My niece MCKTP is a six years old. She has a wide smile, shy talent, and refreshing curiosity and honesty about the world. She is also adopted, living with two (and White) dedicated moms, and is African American. My sister, one of her parents, is committed to raising a daughter who is confident, smart, and loves how she looks. Her home has a healthy dose of Black Barbie, stories featuring Black characters in positive and healthy roles, and art depicting African Americans in ordinary and appropriate scenes.
For whatever reason - maybe living in a predominantly Caucasian family in a mostly Caucasian neighborhood, and being raised in a culture where books, toys and TV shows featuring African Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities in supporting roles far more than in lead roles - MCKTP has expressed a kind of dislike for African Americans for most of her little life. "I must make made choices because all Brown people make bad choices," she declared conclusively to her parents one day. She distastefully pushed the African American American Girl Doll away when she received it for her birthday a few months ago, and she adores her blonde haired, blue eyed cousins.
On a recent visit to see my family my sister and the Divine Miss MCKTP were enjoying hot cocoa and conversation at a local bookstore. I was chatting with the little princess about the new Disney Princess, Tiana.
"Is she beautiful?" I asked.
"Yes, Auntie Clownface" she replied assertively, squirming in her seat as she absent-mindedly sipped her cocoa.
"What does she look like?" I prompted her. "You know I haven't seen the movie yet."
"Well she has a sparkly green dress, and..." MCKTP stopped in mid-sentence as a light bulb started to glow brightly over her braided head, "Hey, she looks like me! Does that mean I can be beautiful too?!"
I looked at my sister, who was grinning from ear to ear, fighting back tears of joy and relief. "Of course you can be beautiful too! You ARE beautiful MCKTP!"
I'm smart with an overly developed empathic gene. I've read Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye several times, and the film version of The Color Purple brings me to heart shaking tears. It wasn't, however, until this brief conversation with my niece that I really understood the pervasive power of popular culture, no, of American culture in general, on African American identity. This beautiful girl who is only 6 years old and surrounded by a family who has loved her since birth, listened carefully to social cues and came to the misguided conclusion that she was ugly and bad. And something as seemingly simple as one movie, one schlocky Disney movie, helped my niece reach the tipping point in her articulation of her beauty.