Every time I see Tiana I do a double take. If you’re not familiar with the array of Disney princesses adorning the the backpacks, T-shirts, raincoats, and beach towels that little girls use, Tiana is the black one. When I was growing up, the only people who had black people on their clothes were other black people. Except for maybe Fat Albert, no brown face smiled out at you from behind plastic when you went with your mom to buy undershirts at Filene’s.
When I was in school, districts were still adapting to Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark desegregation verdict that turned 58 last month. I remember being struck when my mother explained some pivotal evidence in the case: It involved the Clarks, psychologists who performed the now famous “doll tests” — in which both black and white children were given black dolls and white dolls. Both groups of children exalted the white dolls. That part of the story made me sad in a way I couldn’t explain, perhaps because it made so much sense, even to 8-year-old me. Realizing that anything brown could be as beautiful as anything blond was something I had to teach myself. It felt subversive.
When my daughter was born, I thought of that doll test often. What does it mean if you are neither black nor white but both, as my children are? Before my daughter entered preschool, I did my best to instill a strong sense of self-worth in her. We have books where the characters’ moms look like me and the dads look like my husband. We have books about hair and heritage and Rosa Parks and believing in yourself. Before preschool, I thought the battle was to make her feel an importance that those around her might not be willing to afford her.
I was dead wrong. I was not prepared for Tiana. And I was not prepared for my daughter to play a peculiar role in a real-life doll experiment: Whereas I grew up aligning myself emotionally with that scorned black doll, my daughter lives in a world where, for better or worse, difference is treated much differently. “I love her hair,” people often say when they see her mass of golden, brown, and slightly reddish curls. “Ooooooh, I love her hair!” Sometimes to our faces, sometimes after they’ve passed us by, but usually within earshot, as if remarking on a painting on the wall. I was armed with feminist ideas about beauty and personhood. I was not armed to, well, not take up arms.
What do you do when it’s not scorn but an excess of attention that pummels your kid on the playground? I know; we should all be so lucky. But before you scoff, think of this: When faced with such adoration, my kid, who is bossy and fierce at home, has few resources with which to fortify herself. Her eyes go wide and she repeats the word “mama,” like a deranged baby doll, if someone mentions her hair or her complexion. The comments come from blacks and whites and people “in between,” and it’s alarming and confusing for us both.
It’s something otherparents with kids of color have admitted feeling, too. “The other kids are all over her,” a parent at gymnastics said of her 7-year-old, who is both black and white. “The kids in her class want to sit with her at lunch, they want her to be only their friend and get very upset if she doesn’t choose them or if she wants to be alone. She gets overwhelmed.”
Multiracial children, of course, aren’t the only ones to feel exoticized. One child I know gets attention, at her diverse preschool, for her extraordinarily blond locks. “I sometimes think she’d give anything,” her mother says, “to have [the Disney character] Mulan’s jet-black hair.” For parents who grew up feeling that difference usually meant something bad, there is no best way to help. “I’m very careful about not placing values on differences — simply acknowledging them seems better,” a friend with a biracial son told me. At age 2, she explained, he is just beginning to explore difference by touching his friends’ hair or noticing skin color. When does that impulse to explore turn into judging one kind better than another? Do we learn it from each other? From sources like Disney?
This is not a “my poor kid” piece. Most of the time she is busy just being 5. But as I watch her sometimes fill the role of “novelty” simply because of how she looks, and as I watch her subsequent confusion, I can’t help but feel uneasy. Because as Tiana smiles coyly from lunch boxes and coloring books, I feel a mounting sense of dread — the same feeling I get when the Afro wigs come out for Halloween, or when I see a Benetton ad with dark, dark babies smashed up against white, white babies. So ironically chic! So daringly progessive!
The cumulative effect on my daughter is to send her babbling around the playground like a six-month-old. Perhaps one day she will smile back at these comments with the assurance of Tiana beaming from those Thermoses. But then again, there’s something amiss about those Thermoses, and sleeping bags and T-shirts, too. What’s behind that princess smile — happiness or something far less easy, less comfortable?
Kirsten Greenidge, a playwright who lives in Medford, is the author of “The Luck of the Irish.”