Toys aren’t just playthings

When I was a young girl in the late 1950s, I loved dolls. Lined up on my bed were baby dolls and dolls supposed to be my age and, eventually even grown-up ones, like Barbie. I loved to dress them up, comb their hair and have endless conversations with them. But there was a problem.

dolls

None of these dolls looked like me. Not one.

My doll-playing years happened just a little over a decade after the groundbreaking research of psychologists, Drs. Mamie and Kenneth Clark. In 1947, they released their study showing that black children as young as three—when given two dolls, identical except for skin and eye color, the children—almost invariably chose a white doll as the one they liked better or wanted to play with. Even though the black children had the choice of a brown doll that looked like them, they still preferred the white doll. The Clarks concluded that these children had already internalized an unconscious belief that white was better.

The Clark doll research of decades ago and even more recent studies show that children as young as three have a sense of racial identity and racial hierarchy. This important research points to the impact of all the other messages these children receive — overtly and subtly—about black and white people.

While my parents couldn’t easily find dolls that looked like me, today’s parents don’t have that problem. They have a plethora to choose from. Finding one that racially resembles a child—almost any child—is no longer difficult. Children today see a rainbow of skin colors in dolls, in action figures, and in the Crayon colors labeled ‘flesh.’ Not only are characters racially diverse in the animated cartoons they watch but also in the books they read. Merchandising and media today seem to reflect the literal complexions of America.

As parents or the adults in children’s lives, we know that toys aren’t just playthings, items to entertain. We have learned that from all the child development research we consume as we try to be the best parents (and grandparents) for our children. We know that toys are important tools in shaping how children see the world and how they negotiate it.

Knowing this, we make conscious decisions when buying toys or educational gifts. We want our children’s learning to be enhanced by these gifts. I wonder if most parents, when selecting them, think about the messages they send about race and how they value people who don’t look like them. Consider this comment from Jennifer Richeson, a Yale University social psychologist:

“In some ways, it’s super simple. People learn to be whatever their society and culture teaches them. We often assume that it takes parents actively teaching their kids, for them to be racist. The truth is that unless parents actively teach kids not to be racists, they will be. This is not the product of some deep-seated, evil heart that is cultivated. It comes from the environment, the air all around us.”

We can, and should, use the occasion of gift giving to demonstrate to our children what we value.

I don’t believe diversity alone fights racism in the world, but by celebrating diversity, those of us who influence children help to instill in them a bias toward a belief that all men and women are created equal. And that is a valuable gift we should want our children to have, right? That is an important step toward valuing and promoting racial equity.

So, this holiday season as you think about what to give the children in your life, celebrate who they are and who their friends are. Help them see the beauty, the humanity, and the intelligence both in people who look like them and those who don’t. While we don’t want our black children to have a childhood bedroom that looked like mine with all white dolls, we also don’t want white children to have that bedroom either.

Wishing all the Daughters of the Dream readers a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, or a Happy Kwanzaa. For whatever holiday you celebrate, I hope you have a joy-filled time with friends and family.

When the subconscious is in control

Q: Who was the president of the Confederacy? A: Jefferson Davis.

I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy. I’ve known the answer to that question all of my life; so, on page 131 of my book, Daughters of the Dream, why did I reference Robert E. Lee as the president of the Confederacy and why wasn’t this error caught by the multiple readers who reviewed the book before publishing?

I think there is only one answer: Robert E. Lee looms larger than life in most conversations about the Confederacy. It wasn’t until writing Daughters of the Dream that I knew there was a statue to Jefferson Davis on the venerable boulevard in my hometown that features effigies of Confederate notables (along with one statue to Richmond native son, tennis champion Arthur Ashe). I did, however, know about the 60-foot equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue. For whatever reason, Jefferson Davis seems to have taken a back seat, at least in Richmond, to Robert E. Lee. Even one of the local high schools is named Lee-Davis High, not Davis-Lee.

conscious.subconsciousWhy am I bringing this up? I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to erase/correct the negative images about black people that have proliferated in our country for so long. I incorrectly wrote that Robert E. Lee was the president of the Confederacy because that false reality rang truer in my subconscious than the truth. And his role—Lee’s—as the dominant figure in the Confederacy mythos and pantheon, seems to have also permeated the psyche of many readers who did not catch the mistake.

I think the same thing has happened to many white people in America. The traits they associate the most with black people are negative. This rings in their subconscious. They hear about the number of black people committing crimes and who are incarcerated. They hear about the inability of black children to learn or for black boys to attend to their school work. They hear about, or see, the distressed nature of some black neighborhoods. They hear about the high black unemployment rate. The list goes on and on. Criminal, ignorant, unstable families are the media messages, the tropes that populate minds—often crowding out reason—with words and images. They give people the shorthand ability to make quick decisions. As Malcolm Gladwell reminded us in his book Blink, quick decisions are not uninformed decisions. They may occur in the blink of an eye, but information is being processed and acted upon that has been accumulated over a lifetime and fed by the experiences and perceptions of parents and grandparents, neighbors and teachers.

Against the negative imagery defining black people, there is often little real-life experience to provide balance and truth. In predominantly white communities, there may be few black teachers, lawyers, doctors, store managers to offer a counterweight against the negative images, no interaction in the homes and communities of the ‘other.’ And when you are the majority population, there is little reason to question your reality. It just is. There is little delving into the structural racism and implicit bias that shape reality. No one is being prompted to read Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law to learn of the federal government’s overt role in ensuring residential segregation and then questioning how residential segregation has led to differential policing in certain neighborhoods, differential public services like street cleaning, differential educational opportunities. No one is reviewing studies, like the one that shows when teachers are asked to watch a group of children in a classroom and then note which children are acting out, the answer is the black boy even when an impartial observer notes no distinction in the behaviors of the gender and racially diverse group.

Robert E. Lee rose higher in my consciousness when I thought about the Confederacy than did Jefferson Davis because images and messages had accumulated in my mind over a lifetime that positioned Lee in closer proximity to my sense of the Confederacy than Davis. I think many people experience this same effect. And perception, not facts, rule. I had been taught that Davis was president, not Lee. In the recesses of my mind, I knew this, and the error has been corrected in Daughters of the Dream, but what happens when there is no one teaching about black people as contributors to society on all levels and no one is pushing you to think a lot of what you ‘know’ about black people may be stereotypes. How do we address these culpabilities and overcome the ‘blink’ syndrome of implicit biases? We have to bombard the media with cell phone videos that show common prejudicial behaviors. We have to elevate the stories of the black doctors, scientists and those of ordinary people doing the right thing. Just as a reader told me of the mistake in Daughters of the Dream, we must all point out the faults in people’s thinking and work toward that dream of a racially just America.

 

Credentials

It may have been that Christmas when the chemistry set was more of a hit than the doll and dollhouse that Mr. and Mrs. Swann got the first inkling. Or the glowing reports coming home from the junior high chemistry teacher about their daughter Madeline. But they knew definitely when she asked to have pet mice for some experiments. Science was Madeline’s calling, and she pursued it with a purpose. In 1980, Madeline graduated from Howard University having earned a Ph.D. in chemistry.

She thought she would work on the eradication of diseases, but was drawn to research on the properties of fuels. Working for thirty years as a civilian employee of the U.S. Department of the Army, they lauded her work on keeping fuels liquid in harsh, cold madeline swannclimates. Those testimonies to her intelligence and skill in her technical field were diminished by the number of times—in meetings and conferences—she was taken to be ‘the help,’ clerical support, and asked to fetch coffee and sandwiches for the generals in the meetings who were doing the ‘real’ work. Once she made the offenders recognize their error, apologies were made, and the meeting continued with Madeline playing her true role. But Madeline’s lingering feeling was that no one in those rooms—full of white men—even considered the possibility she could be the chemist on whose research their military plans were being developed. Madeline died a little over a year ago.  If she were alive today, she would be the last person in our group to be surprised by the recent event on a Delta Airlines plane.

Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford, an African-American physician, offered her help to a passenger having a medical emergency. Three Delta employees questioned Dr. Stanford’s credentials even after she produced her medical license. A practice that was not to be followed after a 2016 incident when another Delta employee questioned the credentials of another black physician, Dr. Tamika Cross, when she tried to help a Delta passenger.

While Dr. Madeline Swann’s experiences and Dr. Stanford’s just a few days ago are decades apart, the realities are the same. Some things change, others remain. It is hard for some white people to believe black people have professional credentials. Some suggest that America is more racially fair now than ever before. I suspect that is true. There is a far greater likelihood you will encounter an African-American Ph.D. or M.D. today than at any other time in our country’s history, but even so only about 6% of all physicians today are African-American, and similarly, only about 6.5% of all doctoral candidates are African-American. Some might suggest that these low numbers—the low probability — underscore why Madeline wasn’t thought to be the chemist and why Dr. Stanford was questioned about being a medical doctor. I don’t believe that.

Even when presented with tangible evidence—a medical license—Dr. Stanford was not believed. Whether in the 1980s or thirty years later, the default presumption is a black woman couldn’t possibly be a physician… or a scientist. The narratives about black people’s ambition, intelligence and capabilities are still rampant as are other biases—of which some might even be unaware—against African-Americans.

In the 1990s, when my friend, Dr. Renee Fleming Mills styled her hair in braids and put them in what she thought was an elegant and professional chignon, she was told that hairstyle jeopardized her career path in corporate America. Her hair, not her Ph.D., evidence of her knowledge and expertise, became an issue. She wasn’t conforming to an American, white community-based, physical standard.

Just a few years ago, I heard a colleague, a black woman, say she had earned a Ph.D. not because she wanted to be an academic, but so the white community would not question her knowledge. I wonder if that has afforded her the social and community elevation and respect she expected.

We—my friends and I—were raised to be daughters of the dream; a dream in which success would be possible due to the content of our character (and the credentials we earned), not limited or prohibited by the color of our skin. Today, 55 years after Martin Luther King’s memorable address, skin color still invokes certain beliefs, assumptions, and prejudices. It is the ‘credential’ some see long before you can pull out your medical license or run home to get that diploma.

The Civil Rights Story: Another Layer Revealed

 “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” — Maya Angelou

When Roscoe Jones was 17 years old, he attended the Freedom School in Meridien, Mississippi, a school established by the Council of Coordinated Organizations to provide black students with an actual education, not the inferior one that black children then received in the Mississippi public schools.

Roscoe was recruited by, and ultimately led, the youth chapter of the NAACP. During the summer of 1964, Freedom Summer, he worked on voter registration. It was only through a quirk of fate he was not in the car with James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner on the night the Ku Klux Klan killed them in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Schwerner  had  overheard a call Roscoe received inviting him to talk with a youth group. He urged Roscoe to stay and do that talk instead of joining them. Fate.

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Roscoe Jones beside the grave of James Chaney

I met Roscoe earlier this year. Last month, I joined him and a group of racial equity activists and knowledge seekers from the Washington, DC area on a civil rights learning journey. I thought I knew a lot about that movement. Now I know my knowledge has been superficial. I know the basic facts; the dates, the names and the more prominent incidents. But it wasn’t until this trip to Memphis, Tennessee and several parts of Mississippi and Alabama that I learned the nuances, the shadows, and just how different the life of a black, 17-year-old in Richmond, Virginia—my life—in the late 1960s was from that of one in Meridien, Mississippi or Birmingham, Alabama. The Deep South.

While I was attending a public high school at which I was receiving a solid, college prep education and hanging out with friends at state parks or at pool parties, Roscoe was organizing with his peers and risking his life to register voters. Only about 800 miles separates Mississippi from Virginia geographically, but we were separated by centuries of racial realities. Our worlds were incredibly different.

One of our guides shared the story of her mother, a social studies teacher, trying to register to vote. She was prepared when the registrar asked her to recite the preamble to the Constitution; she had had her students memorize it as they learned American history. Then came the follow-up question. Do you remember Oprah Winfrey in the movie Selma, the scene in which she was trying to register to vote? She was asked the number of counties in the state and then to name all the judges in those counties. You may have thought it was an exaggeration to make the point. But sitting before me was a woman in her 60s, recounting her mother’s sadness at being denied the vote because she could not recite the entire Constitution.

In Richmond, a poll tax was a requirement to register to vote until the mid-1960s, but the registrar did not ask the number of bubbles in a bar of soap or the number of feathers on a chicken.

Nowhere in my recollection of Richmond’s history were black people jeered and assaulted as they registered their children for school as were Fred and Ruby Shuttlesworth when they tried to enroll their children in an all-white school in Alabama. The crowd beat Fred Shuttlesworth with brass knuckles and stabbed Ruby.

I heard stories and learned things I never knew.

The differences I felt in Roscoe’s and my experience strengthened—chillingly so — when visiting the Kelly Ingram Park across from the 16th Street Baptist Church, the site

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Sculpture abutting walkway in Kelly Ingram Park

of a bombing that killed four young girls.  Memorials are throughout the park. One depicts young people huddled against a wall with water hoses aimed at them, but the most powerful had snarling dogs leaping at you on both sides of the walkway. Only a soundtrack of growling, enraged dogs would have made it more realistic. No caring, compassionate person could visit such representations of fundamental moral wrongness, and not come away with a visceral—heartsick—feeling, but one, nonetheless, mixed with pride and awe for those who stood up and protested.

When I think of the civil rights movement, my frame is the non-violent protests in my home city. Nothing like this happened, to my knowledge, as young people in Richmond advocated peacefully for integrating downtown movie theaters and department store restaurants. I was aware at the time of the violence in Birmingham and on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Those were newsreel images. My mind hadn’t wrapped around the pervasiveness of the daily terror, the consequences of not stepping off the sidewalk as a white family walked by or of being dragged from your home in the night, beaten and possibly lynched to provide an example to others.

We hear a lot about the greatest generation, typically about World War II veterans. This trip reminded me that there are others in that greatest generation, the civil rights workers. The Roscoe Joneses of the Deep South risked their lives for many of the rights we take for granted today. They, too, were soldiers fighting for justice, for the freedom portrayed in our Constitution. Today as Roscoe, and others, share their stories with people like me, he deepens our understanding of what those experiences that we read about really were like and he strengthens our commitment today to racial equity. I am  grateful.