Tuesday, November 30, 2010

White Bias or Snow Black?

Last month on Anderson Cooper 360, the suave, silver fox news hunk introduced a pilot study helmed by CNN called "Kids on Race." Black and white children from two different age groups were shown the above picture and asked questions like, "Which is the good child?" "Which is the ugly child?" "Which child do adults like?"

This was based on an experiment administered in the forties. Instead of the cartoon rainbow coalition shown above, however, children chose between black and white baby dolls, the findings of which were used in the landmark case, Brown vs. Board of Education. Sadly, although perhaps not surprisingly, sixty-three percent of black kids wanted to play with the white doll rather than the one they themselves resembled.

In the Obama era it was hoped that the findings of the newly administered test wouldn't show such white bias. That our country's first African American president would raise self-esteem among black kids and awareness in white kids.

But guess what? Both black and white kids alike still chose the white image as the good, the smart and the beautiful, while its black counterpart was bad, dumb and ugly.

Of course, white bias exists in this country. For me, that truth resounded more once I had a black daughter. It's not always easy surrounding her world with positive role models when she is constantly being inundated with perky, blond imagery.

For instance, Maxwell (she made a recent proclamation that she prefers that to Maxie) loves the Disney princesses and she glows with pride when talking about Princess Tiana, the titular African American character in The Princess and the Frog. But more often than not, the Disney princesses represented on packaging from DVDs to sleepwear are alabaster white. Cinderella, Snow White, Belle, Aurora and Ariel preen beautifically on tee shirts and plastic tiaras, but if a princess of color is invited to join their merry group, she is usually situated off to the side or shoved to the back.

I was actually amazed how easy it was to prove this point. I typed disney princesses images in my Google search box, and take a gander at the first picture that popped up...

Poor Princess Jasmine can barely find elbow room among all that Caucasian-ness. And there's no sign of her melanin endowed sisters, not Tiana, Pocahontas nor Mulan (not really a princess, but oftentimes represented as one.) It's tokenism pure and simple, and day after day my daughter is subjected to such inequalities.

Hold on to your hat. I just had one of those flashes of yore, a blast from my past; a photo from a glossy TV mag. A picture of a different group of princesses entirely...

...situated off to the side or shoved to the back.

One image from a nighttime soap circa mid-eighties, the other from a Disney clip art site dated 2010. How much have we really changed? Tokenism is alive and well and Diahann Carroll for one does not seem at all pleased.

Our television shows, our movies, our advertisements, and, yes, even the Rockettes during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade are chalk full of chalk white faces. Sometimes a lone person of color will be included making the sea of white seem even more glaring. Of course, I was thrilled when Princess Tiana came along, as was I thrilled with the timing of Princess Sasha and Princess Malia entering the White House. Sistahs for my daughter to look up to. But for every Dora the Explorer and Kai-lan there's an awful lot of Wonder Bread out there, spread thick with mayonnaise.

So, yes, white bias is alive and well in our fair land. That being said, however, I'm not sure the CNN test accurately proves that fact.

A bit of trickery was involved, meaning there is no appropriate answer to "Which is the ugly child?" Some of the older kids who were administered the test could articulate that none of the cartoon children were smarter or more beautiful. Some even went on to say, "It's what's on the inside that counts." But the younger ones, the little four and five year olds, those who have yet to reach the age of reason, didn't have the life experience necessary to help them navigate through the trap. And I question whether their answers really support the institutionalized racism CNN was trying to prove.

If the kids tested are anything like my kids, then two things... Four and five year olds blindly trust authority figures, and if they don't know an answer, they make shit up. So, when an authority figure asks a young one, "Which is the good child?" then to their little, guileless minds one of those five cartoon figures must be the good child because an adult says so. And since there is no correct answer, what's the kid going to do but guess. When Sebastian was younger, he loved guessing. "What's one plus one?" I'd ask, and immediately Bash would offer, "Five." "What color is a fire truck?" "Green."

The difference is what's one plus one has an absolute answer, as does what letter comes after Q, or is it proper to wear white after Labor Day? But which is the smart child is a trick question.

I imagine that my five year old self would have given the white cartoon all the favorable characteristics. I positively identified being white, so why wouldn't I have chosen Whitey McWhitenstien to be the beautiful, the smart and the good?

One mother was shocked when her white son labeled the caricature with the darkest skin as ugly, bad, and dumb. The thing is, I see my five year old self doing the same thing, choosing the image that is most not like me, the one at the opposite end of the color spectrum. Is this really racism or a strong dose of positive self esteem?

I can only wonder if the experiment would have been less sensational if the children were offered the option does not apply.

The heart breaking moment was watching a beautiful black girl with a smile to melt your heart, say she thought the black cartoon was the ugly one. When Anderson Cooper questioned her in a later moment, she said point blank, she thought the color of her skin was nasty.

This prompted me to find out if my two ragamuffins with their two different pigmantations would support the white bias identified by CNN. I asked them which skin tone they found more beautiful, my white son said "black skin" without hesitation, which was then echoed by my black daughter. What seemed devastating on television, a black girl not choosing her own skin color, was downright endearing when Sebastian chose his sister's skin color rather than his own.

Then as a follow up, I asked Maxie, I mean Maxwell, the rest of the questions and systematically she went down the line, labeling the cartoon images in order, irregardless of color. (The stupid child was the first image, the smart child was the second image, and so on.) The only time she deviated from her methodology was when I circled back to the word beautiful. Then she always pointed to the darkest of the drawings. I love that Maxwell loves the color of her skin (she prefers to call it brown rather than black.) And I love that she insists on going out with her hair plain, which means natural, no pigtails, no braids, no frills. She has a strong sense of self at such a young age, and I hope she'll stay strong even with the constant bombardment of lily white imagery that will most surly be a part of her life.

Perhaps my own bias keeps me from seeing the validity of this test. Perhaps we all need to talk about race more openly. Perhaps I'd think the findings more significant if instead of asking, "Which is the stupid child?" the questions were posed this way, "Do you see a stupid child? Which one is it?"

Bottom line, one plus one equals two, white is not to be worn after Labor Day, and one black Rockette in a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is not integration.

Parting image: my daughter this Halloween...

White bias or Snow Black?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Light of Day

Late August, I was in the Bay Area for my dad's birthday. While there, I kept hearing about aunts, uncles and friends of the family who weren't faring well. The list seemed overwhelming: cancer, a couple of strokes, heart palpitations, a semi-vegetative state and while boarding a plane one family friend somehow managed to slip between the gangway and the airplane's door, falling to the tarmac below. Still alive, but paralyzed.

Sunday morning, the kids ran into our bedroom screaming. (Michael insists it was 5:30. I tend to think it was 6:30. Daylights Savings Time really messes with your head and can cause family squabbles in the retelling of stories.) Whatever the time, the kids yelled, "There's a dead raccoon. There's a dead raccoon." This is not surprising at our house. Cosmo, our half husky/half possible wolf, is a card carrying critter killer. Doesn't matter if it's a bird, rat, opossum, squirrel, skunk or even house cat, any varmint that enters our yard Cosmo will strike with ferocity and precision. And although he's never killed a raccoon before, it seemed entirely likely that a raccoon kill would happen at some point. C'mon coyote, you're next.

Quite simply, our dog is a menace. Before we were aware of his psychotic tendencies, Cosmo would bark ruthlessly at any passers by, sometimes escaping and terrorizing the neighborhood. Cosmo has also sent two smaller dogs to the hospital at a great expense to us. (Oddly, he's a big, dopey love to humans and has never lifted a paw to children.) Once we knew we had a problem canine on our hands, we installed a side gate to keep him in the back yard. How then, did this procyonid (my husband would have taken offense had I called it a coon) get himself killed on our front patio, to which Cosmo should not have had access? My assumption was that the gardeners didn't securely latch said gate, which on closer inspection was indeed found ajar.

After settling the kids' down and convincing them that touching a dead raccoon was not a good idea, I needed to relax with the Sunday paper. I opened the front door, and like Dorothy's door opening onto Munchkinland, I too was met with a Technicolor eyeful. But instead of the stock and trade yellow bricks and ruby slippers, my alternate world was smeared with viscera and gore. The front steps were a battlefield. Tufts of feathers were glommed everywhere. We're not talking four or five out-of-place feathers. No. I could have stuffed a muff with the plumage stuck to my steps.

Even with the side gate open however, Cosmo could not have gotten to the bird(s) on the front stairs. Being a devoted Dexter fan, I was able to deduced the following scenario from the blood/feather spatter... The raccoon, needing a nosh, killed the fowl on the stairs, then climbed onto our patio, perhaps to recline on a chez lounge to relax and digest. But what our masked mammal could not have anticipated was that Cosmo happened to be lying in wait, most likely with a Jack Nicholson glint in his eye. "Heeeere's Johnny!"

Not even the "diabolical" Sudoku in the LA Times could keep me from thinking about Death and why it's insisting to seep into various corners of my life. Death seems to prefer to travel by night. It is only with the light of day when we make out the puddles of blood, when we receive the bad news. It was in the early hours when I received the telephone calls in October. Two of my uncles passed away. Both had failing health. Both were talked about at my father's birthday dinner in August. Both now gone.

I admit, I have guilt that they weren't more a part of my adult life. Both of them had moved to the East Coast, Uncle Ron to Atlanta, Uncle Bob to one of the Carolinas, I always forget which. I'm ashamed to admit I haven't seen nor talked to Uncle Bob for about sixteen years. My memories of my uncles are mostly childhood ones, awe mixed with respect, the naval Vietnam vet and the businessman who liked to tipple just a bit too much. My heart goes out to my cousins, now fatherless, and can only hope they are able to make peace, that their pain doesn't overwhelm.

Then, sometime after putting the raccoon in a plastic trash bag but before I had a chance to hose down the deck, my sister called me in tears, also with morning news. One of my favorite aunts was in such a bad way she was in need of hospice care.

Aunt Pat has always been a vital force in my life. When I was younger, I probably spent more time with her than any other woman aside from my mother. (Oddly, she and Mom share the same birthday.) My cousin, Mark, is my age and I slept over at their house quite often. I locked myself in her bedroom, flushed gum down her toilets and while sleepwalking peed in Aunt Pat's clothes hamper.

Over the years, she has sent me letters of support and encouragement during difficult times. And on a couple of opening nights she sent telegrams telling me to "break a leg."

The thing I associate most with Aunt Pat is Thanksgiving. When I was younger, she and Uncle T. Jack always hosted the family's Thanksgiving dinner. She would spend days preparing the meal. Our family was large and Aunt Pat would have to get two twenty pound birds to feed the lot of us. Coats and ties were mandatory, and the dining room would sparkle with impeccably good taste. The china on the table was exquisite, but we wouldn't eat off those plates. They would be removed by servants, never to be seen again the entire meal. Place cards would mark our seats, and on occasion I remember being honored by getting to sit next to Aunt Pat.

Every year I would listen to her talk about the preparations of this monstrous meal: what she did differently, which recipes worked, which didn't. One year, she found a turkey recipe where the oven temp was kept incredibly low, let's say 150. The turkey was cooked overnight, and to ensure moist breast meat, Aunt Pat would get up on the hour, throughout the night to baste the birds. I don't remember her looking haggard the next day, nor do I remember this technique making the turkey any more or less moist than previous years, but then, to me the food always tasted wonderful. Thanksgiving has a special place in my heart and I have Aunt Pat to thank for that.

Three mornings ago, I got the news that Aunt Pat passed away.

I started this post before she died, perhaps to question death but that doesn't seem important now. Certainly the raccoon doesn't seem important nor including a critique of The Lovely Bones, which I saw a couple of nights ago, a movie that articulates the futility of finding meaning in death. (Much too deep for where I am.) No, right now, I just want to remember a wonderful woman.

Three mornings ago, clouds billowed soft and white against a crisp blue sky.

I want to remember her style, her class. I want to remember her numerous jars of cosmetics and countless bottles of vitimins. I want to remember her sitting at her makeup table gluing on one eyelash at a time. I want to remember her wearing a peignoir to the communal bathroom in Yosemite. I want to remember her dancing cheek to cheek with Uncle T. Jack. I want to remember her intelligence, her beauty, her humor, her pecan pie, her laugh.

Three mornings ago, I went to my fridge and pulled out a turkey. I don't have any of Aunt Pat's recipes, but that didn't matter. I roasted a turkey and made stuffing. It wasn't as moist as hers but somehow it felt right.

I want to remember her stories, especially the one when she visited Venezuela in the middle of a coup (unintentionally of course) and found herself running from gunfire. I want to remember her generosity of spirit. When I was four, I desperately wanted the plastic cereal container shaped like Donald Duck. You could cut open the slit in the back to make it a piggy bank. Aunt Pat saw my four-year-old desire and over the protestations of my cousins gave Donald to me. Also, every year she would send my children Christmas presents, which is incredible considering the children from our collective families number into the thirties, maybe forties, and Aunt Pat wouldn't forget one of them. I also want to remember the comfortable times. The conversations around the breakfast table. Perhaps these most of all, when convention did not dictate the event, when we wore jeans, told stories and laughed.

Three mornings ago...