Category Archives: parenting

Black Dolls: Trapped in the Tangles of Racism

Debbie says:

Alexandra Brodsky at Feministing points to a superb piece in the Paris Review, Addy Walker, American Girl by Brit Bennett.

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For seventeen years, Addy was the only black historical doll; she was the only nonwhite doll until 1998. If you were a white girl who wanted a historical doll who looked like you, you could imagine yourself in Samantha’s Victorian home or with Kirsten, weathering life on the prairie. If you were a black girl, you could only picture yourself as a runaway slave.

As Bennett recounts, Pleasant Company gave Addy a realistic, horrifying history, made age-appropriate, perhaps, but not prettified. Her story made a huge impression on Bennett as a child. And it was a controversial choice.

Since 2013, a Change.com petition has gathered nearly seventy signatures demanding that the Pleasant Company discontinue the Addy doll. “Slavery was a vile, cruel, inhumane, unjust holocaust of Black Americans,” the petition reads. “Why would this subject matter ever be considered entertaining?” The petition accuses the Pleasant Company of “diminish[ing] the cruelty of slavery and instead glorif[ying] it as some sort of adventurous fantasy.”

Bennett is conflicted about this petition (as am I, from a much greater distance).

I’ve never found Addy glib and insensitive, as the petitioners do—but she does trouble me. She is a toy steeped in tragedy, and who is offered tragedy during play? Who gets the pink stores and tea parties, and who gets the worms? When I received an Addy doll for Christmas, I was innocent enough to believe that Santa had brought it to me, but mature enough to experience the horrors of slavery.

“I didn’t even think about that,” my mother told me. “I just thought it was a beautiful doll.”

(from later in Bennett’s piece)

In 2011, the Pleasant Company launched their second black historical doll, Cécile, a girl growing up in 1850s New Orleans. She has a white best friend and dreams of finding a gown for the Children’s Ball at Mardi Gras. Many black parents were relieved when Cécile was introduced. Shelley Walcott, a Milwaukee reporter, wrote that although she “believes learning about the history of slavery in America is critical and should in no way be hidden from our children,” she had also wished that the Pleasant Company would release another black doll, one that “celebrated a more positive time in African American history.”

“As a parent,” she writes,

I find Cécile’s story a lot more appropriate for playtime than plantation scenes and a bullwhip-cracking slave master … Much of African American history is painful. And I’m glad to see the folks at American Girl have introduced a new doll that can allow children’s fantasies to be … less intense.

But Cécile was discontinued in 2014, along with the only historical Asian American doll, Ivy Ling. Cécile is light-skinned with long, beautiful ringlets. She dreams of pretty dresses. If I had been offered Addy or Cécile as a girl, I wonder which I would have chosen.

The article goes on to describe the history of racist black dolls (British golliwogs, American pickaninnies), which Laurie and I have discussed before as well as the social history of black children identifying with white dolls. Bennett comes to no conclusion about Addy or Cécile, dark-skinned and deeply oppressed or lighter-skinned and lighter-hearted; she just raises the hard questions.

Here’s what I think: black dolls can’t be viewed outside the context of American racism and the oppression of black people, because the only thing a doll can do is reflect a cultural understanding, belief, or myth. As long as America (along with the white-dominated world in general) remains tortured by our inability to accept black people as full citizens, human beings, lives that matter, black dolls will be a center of confusion. How much truth do we tell children? How much is right about “teaching racial pain to the next generation” (Bennett’s phrase)? When do we protect and when do we reveal? These questions are every bit as important for white parents to confront as for black parents to confront–and realizing that is one of the crucial steps toward change.

Fat Kids: Truth and Consequences by Rebecca Jane Weinstein

Lynne Murray says:

People will do anything to protect their children. It is tragic when the actions they take damage their kids way more than the thing they are trying to protect against. This sad state of affairs is poignantly reported in at Fat Kids: Truth and Consequences, a collection of experiences and interviews by Rebecca Jane Weinstein, Esq., MSW.
fatkids

The national media and its paying sponsors are heavily invested in the “curing fat kids industry.” Weinstein received invitations from major media outlets to do shows promoting her book, but only if they could pile on the bandwagon. “Talk show hosts wanted to be combative about the book because they thought it would be a good show to argue about the ‘childhood obesity crisis.’” Weinstein told me in an email. “I rejected those invitations.”

Weinstein’s refusal to participate in perpetuating the toxic myths about fat children demonstrates both integrity and a deep concern for the actual welfare of children. She will not frame these kids as hapless victims waiting to be set free (for a small fee) from an evil, communicable disease.

In the childhood obesity industry, only one narrative is acceptable: fat kids are damaged goods who need to attain a mystical state of health by becoming thin–regardless of how drastic and damaging the methods. No system has been proven to reliably make fat kids thin, at least not for long. Of course, that is a plus for the diet-addiction industry. Like the tobacco-addiction industry, they are manufacturing permanent customers.

In one essay in Fat Kids, “Collateral Damage in the ‘War on Obesity,’” Peggy Elam, Ph.D., describes how we got to this state of affairs and why the “problem” of fat kids qualifies as a moral panic:

Fat is a condition of the body, not a behavior. It is impossible to separate people from their bodies. Thus the “war on obesity” is actually a war on fat people. This “war” is hurting many people, but perhaps none so much as fat kids.

The attempt to eradicate fat bodies from society is both born out of and increases moral panic. Moral panics occur when certain groups are considered a threat to society and demonized. “What about the children?” and “Save the children!” are frequent rallying cries.

“Childhood obesity prevention” tactics have ranged from improving school meals to removing certain foods and drinks from vending machines to weighing and measuring kids and sending “BMI report cards” (also known as “fat letters”) to the parents of children deemed “overweight” or “obese.” While some such actions are reasonable—who wouldn’t want good meals served to schoolchildren?—others are patronizing, such as the assumption hat parents must not have noticed their kids are fat. The overarching problem with actions taken in the name of “childhood obesity prevention” and “treatment” is that they locate the problem in fat children’s bodies, and thus identify the problem is fat children themselves rather than focusing on behaviors, environments, or situations that are problematic for all children.

Sarah Yahm’s investigative article, “Who’s the Fat Cow Now? Ethnographic Insights on the Academy of the Sierras” begins the collection.  Yahm looks into the ways that a boarding school for “obese and overweight teens” teaches eating disorders to its students.

They start with death threats.

I ask the kids … why do it? They give me a couple of reasons: “So I don’t die when I’m twenty.” “To get healthier.” “It’s important to my mom, to be healthy.” Throughout it all looms the unquestioned threat of imminent death—the kids talk as if Wellspring is single-handedly snatching them from its jaws.

But Yahm finds an even more powerful yearning:

[W]hen they’re pressed they reveal an aching desire that has nothing to do with health and everything to do with being normal: ...

“I don’t know if people are gonna, like, change the way they act towards me but I’m looking forward to coming home, and this one boy called me a fat cow and I’m just gonna go up to him and be like, ‘Who’s the fat cow now?’ because he’s like heavy and he got really heavy over the summer, and he was so mean to me, so I’m just gonna go up to him and be like, ‘Hi.’”

One kid even tells me that “fatties” should be picked on more, that society is too accepting of fat kids, that maybe taunting helps kids decide that “Oh, well maybe I don’t want to be a fatty anymore.”

The overarching lesson they’re learning is quite clear—deviance should be punished, and the only way to be happy is to stop being deviant. Losing weight is about being cool, about having friends, about winning their parents’ approval, about not being picked on.

Aggressive children also learn with dazzling speed that bullying fat kids is okay, because the adults around them are painting a targets on them. In “Fat Immunity,” Addison remembers how the 1966 “President’s Physical Fitness Test” public weigh-in changed her life from that moment on:

Addison was the heaviest person in the school. At eight or nine years old, she was 95 pounds. She knew it, and all the other kids knew it, because the weighing took place in front of everyone. Not even a shame curtain separated her from her gawking peers. And needless to say, the heaviest kid in the school, a fat girl, heard no end. She was made fun of, of course. She was terribly embarrassed, of course. She felt very fat for the first time in her life, and painfully conscious of her body, of course. And of course, that was just the beginning.

Prior to that incident, the children hadn’t fully comprehended the power of teasing; it was as if by realizing Addison was fat and telling her so struck a chord, they had a glorious awakening. They learned the intense authority of being cruel.

The bullying is only getting worse, and schools have a notoriously poor record of protecting fat children. Ben’s story, in “Between a Rock and a Defensive Tackle,” describes the difficulty of fighting bullies when schools embrace fat hatred to blame the victim:

Whatever other hierarchy existed in elementary school, the fat kids had a spot to hold up: the bottom.

Ben frequently came home crying; even with the frogs and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails of which he was made, little boys have a breaking point. Still, he tried to fight back. It was school policy to report bullying to the teacher, and Ben did. He did so often—so often, in fact, that during his fourth-grade parent-teacher conference his mother was informed Ben was an unrepentant tattletale. So much for zero-tolerance on the bullying front.

The experiences of fat children tell in the book are harrowing, but the resourcefulness of many children moved me deeply.

One child’s noble actions particularly stuck in my mind. “If I Were a Hat I Would Be a Sombrero” is told from the point of view of Elaine, a stepmother who seems on the face of it to be dealing with her husband’s very fat preteen son, Paul, and his younger siblings, all of who are horribly neglected. The children always return starved, lice-ridden, their clothing in tatters from court-ordered visits to their birth mother. When Elaine and her husband finally manage to obtain full custody, they find that Paul has been literally using his fat body as a shield to shelter his younger sisters and brothers from violent attacks by their birth mother. Paul’s heroic actions cost him a terrible price. Yet all the adults could see in him was a weight problem.

My own reaction to many of the experience recounted in Fat Kids reminded me of the deep feelings  Sondra Solovay’s Tipping the Scales of Justice: Fighting Weight Based Discrimination stirred up in me when I read it.

I experience an almost volcanic rage when I read about the unfairness of victimizing fat kids and their parents. I had to ration my reading carefully, rest up, then at go at it again. But these stories need to be heard and these experiences need to be valued.

Many of these stories end with a hard-won prize of self-esteem that survivors of persecution have managed to build for themselves at no small cost. However, a notable antidote to the earnest sadness of many of the experiences in Fat Kids is a delightful interview with author and humorist, Daniel Pinkwater. “Digging Your Grave with Your Fork, and Other Things to Do for at Least Seven Decades, An Interview with Daniel Pinkwater” is one of the last pieces in the book. Think of it as dessert. His strong, self-reliant, incorrigibly funny attitude elevated my spirit.

Describing his childhood in Chicago in the 1940’s, Pinkwater says:

Q: How did you feel about being fat?

Fat was handy on the playground when it came to throwing a punch. I could put a little more behind a punch than a thinner kid, and so those few conflicts that arose—and I’d like to state for the record that I never started one of them—I could finish them pretty good. And also you could sit upon or fall upon someone. So you could use weight in fighting effectively. So it was a plus, and also it meant that some people might gravitate to one such as me for protection, because nobody would start with me, because I could put them away.

His view on doctors is similarly refreshing:

I don’t know if you have been to doctors a lot in your life, but there tend to be catchphrases that go around. If you’re seeing several doctors in a short period, you’ll discover them all saying the same formulaic things. And in this case, every doctor I was taken to told me, “You’ll be dead by the time you’re forty.” This upset my mother more than it upset me because that seemed like a ripe old age. It stayed with me, though, and I was very surprised at the age of forty when I didn’t die.

And then I realized that this was what your Scientologists call an engram, that had been lurking in there the whole time—it was errant nonsense. How could they predict such a thing? But I’d never bothered to refute it, I’d never bothered to dismiss it. And so it was just there as a given because I hadn’t questioned it. Forty-one, forty-two, I still wasn’t dead, seventy-one I’m still not dead, and as soon as I realized for sure that this was malarkey, which I would have realized immediately if I’d thought about it even, I felt very liberated.

Somehow or other, just a genetic fluke, a bright happy child. I drew the personality I got. I was lucky. I wasn’t insensitive. I was too amused and interested to buy any of this negative stuff. It didn’t stick, it wasn’t interesting to me. There was a period where I really wanted to become kind of a dramatic, tragic youth, but I couldn’t bring it off. Too many things made me laugh. Just luck.

Thanks, Daniel Pinkwater, I needed that.