General Snobbery
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Tuesday
Feb032009

On Little Black Girls, Beauty and Barbie Dolls

Ryan Booth, "Harlem's Flyest Toddler," submitted by someone who loves her dearly.In my effort to show the world how beautiful black and brown children are (and that Sasha and Malia aren't the unicorns of black children that Madison Avenue is making them out to be), I've received more than 40 emails from happy friends, relatives and parents all wanting to be part of The Black Snob's efforts to show the true beauty of our daughters.

Because that's what this is really about for me.

For some background on why this issue really stuck in my craw and the statement that sent me over the edge, click here. But I want to give you some background as to why I feel so strongly and as to what I plan to do with your beautiful girls.

Along time ago at a kitchen table in an all-black, middle/working class neighborhood in St. Louis, Mo.'s North County a young Danielle Belton, age five, loved to draw and color more than anything in the world. My older sister, aka "Big Sis, bka Denise, didn't like to color, so I inherited all the coloring books she never used.

I could draw for hours and color for hours, but all I drew and colored were white people.

I would take out my Barbie coloring book and select the yellow crayon for her hair, the blue crayon for her eyes and the pink "flesh" colored crayon for her skin. I would make her "beautiful" in what my little noggin thought was beauty.

What's funny is my parents, like many black parents, were trying their hardest to make sure myself and my sister had positive images of other black women and ourselves. My mother constantly fought with the toy store owners about getting in more black dolls because she wanted to buy me Barbies, but worried about how having a gaggle of blonde Malibu and ballerina Barbies could effect my young mind. She immersed us in our culture. She told us we were beautiful all the time.

Yet I still drew and colored nothing but white people.

Then one day, at that kitchen table, my father approached me. Rather than go into a lengthy speech or be embarrassed or shame me, he approached me as you would approach a five year old.

He asked if he could color with me.

I, of course, was pleased that he wanted to join in. My father worked in management for McDonnell Douglass at the time. He was almost always busy at work or winding down from stress. Plus, he was the sole wage earner in the household, hence we didn't get to spend as much time together. I loved playing with my father. I never turned the man down if he was in the mood.

So he took one Barbie page and I took mine. I, quite proudly, made my Barbie look just like the one on the cover, blonde and blue-eyed. Then I looked over at daddy who was coloring his own Barbie but he had done something entirely unexpected to me. He'd taken the brown crayon and made her skin brown. He'd taken the black crayon and gave her beautiful dark hair. He showed his finished picture to me and said sweetly, "Don't you think she's pretty too?"

This was my first "mind-blown" experience. At five it had never occurred to me that I could make Barbie or any drawing anything I wanted it to be. I was following "the rules." Barbies were white. Beautiful people were white. I had never occurred to me that I could "break the rules." I looked at my dad's coloring and thought that was the most beautiful Barbie in the world.

I never colored a white Barbie again. I wanted them to be all as beautiful as the one my father had made.

He didn't have to lecture. He didn't have to get mad. He understood that I just needed my eyes to open to the possibility.

Years later I would do the same thing for my baby sister Deidre, seeing her do the same thing I did as a little kid, coloring all the people white. I showed her my black drawings and she too agreed, the black Barbies were beautiful too.

Whether we realize it or not, no matter how hard we try, the world is sending a message to our children: You are not good enough. You are not pretty enough. You are not wanted.

This is told to Asian girls about their eyes. To Latinas about their brown skin and dark hair. Told to anyone with a permanent tan and a flat nose.

And it's told to us.

We see it and hear it all the time. I went to a great elementary school with great teachers, yet I had a principal who seemed to relish in telling us how awful we were. I had a third grade teacher once tell our class we should be proud we were brought here as slaves from Africa because people in Africa were starving and poor. (My mother had a few words with that teacher and she later apologized to the class.) My mother did find us black dolls that we loved. My mother continued to tell us we were beautiful as we were. And it was an all-day, everyday struggle when every image in magazines, on TV, at school and even from other children is telling you -- not good enough.

All three Belton Sisters (left to right) Danielle, Denise and Deidre

From being in elementary school and hearing other little black girls my age fantasize about marrying white men to have "pretty babies," to being a freshman in high school and having a jealous friend berate me for having "thick lips."

Of course by then, all my parents' hard work had not been in vain. When someone criticized my thick lips I blinked at them like they were insane. I knew my lips were beautiful. I knew some woman in Hollywood was lying on a plastic surgeon's table getting injections to get what God gave me naturally. How could it be ugly if people were paying for it?

I was sensitive about being called a nerd (although that never stopped me from being nerdy) and sensitive about having such a big ass (but that had more to do with not liking negative male attention from perverts), but when it came to my large nose, thick lips, big eyes and undeniable black features I knew I was the shit and everyone else was wrong.

That's why you have to wage a war from the time your son or daughter crawls out of the crib to get them to where my parents got me. You have to show them over and over images of our beauty. My mother bought us the book "When and Where I Enter" and "I Dream A World." I read "The Color Complex" as a teen. We had regular study sessions over the works of Jawanza Kunjufu. She even dragged us to his one film, "Up Against the Wall."

She told us over her pride in having an "African nose" when people mocked her flat, wide nose. She encouraged us in music and dance and art, surrounding us with as much good energy as she could. Because it was her versus the world, a world that wanted us to believe we were not beloved or lovely.

Our father took thousands of pictures of us. My grandfather introduced us all as his "pretty, smart granddaughters from St. Louis." And no matter how bad a day I had at school I would look in the mirror with tears in my eyes and see myself as beautiful and tell the world it was crazy if it couldn't see what I saw.

I was lucky, but I can't say other black women were. And even with all my mother's work, I still had complexes over my hair, dealt with other people's complexes because it's hard to block out that message that says you're wrong.

So now we have the beautiful First Daughters, two girls who remind me of my sisters and myself. Of my cousins and elementary school friends and to hear someone talk like Sasha and Malia are some rarity, two lovely black girls, as if they were some anomaly you can't find, enraged me.

Here finally, finally an image little black children could see and go "that's me!" They could see everyone complimenting their beauty and feeling proud knowing they shared in that beauty. But then this statement was made by Marlene Wallach, president of Wilhelmina Kids & Teens, was like a kick in the teeth.

(T)he First Daughters are tough subjects to match. “It’s a very specific age and a very specific ethnicity, so there aren’t that many girls that would necessarily fit the bill.”

I wondered if I was making too much of it, but then remembered five year old me coloring those pages and pages of white women and thinking every white woman I saw was the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen simply because she was white. I remember once arguing down to my mother that I DID have blue eyes, fixated on a slender, non-existent blue ring around my dark, dark brown eyes. Then to cry, reading Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye" nearly 15 years later and finding that Pecola Breedlove was inside of me and just about every black woman I knew, even if they fought that negativity every day. And when I framed it that way I knew I wasn't over-reacting. I was taking a stand.

Enough is enough. Light or dark. Long hair or short. Curly or straight. I'd seen many beautiful little black girls in my lifetime, yet they were growing up just like I had, watching MTV and wondering what's wrong with me. Flipping through the pages of Elle and Vibe Magazines. Stuck between Jennifer Anniston and a video ho in what you were supposed to be.

So with this project I wanted to both bring to light the true beauty of all girls, especially those battling that negativity that destroys self-esteem and makes for a deep sadness of feeling unwanted and unloved. I wanted to not just make a piece of literature to combat ignorance, but a love letter to all those little girls I wanted to embrace. That I wanted to sit down next to and color with. That I want to tell "you are special, if to NO ONE ELSE, but to me."

One part political piece, one part tribute, I'm going to take the beauty of these ordinary girls and show that Sasha and Malia are simply part of the bigger picture, simply two stars in a galaxy of lovely, little girls. That many black parents love and see the beauty in their children just as Barack and Michelle cherish the wit and brilliance and beauty in their daughters.

And that's why I'm doing it.

Out of the pictures sent to me I will select from many of them and send a brief questionnaire to the parents, relatives and friends who submitted the little beauties asking about their personalities and talents and put together a tribute piece to our children.

Then use it as a weapon against ignorance.

I will post the full work on the blog and in a hardcopy form to be sent out to the blind so that they may hopefully open their eyes, hearts and minds and see how shallow they have been.

If it heals the heart or helps prevent the pain of another Pecola, another me, another black woman struggling with her own self-image, it's worth it.

-----

If you still want to be part of the project you have until Feb. 8th to send pictures to moi, via email.

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Reader Comments (98)

Thank you. I am the white mother of an African American toddler, adopted at birth. Two days ago I came home to find a copy of Glamour magazine in my mailbox, addressed to me. Not sure how it got there, but I know I don't want it in my house where Abby's going to see it. My daughter is dark, gorgeous, funny, smart, kind (her teachers said she was off the charts for compassion in the two year old room, the first to go reassure or comfort another kid), and seeing Sasha and Malia and knowing she will grow up assuming they belong in the white house (I can tell her how amazing it is, but for her, it's the way it is) is such a comfort to me. I was a curly headed, glasses wearing kid in the brady bunch era and it's my job to protect her from this garbage. I tell her every day how beautiful she is, how wonderful her hair is, how perfect she is (ok, not when she's bathing books, like she did this evening), what a miracle she is. So does my mother, and my father, and her godmother . . . Thank you. and thanks to your parents for doing such a good job.

February 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterEllen

Well said & well put!

February 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLady_Libra

This is incredible, thank you.

February 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterEmily

what a beautiful story!

February 5, 2009 | Unregistered Commenteriman

I just got tears in my eyes picturing that time coloring with your dad.
What a great man, to lead by example and show you how great you are.

February 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJen

Wow, I finally had a minute to sit down and read this and I'm blown away. Thanks for such a thoughtful piece. And thanks also to your father, for his guidance, and your mother's too. As a new parent of a little girl, it is actually encouraging to see that - amidst all the chaos - the simplest strategies can really have an impact.

February 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterClaudia

I am blown away.

February 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNimue

Dear Danielle:
I too lived in North County, and my dad worked for McDonnell Douglas. Did you live in Florissant? Hazelwood? I'm from Florissant. I went to McCluer North, first graduating class of '74. I lived in Wedgewood. Where was your old stompin' grounds? I live in Tulsa, Oklahoma now. I was turned on to your post in Feministing, and I will add this blog to my lists of favorites. Great post - I'm white, but I can truly relate to the worship of blonde beauty - I was always mousey brown - but no more. Now I'm a raven haired (dyed) beauty - albeit getting a little old around the edges. Always nice to hear from a home gal!
ez

February 5, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterezwalker

I'm a white man with a white baby girl, and this post really opened my eyes. I've already been worried about my white daughter being affected negatively by beauty standards, but hadn't considered the effect this stuff would have on the way she sees other children of other colors in our ethnically-mixed neighborhood.

After reading this, I see how important it is for her to think black girls and latin girls and asian girls are just as beautiful as little white girls and not absorb madison avenue's prejudice. Thanks so much for doing what you do.

February 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterFurious|T|

Furious T and ezwalker, I really like the fact that you too are very open and honest about the obvious message the mainstream media has been sending out to our children, that said, I like that Furious T added that he wants his little daughter to see minority children as her equal, because for Heaven's sake they ARE.

February 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNAGROM

Your dad was a smart parent. Kids want to like and do what their parents like and do.

One of the most appealing things about the Obama kids is that they aren't sullen or scared, but "just kids" enjoying "go to work with Dad" moments. I gather that some effort is made to keep their number of appearances relatively low, and to keep them entertained by someone they like (Grams?) during the times when Dad, and often Mom, are busy. Some politicians' kids look like they know that they are there as campaign props, and look bored or sullen or unnaturally stiff - that is, the appearances are a chore.

February 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNancyP

You are my hero right now. This is an amazing and inspiring project. Best of luck as you complete it. :D

February 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJocelyn

What you are doing is awesome! I remember when I was younger asking my parents to stop buying me all white Barbies & Cabbage Patch dolls because they didn't look like me. They said they bought me the ones I had because there wasn't much variety. With two younger sisters, if they brought one of us the only black doll on the shelf, they brought the others the white ones so we would know whose was whose. I never received another white doll again. When Rainbow Brite came out, I remember how proud my mom was to to get the black doll for me. She actually started searching them out (the black girl in Jem, Strawberry Shortcake, etc.)
I wish I had a daughter to send you photos of. I have a son but I work hard to show him positive black images in his toys as well. He's a huge superheroes fan and there aren't many black heroes in the comics. The Teen Titans had 3 black characters and I made sure he owned every single one I could find.
Thank you for sharing the beauty of our people.

February 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCandice Lynch

I came here through Feministing, and I have to say that this is one of the most beautiful, influential, and uplifting blogs I have ever read. I'm Latina and Sicilian and vividly recall having similar experiences growing up. Beautiful people had blonde hair, blue eyes, and pink skin.

A few weeks ago, I went for a walk in the park with my friend, who is white, and our daughters, who are both one year old. Another park visitor-- not surprisingly, a white woman-- looked AWAY from my olive-skinned, black-haired, GORGEOUS child, and said to my friend, "What a pretty baby you have. SHE HAS BLONDE HAIR AND BLUE EYES, JUST LIKE AN ANGEL."

I cleared my throat politely, and the woman smirked at me and simply said, "How old is YOUR baby?" before she went back to admiring my friend's pink-skinned daughter... My friend's daughter, who looked like an angel because she had blonde hair and blue eyes.

While my daughter and I are not black, and I can't relate to racist beauty standards from an African American perspective, I can say that I will tell my daughter as often as I have to that her olive skin and curly black hair are as beautiful as beautiful can be.

Thanks for the wonderfully uplifting words.

February 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGenevra

Am I wrong in thinking that some of you are demonizing white people in the process? My family has been here for centuries... fought on the Union side, never owned slaves, were activists in the civil rights movement, etc etc etc... My parents raised me to judge others not ever based on the color of their skin but always by their character. Coming for a family that has for so many generations fought for equality it is frustrating that I can't shake the feeling that I am grouped in together with all other white people. Just as you do, I do not want to be stereotyped, especially after all the work of my forefathers (and mothers). I actually live in a town that has the highest percentage per capita of interracial children and couples, and in a state that has the most black people per capita of any state. I swear to you, my black friends and white friends mesh together as if we are exactly the same. We understand and respect our separate heritages but we also understand that if we were to try to separate ourselves too much from each other the understanding and love we share would not exist. One wonderful friend of mine, a black man, we don't talk about my "whiteness" or his "blackness." He has known since he met me that I was fighting for all the same things he is. We are political activists that have spent many an afternoon in DC marching side by side. He has never once judged me for being white, never once told me that "I wouldn't understand." NO ONE should be judged by the color of their skin. Even the people that happened to be born bearing the color considered by some to be more powerful politically (but HELLO- can someone say OBAMA?)

I am the girl that grew up listening to blues music and Bob Marley. I am the girl that the first protest I took my father to he bought a vintage black panthers pin and wore it proudly on his hat. I am the girl with an 85 year old WHITE grandmother that proudly remembers the days she risked her freedom in her protesting for black rights.

I feel like nothing I ever do will be good enough to be accepted by Africian Americans as a whole. I feel like the "white power structure" is so hated, and whites along with it, that whether or not African Americans choose to admit it, they will look at me in suspicion first. I am tired of busting my rear end trying to earn the trust of every African American I meet simply because I am white. Please look at me as a person, because that's how I see you.

Why can't we all just be people, and each and every one of us judge the other on our character only?

In all sincerity,

Maddie

February 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMaddie

Maddie, here is the short answer, take this to heart right now:

This is not about you.

February 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJason

Outstanding. I liked to make a donation as requested, please email me for details.

February 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMatrix Mama

Thank you so much for writing this. A beautiful, beautiful post -- I am grateful to have read it.

February 8, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterfd

My daughter is Australian Aboriginal. However she has "white" features and skin tone. I don't know if you are interested images of her "type" of colouring... I understand if you aren't.

February 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBri

Maddie,

I'm white too, and the short answer is that yes, you are wrong. Don't take it personally; no one is trying to attack you. Racism is still ingrained into society and into our power structures (Obama's election doesn't really change that). People here are examining and working against some of these insidious, under-the-radar forms of bigotry that serve to tell people of color that they are "less than" from childhood onward.

This link is talking about sexism instead of racism, but the overall concept of institutionalized oppression is the same, so it might be worth a look: http://finallyfeminism101.wordpress.com/2008/05/24/feminism-friday-feminists-look-for-stuff-to-get-mad-about/

February 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRev. Hermitica

Great post. I am white, but work with a group of predominantly black children through a church program. I started noticing the lack of black dolls when I went to buy Christmas presents for a few of them. I wanted to buy them a doll that looked like them, but that was a lot, lot harder than I thought.
What's shameful is that not only are there few black dolls, but most of the black dolls I saw were light-skinned. I could find no dark-skinned black dolls. This sends an unfortunate message.

February 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

I am a light-skinned Latina. Funny enough, I had the same experience you did. I always drew white people. I didn't think to color them in. It wasn't until high school that my aunt was fed up and she told me I should start drawing people who were Hispanic or African-American. I did it but it was tough to scour magazines for photos of models to copy from.

February 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAliza Hausman

That's a really beautiful post.

Thinking about the dolls made me remember this story. When I was about 4, I told my mother that I wanted a black Cabbage Patch Kid. (We're white.) My mother said OK, and took me to the store to buy one. We got to the cash register. The cashier looked at the doll, then looked at me and my mother, then looked back at the doll. (My mother is very pale. I'm fairly dark. People who see me and my mother together, without knowing any other relatives, frequently assume that my father is black.) So, anyway. The cashier, seeing a white mother and a white-but-possibly-mixed child buying a black doll, asked me, "But don't you want a pretty doll?"

February 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRuchama

Hi Danielle,

First time on your blog. I love it. Good job!

Sasha and Malia remind me of my sister and myself too. However, looks wise...not really.

Our mom's family is from the Caribbean and our dad's is Af.-Am. We got the "Oh, you look different." (compared to Af.-Am. kids) comment ALL of the time.

Sasha and Malia are Kenyan...most Af.-Am. and people from the Caribbean aren't. I think it IS tough to find girls that look like them.

Personally, I get annoyed anytime magazines, etc. compare some random black person to Michelle (Tyra) or P. Obama (random black-white kids) and they look nothing like them. There's an Indonesian man that looks more like the president!

February 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKoala

Here we go with the "Sasha-and-Malia-are-SO-exotic" meme. *eyeroll* Open your eyes and look at the diversity in appearance of the African American community, Koala. Sashas and Malias are in abundance in the black community and I dare say that I can find countless African American females that look like you and your sis.

February 24, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermali
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