“Daddy, where are all the normal people?” This was the question my three-year-old daughter innocently blurted out while walking the streets of Bangkok in search of pad thai. It was the second time we had travelled to the land of smiles with her, but the first time she had noticed any discernible difference from home. I played dumb and pushed her to explain. “Where are the people who look like us?” Of course, what she meant to say was, where are all the white people?
I couldn’t help but laugh in surprise. I wanted to hand her a mirror immediately so she could see her beautiful oval face, the soft olive skin, silky brown hair and almond-shaped eyes. She is mixed race – white and south-east Asian – but didn’t seem to recognise it. That’s despite her papa, my husband, being Vietnamese and her 22-month-old brother of the same ethnic make-up.
We saw it as an opportunity to gently educate her about other cultures and people, to celebrate the differences and to help her develop pride in her own heritage. But when we returned to London, delusions about her ethnicity bubbled back to the surface. Worryingly, the initial innocence has been replaced with neurosis.
She tells us repeatedly that she isn’t happy with her hair and wants to be blonde – so much so that she refuses to watch movies such as Disney’s Moana because the eponymous hero’s barnet is black. Her definition of beauty is, ostensibly, white skin, golden locks and blue eyes. We reassure her that she is perfect just as she is, but it’s a constant battle.
In response to the murder of George Floyd, a photo of a black and white toddler cuddling with the caption “no one is born racist, it’s taught” has been widely shared on social media. Did she, therefore, learn these views from me?
The protests – which have been happening just a short walk from our home in London – have prompted me to stop and consider whether, as a white man, I have been daydreaming my way through parenting, forgetting that her ethnicity is as important to her young, ever-evolving identity as, say, her gender.
Living in the borough of Lambeth, which has a large non-white population, I assumed multiculturalism was a given. That she would somehow learn tolerance by osmosis. It’s clear to me now that seeing is not always believing. Could I, therefore, have done more to positively reinforce her own racial background? Perhaps, but I fear that the problem is much more insidious.
My daughter’s education in white privilege started the moment she walked through the nursery doors, aged one. Whether she realised it or not, she was, and remains, one of the only non-white children there. Only when we attended her first Christmas party did she look unusual, standing out in a sea of blonde, blue-eyed tots. The human desire to belong is powerful, so it’s no surprise that she feels European features will help her fit in.
When she is home, the majority of books are illustrated with pictures of happy white children. Yes, representation has improved in recent years and we have tried to buy stories which feature non-white protagonists, but she loves fairytales and princesses who let down their flowing black, brunette or Afro hair are in very short supply. The drought of black and Asian characters continues in children’s television and movies. Though studios such as Disney are slowly making amends for their poor record on racial and gender stereotypes in film – the House of Mouse’s decision to cast a black actor to play the live-action remake of The Little Mermaid is a positive step forward – most motion pictures are depressingly monochromatic.
If we want our children to grow up with role models who look (and sound) like them; if we want our children to feel a sense of belonging; if we want our children to feel at ease with their bodies, the importance of representation urgently needs to be addressed.
But that doesn’t just apply to parents of non-white children. The Black Lives Matter movement should be a wake-up call to white families too. As the demonstrations continue around the world, I am reminded of a parent who admitted to changing the story of Rosa Parks – the American activist who played a pivotal role in the US civil rights movement of the 1950s by refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger. The mother was afraid her child would be too upset to learn that someone could be discriminated against because of their skin colour, so she rewrote the iconic moment in history. What was once a brave stand against black repression became a watered-down fight between rich and poor.
When your child is unlikely to ever be the victim of racism, decisions like those are easy choices to make. But I refuse to shield my children from a painful reality they will likely face one day.
The best way to protect them is to prepare them: to show them what injustice looks like and equip them with the tools they will need to stand up against it when the time comes. That starts by teaching them enough self-worth to recognise that, while they may struggle to find a plaster that matches their skin tone or play with toys that look like them, their lives really do matter – now and in the future.
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