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 was a honey-colored little kid, a little darker than I am as an adult, and I used to get really upset that nothing around me looked like me. I grew up primarily in neighborhoods where “minority” referred only to african-american families and people constantly asked if I spoke Mexican. (I’m Puerto Rican) When I was big enough to realize that all the images projected to me were white, my mom went out and found me a beautiful little honey-skinned doll with long brown hair and dark brown eyes. It was the most comforting thing in the world to me and I carried that doll around with me for years. I still have her tucked away at home.

    Although, even with that experience and knowing lots of brown people, I was embarrassingly old when I realized that “black” people weren’t actually the color black. I remember hearing the term but thinking I didn’t know any black people, even though I knew a ton of people that were various shades of brown.

    Now I have a son who is a little racial/ethnic mixture. We call him the Paki-rican that defied genetics. His skin tone is such that most people assume he’s white and he has blue eyes but I constantly struggle with how to celebrate his rich cultural hertiage without making him feel alienated. Especially since my partner now is 100% german and pale-pale.

    So I’m definitely struggling with the question as a parent, but for little-me that doll really was key. That and introducing as many possible ideas of skin tone, hair color, eye color, language…everything.

  2. I think it’s wonderful you’re thinking about this. I do think sometimes children express things like “dirty” for skin colour not because they haven’t been exposed to it. My daughter once asked me about the ‘muddy’ girl at the park – a little Sudanese girl who’s mother I was talking with. When I asked her what she meant about that she explained her skin looked muddy. She was only two and didnt have words for explaining the shade of the little girls skin otherwise. Now, you may assume this is her lack of exposure but our little girl has a father of colour and had been surrounded with multicultural events, people and international travel. So if your small child one day naively uses the wrong word to try and describe something, don’t freak out. I’m sure they’re still going to grow up awesome with a mama like you helping them along the way.

    • Similar story: when I was visiting a friend in Panama, his daughter (who has two Panamanian parents) asked her dad why the back of my (very white) leg was “dirty.” He didn’t know what she meant, but she was referring to a tattoo I have of my son’s baby feet! Just further backing up your story — kids will use the words they have to describe others.

  3. I decorated our nursery with ABC cards from Ida Pearle:

    I don’t think you’re being too sensitive at all. I spend a lot of time running down non-white art, books, dolls and other toys for my kids. I figure they’re going to encounter loads of overly white art and media as they grow, so it’s a good idea to provide a counterbalance at home.

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