Children, Communication, Stereotypes, and Privilege Oh My!

January 5th, 2012 | Categories: Class, Gender, Role

In a blog titled The Case of the Black Barbie Doll by H. Roy Kaplan, the author notes that studies repeatedly demonstrate bias against Barbie dolls of color even by children of color and notes that this is caused in part by the “pervasive effect that white culture has on children from other ethnic groups.”

Although I don’t disagree with this statement, its ambiguity reinforces the mystique around stereotypes. It begs the question, how is it that white culture is so pervasive? The answer is not so mysterious. White culture is pervasive because we communicate white privilege, and other privilege, on a regular basis (check out this link re: the concept of white privilege and some great examples).

One resolution offered in the article is surrounding a child with multicultural and pro-diversity literature and toys in the home. One example of this that I often discuss in my classes on diversity issues and stereotypes is the Sesame Street children’s book Monster are Red, Monsters are Blue.

I question the premise of using this type of pro-diversity material with children. Essentially pro-diversity literature often makes a relativist argument equivalent to saying, “to each their own.” Another way to phrase this is by saying, “not better but different.” Catch phrases and clever sayings aside, these products emphasize difference, if also equality of those differences. In contrast, the approach I take in my home is to emphasize similarity. I do this in two ways.

First, I point out similarity instead of difference. If my daughter notes that someone is different in a certain way from her, I proceed to inundate her with the ways she is similar to the other person. I recall that when I have watched Dr. Phil in the past he was fond of saying that for every one negative comment a parent makes to a child, that parent needs to make ten positive comments to diffuse the effects of that negativity on the child’s self esteem. I take that approach to difference as well. For every one comment about someone being different, I note ten similarities. It makes a persuasive (and subtle) argument against bias that diffuses the importance of difference.

Second, I send the message that we are all similar because we are different. But not just different according to the meta-constructs so commonly discussed when diversity and stereotypes are a topic of conversation including race, gender, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, and so forth. In addition, I emphasize hair color, eye color, height, the color shirts people are wearing, whether they are sitting or standing, and so forth. I can get into the minutia of our differences with ease in these conversations. My goal in doing so is to diffuse the relevance of the more obvious differences between people. If we are all different in so many ways, the differences become meaningless. This is because the differences become a similarity that we all share. Similarities are much less interesting than differences and, so, warrant no further attention.

Recently my son’s favorite doll- who he insists on keeping naked- was run over by a car as my children watched. To my great surprise they weren’t scarred for life from this event. The doll, unfortunately, was. Although mostly unscathed, her left breast was scuffed a bit and the right breast was flattened giving the appearance of it having been removed. My Type A personality jumped in and I quickly rushed to decide I would now be throwing the doll out.

Luckily, before I had a chance to communicate difference I stopped myself. I realized the message I was about to send was that now that the doll had a damaged body it was useless. I was about to communicate the privilege of the able bodied.

Instead, I chose to look at similarities. After noting that the dolly was hurt, I asked my son whether he still loved his doll. He confidently and quickly responded affirmatively. Where I saw difference he saw similarity. The doll was the same. Nothing of value had changed. If I were to have communicated the privilege of the able-bodied, I would have been teaching him about difference, its importance, and by extension whether I meant to or not, that different does mean better.

It is important to keep in mind that white privilege and other privilege is “pervasive” for a concrete reason. We communicate privilege regularly, sometimes in our most innocent conversations, and sometimes in the very books and toys we think are pro-diversity.

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  1. Sara
    February 22nd, 2012 at 17:49

    It tends to be a lot easier for children to recognize similarities rather than differences in all aspects of life. None of us are born with the concepts of prejudice or stereotypes; that is something we all learn from society through the people around us. I believe that in grade-school classrooms there should be many required lessons on embracing what may be “different” than the norm. I really enjoyed your example of the doll run over by a car. It shows not only the openness of children, but also that as adults we find it easier to point out flaws rather than embrace differences.

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