When I was pregnant with my third child, I bought baby dolls for my first two -- something you often see recommended in books on how to keep your kids from hating each other.
I bought two nearly identical dolls, one black and one white. I'd love to tell you that this was some kind of social experiment, but I just bought the ones that were cheapest. The white doll was on sale because it emitted a weird lavender smell that was supposed to help toddlers sleep. I can only depressingly assume that the black doll was on sale because there is less demand for black dolls.
The black doll came with a purple dress, so I gave that one to my purple-loving daughter. When she and her brother opened their gifts, her face darkened. (Can you see what's coming a mile away? I could not.) She eyed her brother's blonde doll and said, "Can we swap?"
"I like the other one better."
"I ... like her skin better."
I'm not sure I've ever felt like more of a failure as a parent. Or more confused. This was my child: she has a non-white mother and looks ethnically ambiguous herself. She goes to a London school with friends, classmates and teachers of every possible skin tone. Her parents and parents' friends try their best not to be racist. My partner doesn't even like me telling this story because he finds it embarrassing.
I could tell you a similar story about gender-- despite my very best efforts, my daughter has told me that astronauts, farms and cars are for boys; her obsession with unicorns -- which she describes as 'for girls' -- feels beyond hope.
Here's the point: kids internalising inequality feels sadly inevitable. But where does it come from, if not parents, friends, or school?
One clue is in research released by The Guardian last week showing that, in a survey of 100 if the most popular picture books, marginalisation of female and BAME characters is getting worse.
BAME and female characters are woefully underrepresented, and when they do appear, they speak less than white male characters. That's before we even look at the roles of female characters they are when they do appear (I'd love to see a 'percentage princesses' stat). It's equally problematic that children are seven times more likely to read a book with a male villain than a female one. Not a single one of the 100 books features a BAME male protagonist, and only one -- a Roald Dahl book from 1978 -- has a BAME male character with a name.
This study only covered books, but in my five-year-long immersive study of children's television, TV is at least as bad on stereotypes and diversity.
You'll think, 'but it's definitely getting better', and we all feel this way because stereotypes absorbed by children are getting more attention. And there are more and more of books being written with more diverse characters and stories-- they're just not making it into the top 100.
As the article notes, one reason for this is a cycle where publishers believe that books with diverse characters don't sell well, and so they don't invest in those books, and of course then those books don't sell as well. While the decisions publishers and producers make are hugely influential, I think parents need to do more to influence the market.
Parents define demand. When I said above that we try our best not to be racists, I chose my words carefully. I think we're doing a great job of teaching our kids that discrimination based on gender or skin colour is wrong. But I think we could do a better job of using our purchasing power positively to diversify mass culture.
Based on what I've seen (and the gifts my kids have gotten), parents tend to buy both their boys and girls the old classics, then top those up with 'girl power' books for their daughters. I don't think very many people are buying books with female protagonists or focused on female stories for their sons. My own son has never gotten one as a gift. If we want there to be a strong market for books with girls who speak-- and girls who look and act all kinds of ways-- those books can't be just an extra thing for girls.
Similarly, white parents may be supportive of ethnically diverse characters, but I'm not sure how often they buy those books for their own children. Books about black boys can't just be for black boys.
We can try to shield our kids from mass culture, or we can try to change it-- the ASA's new ban on gender stereotypes in ads is a great step forward. To change what our kids see, we all need to think about the decisions we make that create incentives for producers, publishers and toymakers. Equality for girls isn't just on the parents of girls. Equality for BAME children isn't just on BAME parents. It's not enough for us to say that books, shows, and toys should be more diverse-- we need to step up and put our money where our mouths are.
I'll finish by circling back to the unfortunate baby doll incident. My daughter now loves her doll and thinks she’s pretty, which goes to show that sometimes kids need to be challenged on what they say they want.
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