Ask ARP: Is it wrong to sing this children’s rhyme?

Dear Anti-Racist Parent,

My four-year-old daughter was humming “Brown Girl in the Ring” this morning… catchy song. I wasn’t thinking much about it at first, and then the words started to sink through my skull:

Brown girl in the ring
Show me your motion
She looks like a sugar and a plum.

I don’t know what to think about this. Jamaican friends tell me it’s a traditional West Indian children’s song. Does that make it okay for my non-African family to enjoy it? Is there more of a history that we should think about?

My husband and I are white and our two kids are Chinese. Our family is consciously anti-racist, yet we don’t want to seek it out where none exists.

Thank you (and your readers) for any insights you can provide.


From the Editor:

Why are children’s nursery rhymes such a minefield? I mean when you really dig into some of the verses we routinely recited as children, you get a cavalcade of racism, sex and ghoulishness.

One little, two little, three little Indians
Four little, five little, six little Indians
Seven little, eight little, nine little Indians
Ten little Indian boys.

Rise, [Little] Sally [Walker], rise
Wipe your weeping eyes
Put your hand on your hip
And let your backbone slip
Aaah, shake it to the East
Aaah, shake it to the West
Shake it to the one that you love the best.

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks,
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

Looks like you’re in the clear with ”Brown Girl in the Ring,” though. Not being familiar with the rhyme or the associated game, I Googled around for some information. The full rhyme goes something like this (there are variations):

First verse               There’s a brown girl in the ring
                               Tra la la la la
                               There’s a brown girl in the ring
                               Tra la la la la
                               There’s a brown girl in the ring
                               Tra la la la la
                               She likes sugar
                               and I like plum
Second verse         
Skip across the ocean
                               Tra la la la la etc.
Third verse            
Show me your motion
                               Tra la la la la etc.          
                               Tra la la la la etc

Fourth verse           Wheel and turn your partner
                               Tra la la la la etc.          
                               Tra la la la la etc

According to Wikipedia, this rhyme is thought to have originated in Jamaica and is sung as part of a popular “ring game.”

Ring games are played in many parts of the world by boys and girls, especially in their preteen years. In Alan Lomax, J.D. Elder and Bess Lomax Hawe’s There’s a Brown Girl in the Ring, an anthology of Eastern Caribbean song games, it is suggested that ring games are a precursor for children to adult courtship.

The players form a ring by holding hands, then one girl goes into the middle of the ring and starts skipping around to the song. The girl is then asked “show me your motion”, at which point she does her favourite dance. When she is asked “show me your partner”, she picks a friend to join her in the circle.

The “brown” girl (or boy) in the ring traditionally refers to children’s skin tone prevalent in the Caribbean and it is thought to enhance their self esteem.

There is nothing inherently wrong with your Chinese children referring to a “brown girl.” When the popular Australian group The Wiggles perform the song on their show, they omit race and refer to a girl in a brown shirt. I may have missed something in my brief research, perhaps a Caribbean reader can shed more light on the origins and potential challenges of this rhyme.

At any rate, as an anti-racist parent, you are smart to think about the seemingly innocuous rhymes and songs that you pass along to your children.


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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek,, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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