartoon dolls to choose from, ranging in color from light to dark. The study reports that a five-year-old, whose mother says they have never discussed race, also chooses the white girl as nice, “because she looks like me,” and the black girl as mean, “because she is a lot darker.”

Egads! I haven’t really talked to my daughter about race either. Sure, we’ve talked about Star Wars, and trucks, and Barbie, and the alphabet. But for some reason, race just hasn’t come up in our playtime. So I wonder, do I have a future Klansman on my hands? Is she going to run out to get that swastika tattoo next week? By doing nothing, have I allowed social media to brainwash my child into thinking, “white is right?”

What have I done?! I am a horrible mother.

I stare at my little blond girl, visions of burning crosses in my head, and I decide to do an experiment of my own.

I pull out the only two dolls she owns:

I place them on the table and ask, “Kalena, which doll is nice?”

She says, “um… that one!” and points to the dark doll with curly hair.

Yes! My child does not associate dark skin with negative qualities! I am the best mother in the world! Woo Hoo!!! Someone give me a medal!!

Then, without hesitating, she says, “and that one!” and points to the blond doll.

And I say “oh, they both are nice?”

And she says, “yes, because that one looks like me, and that one looks like mommy!”


That one looks….. Like. Mommy.

Maybe Kalena’s open-mindedness has nothing to do with race. She just knows I’m nice, and she’s nice, too.

Actually, I hope she’ll just assume everyone is nice, no matter what they look like, what they believe, or who they love. (Well, except for strangers driving windowless vans offering candy. I still need to be a parent, you know.)

But mostly, I have a new dream. I dream that one day when someone asks her, “which doll is nice?,” she will say, “I’ll have to get to know them first!”

You and me, Mr. King. Here’s to all of our dreams coming true.

Except, of course, for those giant penguins.

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  • Girl, you be white?!? Sheeeeit.

  • Loved this! I think they frequently do a similar test where they ask the children which one is “prettier,” which is equally disappointing in my opinion.

  • Here’s some food for thought: when a person gets really angry, their face gets darker due to an increased influx of blood. Maybe this knowledge has become embedded into our instincts, and MAYBE that’s why children (and grown-ups) tend to consider people with darker skin “mean” or “bad” or “ugly”.

  • So this was posted months ago but I just read it and it really made me smile. I can’t really relate on a personal level (I’m white, I look super white, and I don’t have children) but I think it’s just great writing, with a great message.

  • I truly think my mom had the absolutely perfect tactic for raising kids to not be racist or sexist – she didn’t address it at all. I grew up with friends of all races some of whom I called my Aunts and Uncles because they were such close friends of the family. My mother has told me that a couple times while I was growing up, but still very young, a member of a minority group came up to me, probably due to frustration of rampant racism in the world, and tried to educate me on racism and how it should be fought against. My mother stepped in and told them to stop, explaining that her child didn’t know that there were differences among races. Which, of course, isn’t literally true. I probably picked up on the fact that our friends who were, say Japanese, Korean, Jewish or Kenyan had a few different cultural traditions or approaches. I remember being so thrilled when my Uncle taught be how to play with a Dradle. But, to be honest, being so sheltered, for many years I believed that racism was a thing of the past. While I think that it made things all the more shocking for me when I realized what a rampant problem racism (and homophobia and other isms) still is in our society, I think that overall this is the best parenting approach to take (if, of course, you can isolate your young children from actual instances in which they are exposed to racism, as well, and part of that is our media). It may have made me, sometimes, slightly less sensitive, but I truly think that people I’ve met who have been similarly raised are much less likely to draw conclusions based on race.

    • “if, of course, you can isolate your young children from actual instances in which they are exposed to racism, as well, and part of that is our media”
      Well, you see, most people have not lived sheltered from racism. The media aside, most people “get” racism from two major sources: their own parents (and close family), and their social circle. Even if you’re lucky enough to have parents who are not racist, many (perhaps most) other people are not so lucky. I can hardly imagine how you could have lived a life so sheltered that you did not have to deal with racism as a child – from my experience, most people live in mostly racial homogenous communities, and contact with other races/cultures can easily turn ugly. Fear of the differences between us, coupled with family/peer/society pressure are what leads one towards racism (and the others “isms”). As a child, you were lucky. Most of us weren’t, and probably don’t even realize it…

  • In response to the studies of prettier or nicer dolls perceived to be whiter by children, I would argue that the strongest influence in creating these alarming statistics are the fact that our media so heavily represents white people. Furthermore, it always irritates me that African Americans in TV are usually either the supporting character in an almost all-white cast or portrayed in an incredibly stereotypical manner. Not to mention that asians are almost never portrayed in TV and hispanics are probably portrayed just as stereotypically as African Americans.

    Also, only one in four characters in children’s shows are women. And most of these are pretty princesses with very little personality. And we wonder why there is so much sexism in society and why even young girls think that they can’t do a lot of things that boys can.

    • Ding! Ding! This is exactly why we as parents have a responsibility to talk to our children about these issues. It is naive to think that if you don’t talk about it, it won’t exist. Our children learn so much from other children, other adults, school, television, etc. that it is imperative that I make sure to exert my positive and loving point of view on her.
      And if we are sick television producers continue to underestimate mainstream americans and only cast ethnics in stereotypical roles and as the “best friend” never the “romantic lead” then maybe it’s time to be a part of the change.
      For me, part of that is teaching my child that boys can wear dresses and girls can have short hair.
      Now excuse me while I go write a children’s show pilot for an all rainbow cast of women!

  • @ myself: “racially” homogenous, not “racial” homogenous… *sigh* I gotta lay of the booze when writing comments… ;D

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