by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Jason Sperber
Before my daughter was born, I knew what kind of father I wanted to be for her. My babygrrl was going to be raised to be a fierce, strong woman of color. I was going to make her iron-on onesies emblazoned with portraits of Yuri Kochiyama, Angela Davis, and Frida Kahlo. Her toybox would be filled with both dolls of color, preferably made by either anti-corporate crafters or small indie companies, and things traditionally coded as “boy” like trucks and cars and tools. Both toy guns and Barbie would be equally verboten in our home, and her closet would be a pink-free zone. I knew the constricting, restricting and damaging messages the world would soon bombard her with about race and gender, and dammit if I wasn’t going to all I could inside our home to inoculate her against them.
So yeah, it would’ve only served me right to have been gifted with a stereotypical “girly girl,” a little karmic payback for putting all my crap on my poor baby’s head before she was even born. That hasn’t happened, luckily–while my Pumpkin’s favorite color, for clothing and everything else, is, of course, pink, she does not, like her best friend since birth, demand to wear Disney Princess costumes as casual wear. As for my plans for a line of “Radical Mama” toddler-tees and stacking the deck toy-wise, well, the first toy I ever bought her was a “Little Frida” doll, and we dubbed the racially ambiguous doll we got her from a line of multiculti dolls by an alum of color from our alma mater “Angela” because of her hair-do. bell hooks’ children’s books are on her overstuffed bookshelves. And because I’m not anti-commercial per se but more anti-certain things (you know?), she’s got more than her fair share of mass-produced goods featuring a certain brown-skinned Latina girl who likes to have adventures and help her animal friends, as well as her current favorite, the Backyardigans (who, I’m convinced, are kids of color–I mean, Pablo? Tasha? Tyrone? Uniqua?)
Suffice it to say that as much as possible, her mother and I try to mediate potentially negative messages embedded in popular and commercial culture by controlling what she consumes (at least in our home) and by talking with her about things that might be problematic. But of course, none of this gets any easier as kids get older, with more and more outside influence impinging on them. During her year in day care, she’d come home talking about t.v. shows we didn’t watch at home, or pretending to shoot things with her fingers like one of the little boys there. “Where did you learn that, Pumpkin?” we’d ask, before explaining why we didn’t shoot things or people. Now that she’s started preschool, I know there will be more of these teachable moments, even though we found as progressive and diverse a school environment as we could in our town.
But what’s really got me thinking, about the subtle and insidious effect of both popular culture and the influence of other kids on how our Pumpkin learns to see the world and her place in it, is how she’s started to label things as gender-appropriate or -inappropriate. It started cropping up during the recent holiday consumption season, during our trips to the local Target and Costco. One time, she was looking at some kids’ room furnishings at Target, which, of course, are separated into a mostly blue boy aisle and a mostly pink girl aisle. There was some Thomas the Tank Engine stuff in the boy aisle, and she called out “Thomas!” happily when she saw it. “Want to look at that stuff, sweetie?” I asked. “No,” she said, “that’s for boys.”
I stopped the cart. Say what now? She’s always loved trains in general and Thomas specifically, so where did this come from? “No, love, anybody can play with Thomas, boys and girls, right?” But the moment was past and her attention was already on something else. But I was disturbed. I mean, I wasn’t naive, I knew these messages, what was appropriate for boys to play with, what was appropriate for girls to play with, were out there, bombarding her on TV and even in the choices and behaviors of her friends. But I always thought that the messages coming from home were enough to counteract these–that she could play with anything she wanted (well, not guns or Bratz, but you know what I mean), that she could do anything, that these things weren’t limited because she was a girl.
Not long after, in the holiday gift section at Costco, I was checking out a Fisher Price kids’ digital camera. There were two models, a big stack of blue toddler cameras and a big stack of pink ones. Apropos of nothing, The Pumpkin pointed at the two stacks: “That one’s for boys and that one’s for girls.” “No baby, anybody can have any color camera they want, right, Mommy? A boy can have a pink one and a girl can have a blue one if they want.” But she wasn’t having it–she knew who was supposed to have what, by color.
It was a digital camera, of all things. Of all the toys that did not need to be gender-coded, I thought, this would be it. It was the exact same toy, the only difference was the color. Did there really need to be a “boy” camera and a “girl” camera? I mean, c’mon! Needless to say, when it came time to buy presents, both the boy and the girls on our list got a different brand of camera–one that came in orange.
It doesn’t end there. Where I always thought that I knew where the issues would be coming from–deflecting and deprogramming hegemonic lessons that toy kitchens were for girls and only boys could play with Tonka trucks from commercials that smacked of biological determinism–now even gender-neutral toys aren’t so neutral. Does LeapFrog, for example, really need to make blue and pink versions of their kiddie learning computers? Is it that important to brand something as “for boys” or “for girls“? Will boys only use a computer if the learning game is branded with Disney’s Cars? Will girls only use it if the game is branded with Disney’s Princesses? And what if a girl likes Cars? Or a boy likes Princesses? What then? Or will they not even think to ask, having imbibed the blue=boy/pink=girl lesson for too long already?
I think about all the societal forces bombarding my daughter and her friends, and I don’t want to feel powerless to do anything. The other night, one of The Pumpkin’s best friends, a little boy she’s known since birth, was frantic because he couldn’t find another chair in which to sit at the kids’ table for dinner. He refused, absolutely refused, to sit in a Dora-emblazoned chair because it was Dora, and Dora is for girls. No matter how much I or his parents tried to convince him that that wasn’t the case, and that he could sit in the chair, he wouldn’t change his mind. He wouldn’t play dress-up with the girls, either, since the Disney Princess gear was obviously not for boys. Another boy in our group of friends, however, wouldn’t hesitate to put on one of those tiaras. He unabashedly loves Dora and the Princesses, and his parents support that love. But what messages does he get at preschool, I wonder, from both teachers and other kids, when he shares that love with others?
I’m tired of seeing pink. I’m tired of seeing blue. And I’m both pissed off and saddened deeply that at age three, my daughter and her friends, both girls and boys, have already learned to see those colors, and what they are supposed to mean, so well. And I know that this isn’t the last time I’m going to start a sentence with, “No, baby, both boys and girls can….”
Jason Sperber is a former stay-at-home-dad of a 3-year-old daughter (“The Pumpkin”) and the husband of a family physician (“la dra.”) living in California’s Central Valley. He is currently a writer/blogger/online community manager. A former high school social studies teacher, he has a background in ethnic studies and education for social justice. He writes the blog daddy in a strange landand coordinates Rice Daddies, the group blog by Asian American dads. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.