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Pink Princess Racism

by Doug Brugge
Boston, Massachusetts

If you are the parent of a girl, you know the section. It is among the children's selections at the bookstore and has a special place in the toy store. It is all about pink. And princesses. Before I became a father, if I thought about pink princesses, I would have reacted to the gender stereotype. That girls were expected to like pink princess dolls rather than playing with blocks and trains. And that the pink princess is the cultural counter foil to the witch, the ugly old woman.

Today I am the white husband of a Black woman and father of a Black girl who likes pink and princesses and plays with trains with boys. I still cringe at the gender stereotype, although I have softened to appreciate the athleticism and artistry of the gymnastics and ballet my daughter loves as much as throwing, kicking or hitting balls with her in our back yard.

I would like, however, to steer her clear of Barbie and pink princess dolls and books. Today, part of the reason is that I find that there is another, perhaps equally troubling, aspect to the pink princess. These princesses are almost entirely white and the clear hierarchy within their whiteness is that blond is best, red hair a close second and brown and black hair are runners up. Note that there is Jasmine, who is a lightly tanned Arab, but beyond that, there is no racial diversity among the pink princesses that I have seen.

Compared to my youth, when there was outright racism in children's characters and no diversity, today there is an explosion of multicultural characters for my daughter to enjoy. My daughter is met on all sides by incredible offerings of stories written for children about or including Black, Asian, Latino and Native American characters. She has 6-7 baby dolls and all but one is brown skinned.

Even most of the cartoons on TV offer some semblance of diversity. The Backyardigans span several racial/ethnic groups. Dora the Explorer is Latino, although when a mermaid appears in one book, she is predictably blond. Even the white family of Calliou spends Chinese New Year with their Asian friends. Not all of these meet my standards for genuine cultural understanding, but at least they appear to start from realizing that there is a problem if the only characters provided to children are white.

So it is all the more surprising that in 2008 there is a section of offerings to young girls that is highly compelling to many of them that is still as segregated as the old south or 1980 South Africa. How can it be that I read and hear no criticism of this? Rumor has it that Disney plans to release a Black princess soon, but why so late? And this issue runs deeper than just Disney, although they are clearly a leading offender.

I have thought about this for a while and can conclude only one thing. That the blond pink princess is so deeply engrained in our collective psyche that producing a dark chocolate princess with tight, kinky hair is so unimaginable that it is accurately assumed to be unmarketable, perhaps even to children who look exactly like the Black princess.

So what can we do and why are we where we are? One possibility would be to seek the elimination or at least downgrading of the princess in the lives of girls. While I can sympathize with this impulse, I have to say that from my personal experience it is not realistic, at least not without rather large social changes. My wife and I did nothing to introduce or promote princesses with our daughter, yet she found out about them anyway and was immediately enthralled by the idea. Had we banned princesses entirely I think it would have only made them even more appealing.

The problem is deeper than the decisions made at the top of a few corporations. I think that 90% of the public, whether they can admit it or not, cannot conceive of a black princess as beautiful. Until a significant majority of the population can see the beauty in a black princess, I cannot imagine that goal being achieved. Not only is my daughter tempted by the blond princess that denies her amazing beauty, but so are Asian, Latino, Native American, and even, to a lesser extent, dark haired white girls given the explicit message that they are not as beautiful as blond girls.

My daughter loves her Black baby dolls and her multicultural books. Before kindergarten, she knew about slavery and the civil rights movement (as much as a child going into first grade can). But she is still drawn to the image of the pink princess. Sometimes it is her and a friend (of various races) dancing in pink dresses, which seems in a sense to turn the myth on its head. But other times, at the bookstore or the toy store, it is a struggle to explain why I do not want to buy her a white, blond pink princess.

I suspect that the only way to change this sorry state of affairs, in which who knows how many children are being taught, ever so subtly, but ever so convincingly, that beauty is profoundly different than the way they look, is to follow the path of the new wave of multicultural books. Not to change or suppress the existing pink princesses, but rather to supplant them with a set of offerings that are so compelling and so diverse that every girl who wants a princess can find one that looks like they do.

Published in In Motion Magazine September 1, 2008