Choosing non-white-dominant art for kids

Guest post by Andrea Karim

The two of us! Photo by Sarah Alston Photography.
My neighbor grew up in rural Idaho, on a potato farm with seven siblings. Her family came from hardy German stock, and spent days in the hot rural sun clearing the fields of the big rocks so that the soil could be plowed for potatoes. One day in the mid-1960s, a black man happened to be walking past the field where my neighbor and her siblings were working. The youngest of the children, who was just starting elementary school, had never seen a black person before. Her reaction was to walk right up to the guy and ask, “Doesn’t you mother EVER make you take a bath?”

When I was first told this story, I died a little inside. It still makes me cringe outwardly just thinking about it. My face is frozen in an expression of dismay as I write this.

Now, I’m white. Really white, actually, with the kind of skin that glows blindingly in the sun and never tans but burns after a few minutes without sunscreen. My husband, on the other hand, is a lovely shade of brown. A son of South Asian parents who grew up all over the world, I hesitate to apply a single nationality to him, but he’s brown.

Once our daughter is born, I assume she’ll be some mash-up of the two of us. Regardless of what epidermal shade my offspring develop, I want to be certain that other people of color are not mysterious or strange to them. I will die if my kid ever considers black skin “dirty.”

Despite having been planning on reproducing with this lovely brown man for a number of years, the reality of the impending implications of having a raising a child of mixed heritage just hit me the other day. And it hit me in a weird place: Etsy.
Oh, sure, I know Etsy can be a bastion of blinding whiteness. It’s not like I go there looking for multi-cultural experiences or anything, but I DO go there looking for art.

I’ve bought some fantastic art on Etsy, and I enjoy supporting indie artists. Having seen a number of lovely collage pieces featuring children, I figured I’d outfit our nursery with some truly bad-ass art showing kids doing awesome things — flying, riding ostriches, taking hot air balloons to the stars.

As I was adding dozens of ethereal, fairytale-like prints to my cart, it suddenly dawned on me that I didn’t have a single piece of art that features a child who was anything but white. White like me…. but not necessarily like my daughter.

Now, it’s not like I’m not aware of white privilege and how some of its most subtle manifestations can be the most insidious. I know that white imagery dominates our culture — in small but heartbreaking terms, it means that there are more light-skinned shades of make-up, and that Band-aids come in a weird flesh tone that doesn’t look like anything found in nature but is supposed to approximate white skin. I’m trying to take note of these inequities so I can be ready for them when my daughter questions them.

The thing is, I’d like to think that I might have eventually noticed how “white” kid’s art can be if I wasn’t having a half-brown baby in about a few weeks, but it’s entirely possible that I would have noticed much later — or not at all. Maybe white privilege would have shielded me from the responsibility of making sure that my kid is exposed to images of all kinds of people.
It’s not that I could, or would, try to prevent my daughter from seeing art featuring white kids — after all, she’ll likely attend school with more white kids than brown, and half of her family is white, so I can hardly pretend like white people are some kind of rare, exotic species that are easily angered and best avoided in the wild. I just want to make sure that the images that my daughter is exposed to early on are as balanced as they can be.

This kind of kid’s art is cute, but not what I have in mind.

The simple solution, it would seem, would be to find art that doesn’t feature people at all, but I have to confess my dislike of cutesy animal-themed art for kids. The nursery that I have planned but will probably never get finished includes maps of the world, lots of space-themed posters, and images of all kinds of different people. Of course, none of this art was actually intended for children.

I sometimes wonder if I’m not being overly sensitive about the issue. After all, I’m not going out of my way to choose a race or ethnicity-specific name, and I don’t have the resources or skills to teach our daughter Bengali or Urdu, the “other” languages that her extended family speaks when together. I often find myself wondering how other parents have dealt with the issue of exposing kids to multi-cultural art and images, and would love to hear all about it!

Comments on Choosing non-white-dominant art for kids

  1. I’m white as white can be as well, so I feel you on that– I am adopted, and when I was a kid I was fascinated with other cultures. I think part of it is because I don’t “have” one, I thought things like traditions and traditional costumes were amazing– and I still do.

    It’s also really cool that you’re thinking ahead about this– you mentioned Etsy– a lot of times, sellers are willing to commission different pieces– I don’t know if it would be awkward for you to say “hey, my baby is going to be a beautiful mix of white and brown– would you be willing to do another work with a slightly altered skin tone so she can better identify with your art”, but if it isn’t, it might be fairly painless to do so.

    I don’t know your decorating aesthetic, but National Geographic allows you to choose prints that you can buy– when I was a kid, I lined my walls with torn out pictures from magazines of different people and places, you might look into that. Later on, my mom had some of my favorite blown up huge and printed in black and white. It looked really cool.

    There are also a ton of great children’s books about diversity– I used to teach children’s theatre classes and we would use some of those books to open up discussions about diversity in the arts

    I’ve dealt with kids ages 3-15, and I’ve noticed a lot of times, kids don’t really notice race until it is made an issue or they become so entrenched in their own standards of “normalcy”– I had a class once in which one of the girls had a birth defect in which she only had one leg and one arm– the kids didn’t even recognizer her as “different” until one of their moms pointed it out to them.

    I learned (once, the hard way) that if you treat diversity and race less as a way of distinguishing differences and more a matter-of-fact, wonderful, beautiful opportunity, it can be a doorway to discussion and a way to get to know and appreciate all types of people.

  2. As someone who has sold many custom pieces on etsy I think your easiest solution would be to contact the artists you like on etsy and request custom pieces. You will find most artists open to commissioned works, and you can get just what you want.

    Say I love the children on ostrich pictures, but I want some skin tone diversity. πŸ™‚ artists will make it happen.

    • You know, I considered doing that, but felt strange about it. I’m not sure why, but I guess I felt sort of awkward contacting an artist and saying (essentially) – “Your art is super-white. Perhaps I can pay you to change that for me?” I know that’s not exactly how it would be taken, but every time I’d compose an email to an artist that I loved, I hesitated to send it. I might still do so – I figure it’ll be a while before our daughter can focus on actual images anyway. πŸ™‚

    • etsy seller here- totally agreeing that i would have no qualms about getting a message from you. most of my artwork with people are custom made, but when i do create my own work, i tend to choose images related to my past and childhood. since i am also one of those shockingly white people with siblings of a similar shade, thats what i use for my images, but would have no issues creating something that reflects someone else’s family. go for it!

  3. Kids can say such strange things about race. We’re from British Columbia, where most people are Asian, white, First Nations and Indian, though different people settled different places. So, for example, as a kid, I played with a lot of Indian kids in my neighbourhood, but moving to another city as an adult most of the people I know are white or biracial. So, as a kid, if I saw someone who fell outside of what I had been exposed to in real life, I might have asked strange questions. I had been exposed to racial diversity in the media and art, but not to certain races in real life, so people that I hadn’t been exposed to seemed particularly interesting to me when I was a kid.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think you’re totally doing the right thing by exposing your kid to all kinds of art and getting them used to the idea of diversity, but they may still ask the strangest questions. My experience has been that people have some understanding that kids are glorious little weirdos and will say strange things to just about anyone.

  4. We also thought art was important and when we decorated our daughter’s nursery steered clear of children-centric things. We also thought about our family values (in this case nature and a wide view of culture) and decorated a room we would want to spend time in that would provide visual interest for our child. We ended up using things like an artificial tree in which we pinned multi-colored birds, a quilt with rich colors featuring an elephant in the savannah and wall pieces from Brazil, Mexico and South Africa – all places I’ve lived. I guess the bottom line is, consider decorating for your family instead of for the “any child”. Things that are bigger and brighter are easier for a kid to see but you’re going to be spending a lot of time there – decorating for your dreams is as important as hers.

  5. I grew up going to public school for my early childhood years in a town that was very integrated, and I remember loving the books that were illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats:

    they primarily depicted young African-American children. What is so powerful is how sensitive and individualized and authentic all the characters are. Don’t pick art that feels forced, like it’s guided by a quota (i.e. need to show one Asian child, one Latino) – pick art that feel real and is made with love. It will help guide how your child sees others and the world.

    • Oh, that brings me back! I grew up in a predominantly White community (89.5% white, according to the 2010 census), and my environment was pretty much inundated with white images. However, my family had a plethora of books and videos that featured African-American kids for us to read/watch, so we would feel a little less underrepresented.

      One of the videos we had, which we watched all the time, was a collection of stories, including The Snowy Day and The Goggles by Ezra Jack Keats. Those were my FAVORITE stories. So, thanks for the link! Brings back great memories!

  6. My child will be mixed too. We did the whole “looking for Middle Eastern art” for a few days and had mixed results (a lot of what is out there isn’t exactly non-stereotypical). My advice? We’ve had more success by not seeking out the ART itself per se and are now focused on trying to get some nice stuff from Middle Eastern artists.

    The potential problems, to me, with trying to judge whether anything accurately represents a culture it that it runs the risk of utilizing stereotypes (trust me, we saw plenty of stuff with a camel motif…) It also runs the risk of prizing alleged authenticity over recognizing that any culture is in constant flux and change. I totally understand your question and I’m totally there as well. But it took a lot of pressure off us when we decided that it was more important to buy cultural pieces from merchants and artists from Syria and Syrian-Americans in particular and let them represent their culture in the way they want to. At least then, even if the piece is not exactly what you were envisioning, your money went to a person or community that you’re proud to support and creates more of a demand for ethnic and cultural art in the first place.

  7. You can look into Nigerian Uli Forms. Uli is a traditional art typically done on the body but now, to preserve the art, is done with black ink on paper. The black and white designs will be very visually stimulating for babies and can tell stories in their own way.

    For something more colorful you could look into Tibetan mandalas. Traditionally these intricate designs are done with colored sand by monks but you could create and paint your own or download designs online.

    Both art forms are child friendly, diverse, and have a certain appeal that even grown ups will like πŸ™‚

    • This probably goes without saying, but I can’t help mentioning that it would be a good idea to learn about the meanings of multicultural art that we’re not already familiar with before using them as art alone.

      For example, regarding the Tibetan Buddhist mandala painting suggestion, I think it would be much cooler to know that they are diagrams of three dimensional palaces (from an aerial perspective) connected with particular deities, each of which has it’s own connections and symbolisms with religious significance, than to just put it up with a broad idea that it is something multicultural.

  8. I think it matters the diversity of the people you surround yourself with more than the art on your kid’s walls.

    That said I understand where you are coming from very much. I’m Filipino and my husband is white. When I was pregnant I got Kip Fullbeck’s books 100% Hapa and Mixed. He does wonderful portraits of multi-racial people and I wanted to be sure that my daughter was exposed to these images early on. I also get art from Pascal Campion because he does drawings of families and couples that look like my family. I don’t see a lot of art where the woman is tan/brown and the man is white. It’s interesting how early kids observe because the first time I realized our daughter observed race was when she was a little over a year and she got her Ni Hao, Kai-Lan (it’s on Nick Jr.) and Woody from Toy Story dolls and had them together. I realized that’s her first image of what a couple is. It’s not going to be these homogeneous images she’ll see in art and media. She will see it in her parents first and hopefully in her environment. I don’t know where you live, but I’m seeing more and more multi-racial couples with kids.

    • This is a brilliant point. Although we have a diverse group of friends and family, we recently moved to the ‘burbs (and Seattlites are notorious for refusing to venture beyond their own neighborhoods), so we’ll definitely have to be the ones making the treks into the city to see people.

      The neighborhood we live in is also fairly diverse, but true to the Pacific Northwest, not particularly open or friendly. We’ve been there five months and have met exactly one neighbor. πŸ™‚ Maybe having an infant will change that?

  9. Ooh, I have one of those slightly embarrassing stories about race too. Despite having seen people like LeVar Burton on TV, I had never seen a black person in real life. I was about 3 or so.

    My mom and I went to the store and there was a black man there. I asked her why his skin was so dark (don’t remember if it was loud enough to embarrass!) and she attempted to give me an evolutionary explanation.

    She said that their ancestors had grown up in a sunnier place than ours and that’s why they needed the darker skin – to protect themselves from the sun so they wouldn’t have to use sunscreen (something I was very familiar with).

    I didn’t quite understand the “ancestor” part. I seriously thought that you could become black if you lived in a sunny place – like a really extreme tan!

    • My mom told me the same thing when I was a kid– and for some reason I interpreted that as “They had gotten sunburns”. So for a long time, I believed African American people were burn victims. **Facepalm**. I’m embarrassed for my 5-year-old self.

  10. I don’t think you’re being oversensitive. Children will find out sooner or later that not everyone is just like them — introducing that concept earlier encourages acceptance and tolerance of differences rather than fear.

    I’m also trying to consciously make these choices. I am a very pale person of mixed race (I read as white and for most purposes identify as such, having been raised in a white and mixed family) and my partner is a dark-skinned Latina. We plan on adopting, and will probably raise our children in the diverse urban area where we currently live. We think it’s important to provide examples of multiethnicity in life and in art — and we look critically at picturebooks for this purpose because we’ll have many more books than wall artwork. (It helps that I select books for two children’s programs on diversity and social justice.) I suggest looking into award-winning books, like the Pura Belpre Award, Coretta Scott King Award, NAACP Image Awards, etc., and then branching out to similar titles and authors from there.

  11. A story kind of related to your post… When I went to Japan many, many years ago… I went to some more remote areas that were not on the main island. I was walking through a park and a little girl was bouncing a ball with her dad. She stopped in mid movement and just stared at me with a combination of blankness and like I was mythical creature. I smiled and kept walking.

    It is a funny to reflect on what could have been going on in her head and my head as it was one of my first clear experiences as being the foreigner.

    • Ah, I know the feeling. I had a cab driver kick me out of a cab in Beijing once he realized that I wasn’t Chinese (it was cold out and I was wearing a scarf). It didn’t matter that I was fluent in Chinese – he just threw me out, screaming, “No foreigners! Get lost, monster!”.

      It was my first taste of racism directed against me, and I spent months trying to figure out how people who deal with racism every day don’t simply start smacking racists in the face. Actually, I still haven’t figured this out. The rage I felt was so raw.

  12. When I was little, a family friend of ours was black. And one day when I was 3 I suddenly noticed she wasn’t white and lifted up her shirt, rubbed my thumb on her skin and said “It’s everywhere.” Then I went back to playing.

  13. As a white Mama raising a brown son, I found this one amusing – I keep a variety of old photos around the house, including a few of friends from when I lived in the Caribbean. At 6 years old, he asked me out of the blue one day – “Are all people in Haiti black?” Caught off guard I responded, well, yes, pretty much. “Um, but were YOU black when you lived there?” …”Nope, I’ve always been just about this color.” And that was that.

    • I grew up in Fiji, and was really confused why my sister was white and not brown when she was born. “But she was born in Fiji, so she’s Fijian, so she should be brown!”

  14. For my son’s first birthday he was given the book Mice Squeak, I Speak. My first thought reading it was that the art is simply beautiful (but mostly of animals). The pages that do have children, though, show 3 different ethnicities. I strongly recommend it.

  15. I don’t think you’re being too sensitive at all. I’m the very fair skinned offspring of a mixed, but blindingly fair skinned mother, and a very dark brown skinned father. My mother always talked a good game about being accepting, but everything in my world was white, white, white. Except my father.

    I’m embarrassed for my younger self now, but I honestly thought my father had a skin condition or a perpetual sunburn for many years.

  16. I’m half-Indian and half, for lack of a better term, white (though really it’s a mix of Scottish, English, and German that I find just as fascinating as my Indian heritage, even if it’s less “exotic). Growing up, my “white” mom spent a lot of time introducing me to Indian food, culture, and art, because she wanted to make sure I knew about this side of myself. My dad, having lived here since he was eight, was the one cooking “white” foods like pork chops and pasta sauce for everyone.

    I love my Indian side, but as I’ve gotten more into genealogy I realize how disappointed I am that I didn’t learn more about my “white” heritage. We were indentured servants in Scotland! Some of us founded towns in Connecticut! WE HAD SOMEONE TRIED FOR BEING A WITCH! It was awesome, but no one ever volunteered this information because they all thought India was more exotic and “other.”

    Maybe since I was raised in a big city I was used to meeting people of other races and religions, so there was no moment of recognition that other people would be different. But I guess I say teach your child everything you can about their heritage, but do it from both sides. I’m sure there’s a ton of awesome Scandinavian art out there!

    • I think about this point a lot when reading posts about raising children in multi ethnic homes. My partner is Chinese and I am a very white mix of Western European heritage, with a tiny bit of Native American thrown in. When you’re in an interracial relationship you talk about race/ethnicity a lot. I talk to a lot of white people who seem to regard their heritage as void of culture, and they work very hard to give their children knowledge and experiences of the minority culture while ignoring the history and beauty of their half of the child’s heritage. I guess it’s a part of white guilt, which I work hard to avoid as much as I work to recognize and avoid my own white privilege.

    • That’s a really good point, too, except that I’m fairly detached from my own heritage. The Scottish/Canadian side is… well, they’re Canadian, so best avoided (I kid; but seriously, no one on that side of the family does anything that can be connected to our Scottish heritage). My mother was actually born to refugee parents in Europe after WWII, but my grandparents were, to put it mildly, sort of insane. As such, we don’t identify as Russian or Polish, even though my mom can speak Polish; it was something that we studiously avoided; my attempts to reconnect with that have been thwarted by both people and timing.

      • Oh absolutely, you don’t want to force it if you’re not connected to it. But then again, weren’t exactly connected to my Indian side either. My dad grew up in America and identifies most strongly as a New Yorker, but for some reason the Indian cultural heritage was pushed even though it was almost as weak as the “white” side. I’d also say don’t keep it from your kids if they get curious. Just because you don’t identify with a certain part of your heritage doesn’t mean they won’t find it interesting.

        • Totally agree with you. I certainly don’t want to point to the South Asian side and be, like, “Isn’t that so much cooler? The brown side? Woo! Exotic!”. But from a cultural standpoint, it is EASIER for us to connect to the South Asian side, because (1) OMG, there are so many cousins on that side and (2) many of them live in Bangladesh, so we can visit; even if my husband doesn’t always feel intimately connected to Bangladesh and its culture, we can still show up in Dhaka and know that someone is going to show us an awesome time.

          My mom has cousins in the Ukraine and Poland, but even though they have written to us, she keeps the letters hidden from everyone (including herself, I think), so my chances of finding and meeting them are really slim.

          Good think I know how to make a killer pot of borscht! I think that’s all I ever learned from my Nana. πŸ˜‰

      • I have that going on in my family too, a sort of lack of details and connection. A lot of “bad stuff” too (drunks and small time criminals). Also I grew up middle class and suburban very similar to the upbringing of my own parents.
        When I talk to my partner about his upbringing as the child of immigrants, trips to China and Taiwan, speaking Mandarin exclusively until he went to kindergarten it all seems so interesting and rich. His parents are, as he says, “very Chinese” and so visiting their home is always interesting to me as well.
        But the truth is that our children will not be Chinese. They may look very Chinese and I hope l they will understand that part of their family and culture, but they will be mine too, and I will make sure they are proud of our family’s history in America and Europe.

  17. I think it’s great that you’re taking this approach. I grew up as a brown multiethnic kid in small white towns. When I was little, I was always thrilled to see characters who looked like me in art, books, and tv shows.

    My parents had Mexican folk art hanging around the house throughout my childhood, and I absolutely loved it. We also had books with pictures of children from around the world – real pictures of modern kids, not the cheesy international costume stuff. Oh, and picture books about Native American historical figures. Sacajawea and Pocahontas were my favorites. My (white) mom was careful to find factual books that didn’t exoticize non-white ethnicities or promote the “noble savage” idea.

  18. My favorite Etsy shop for multi-racial nursery art is Edie Art ( Her work is beautiful, and is literally exactly what you described: “kids doing awesome things β€” flying, riding ostriches, taking hot air balloons to the stars.” She also does custom murals and custom pieces regularly.

  19. My husband is Asian and I’m white as white can be, and we’re expecting a little one, soon. Wall art isn’t my major concern. For me, playthings are more of a big deal. I am attempting to hunt down Asian dolls and things for the little one. I also like the idea of expanding our reading material beyond classic European fairy tales. I guess, for me, I think if the child feels both cultures have something awesome to offer, s/he will develop a positive attitude about all aspects of who s/he is.

    One thing I’ve enlisted help in is getting children’s books from my husband’s country of origin. I’m lucky enough to have an awesome mother-in-law who teaches preschool so I think she’ll pick some good ones. Perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad idea to see if you could get art, books and playthings from relatives abroad. That way the child not only gets a sense that there are many different kinds of people, the child can also connect a bit with another culture.

  20. I’m a white girl marrying a brown guy and hoping to have beautiful brownish babies. I’ve thought about this a lot too because I’m a librarian. When I put together a book display, I look for books that represent children of all races. Very frustrating to find that every picture book featuring an African-American child is about the Civil Rights movement or jazz.

    Fortunately where we live there is a very large number of artists producing works of the same Native Alaskan heritage as my love. Many of these include children playing and doing other Alaskan activities. I’ve already purchased one that hangs in my office in the library and will someday (hopefully!) be transferred to our children’s nursery.

  21. I think it is just a little harder to find..or that caucasian is the default (which is problematic itself). Maybe if more buyers requested or took the extra step to request custom, they would realize the need existed.

    I don’t think of etsy as blindingly white! Also many artists/shop owners don’t seem to utilize tags and keywords in ways that help you find it. And the brevity of tags don’t help those who do. That said, I am now browsing the comments for shops that other folks recommend – which are usually the best bet for finding. I’d love to see more posts like this, even though I’ll be having a lily white little boy I want to be thoughtful about exposing him to other races and family structures on his walls, in his books, and in his toys!

  22. I have a little half Bengali, half Euro-mix baby too!

    In my case we’re lucky enough to live in easyish driving distance to his family and a large circle of friends, so I don’t feel too guilty about my dreadful lack of ability to speak Bengali. Another lucky aspect is that many people in the family married people from all over the world – Europeans of various stripes, Asian, etc. There’s a running joke that the family is only a couple marriages away from having a full collection of all the continents. So hopefully that will help while he’s growing up.

    It has been a serious concern while trying to figure out what town we want to settle in, though. The area around my husband’s job is incredibly WASPy. My husband grew up in a very multicultural city, so he’s understandably worried about how our kids may feel if they end up in schools that are 99% white.

    As for art around the house and toys, I’m lucky to be pretty darn craftsy- so I’m making my own stuff! I’m also thinking ahead and stocking up on fiction that mixes up skin color without making a big deal about it, like Avatar the Last Airbender and etc.

  23. Being exposed to different races and cultures is SO important! My black grandmother lived with me growing up and I can remember my best friend telling me that knowing her was the one thing that made her think differently than her somewhat prejudiced family. I grew up surrounded by various races and took it for granted until that point.

    As for art, you might try Novica. It’s pretty expensive but it’s fair trade. I was lucky to inherit lots of Asian art from my late mother-in-law. We also have white, black and Asian baby dolls for my son to play with. I had never really thought about how white is the norm even in kids art. πŸ™

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