The Problem with Representation of Multicultural Children in Media

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The bombardment of advertising and other images (television, books, lunchboxes, t-shirts, etc.) is amazingly powerful for curious, young minds. When most of the images shown do not represent the way all of our children look, it’s important to promote more inclusive images at home to counteract this.

I didn’t really pay too much attention to these images, even those directly targeted at children, until I realized my kids were paying attention! When they started drawing princesses with only long, blonde hair and pink skin, I knew there was an issue.

So what is the problem with these images? Here are my main concerns:

The hero or heroine is usually white.
Every picture tells a story, even if it’s just a shot of a kid riding a bike stamped on a t-shirt. Sometimes there will be a friend in the picture who is non-white, but the non-white child is seldom the main character.

The black children who are represented rarely have ‘African’ features
My children have ‘African’ noses, wide and flat like Papa’s. Even where black children appear in stories, they have thin lips and narrow noses. Of course, these children need representation too–we need to include everyone! And don’t think your kids don’t notice… just like they listen when you assume they are busy playing on the other side of the room. When I recently gave my daughter a wide-nosed doll (from Ikea!), she exclaimed excitedly, “He has a nose like me!”

Why do these images matter?
If your child never sees anyone with a similar skin tone, or if people who look like them are always sidelined, they may well start to wonder if they are not as important as children with white skin and ‘white’ features.

When I did a little research on this, I found that, in a recent version of the famous Black/White doll study, those few black children who chose the black doll as the ‘good’ one came from households where positive identity had been actively pursued. This convinced me that I had to take an active approach with my own kids, and so it began. Schmoo had been given a white Barbie as a party leaving gift, so I went online to buy her some black Barbies, with varying skin tones and hair types. Then I found her a Princess Tiana schoolbag and a Lela sports bag. I tracked down versions of the classic fairytales starring brown-skinned characters and bought DVDs of Jasmine, Pocahontas, The Princess & the Frog and the Brandy version of Cinderella.

Is this still a problem?
In today’s increasingly inclusive society, more awareness exists of the problem, and a larger number of positive identity books, toys, films and dolls are available. It is now fairly rare to see a drawing of a group of children and not have several ethnicities represented. But we still have a long, long way to go.

Last week, we visited a toy megastore to pick up some bubble wands. While we were there, I couldn’t resist taking a look at the vast range of Barbies. There were shelves and shelves of them, across two aisles… and not a single one was non-white. This is a shop in London, one of the most multicultural places on the planet, so I shudder to think how bad things are elsewhere.

And still, some markets remain particularly underrepresented, such as black cartoon action heroes and black mermaid dolls.

While images are powerful, words count too. I find the terminology for describing people with white and black parents inaccurate and outdated. ‘Mixed race’ has now replaced the hideous ‘half caste,’ but I still think it’s an odd term. Tom Cruise explained it best when he was interviewed on Oprah. She asked him why he had chosen to adopt a child “of a different race?” He answered, “Well, we’re both from the human race!”

And that is how I feel. There is only one race. We are all equally beautiful and important, and we should celebrate that by representing everyone across images and language!

 

(Originally published in 2012.)

2 COMMENTS

  1. I guess I have a bit of a different issue. Having grown up black, but of varying cultural backgrounds, I could not relate to the dark chocolate doll babies and to this day, I become equally upset when blacks the color of a brown paper bag are always cast in roles where one of their parents must be a white actor. Both of my parents are black. We have Native American and white ancestry on both sides, but are black nonetheless. ATL was the first movie I remember where a light skinned actress (Lauren London) had a black mother (Lonette, McKee – who is also light, but NOT WHITE) . I find this annoying. There should be a balance between all colors of black and all features of black represented in Hollywood. Just as mentioned in the article about the kids paying attention and not being able to identify with the sharper features of the blacks in movies/tv, the population with those same features may not be able to identify with wide flat noses and super big lips. There needs to be a balance. Everyone my complexion does not have a white parent. By the way, forget the void of black heroes, why do all the black characters in movies and tv shows end up getting killed off? Hmmm

  2. Right on, as a man of colro who comes from a mixed background and who now has a child with a mixed background…we are people of color. He is a child of color and it is really challenging to find positive reflections for him in childrens books, comics, animation, and films. Something as simple as “the Goonies” and “Super 8” illustrates a lot about how an adventurous story involving children hasnt changed much. White chidlren are the only ones who can look to the media for examples of children that look like them with courage, humility, strength, intelligence, rudeness, or general complexity of character. But, Im also a big believer in creating the change you want to see, so I’m working on illustrating stories featuring kids that look like me and my son.

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