Dolls are Not Enough

By Troy Flint

If you’ve ever had the experience of being “the only one” growing up, you live in fear of a certain day. Well, several days, but the first occurs when your child becomes conscious of their difference and expresses insecurity about it. As a parent, you know it’s coming, you just don’t know when. You play out various scenarios in your head and rehearse potential responses. They are all thoughtful, supportive, and enriching. And when the day comes, they prove utterly insufficient. As with most things child-related, rehearsal is poor preparation for reality.

So, when my daughter told me she didn’t like her curls, I was predictably devastated. Despite all my practice, I was caught off-guard. There I was, just doing my daughter’s hair as we went about our totally organized, unrushed, non-stressful before school routine and she blithely makes this pronouncement. There was no real passion to it. Just a throwaway line said in a casual manner that made it all the more cutting. When my heart came down from my throat, I replied that her curls were beautiful and part of what made her special and offered various other protestations that had little to no effect because she had already moved on to something else. I could almost see the thought bubble above her three-year old head saying, “Dad, it’s not that serious”.

It was deadly serious to me. I should have known when she dressed up like Elsa for three months straight (OK, I did know). I resolved to grow out what was left of my hair at that exact moment, if only to show that my daughter that she was not the only person in the family with curly hair and that curls are something to be embraced (I’d been rocking a bald fade for almost her entire childhood, so she had no memory of me with hair longer than maybe 1/8 of an inch. Solidarity should count for something, right? I also started counting the days until our annual trip to visit my family, a time when she is surrounded by friends and relatives with (When we made the trip, we received unsolicited gifts of hair care products at almost every stop, probably a Midwestern Nice indication that we needed to refine our efforts in this area). In addition to beauty supplies, the trip also provided a much needed opportunity for my daughter to bond with blood relations who have, embrace, and celebrate some of the same qualities she has expressed reservations about. It allowed her to receive compliments on physical traits apart from her blue eyes. (Yes, they are beautiful but they do not represent the sum total of her aesthetic appeal nor what defines her as an individual.)

My wife’s family, who lives here in California, are sensitive to the issue of racial identity and its connection to self-esteem, particularly when young girls and normative beauty standards are involved. They are as blonde as the Danish speedskating team, but make a special point of purchasing gifts and literature that feature black girls, curly haired girls, and a variety of races and ethnicities. Their efforts to be inclusive are deeply appreciated.

Yet, no matter how many dolls you buy with melanated skin, or how many books you read with positive black characters, how many lessons you create for Black History Month, or how many times you watch The Princess and the Frog, there is no replacement for living, breathing examples of confident Blackness (or confidence in any ethnicity), provided by relatives and role models. So, the new (school) year resolution is to make a proactive attempt to ensure that a plethora of loved ones and role models of every hue and background populate every phase of our daughter’s life, not just annual vacations and trips to visit certain friends. On Sunday, she’ll be attending a black dance school and I couldn’t be happier. Also, Elena of Avalor seems to have replaced Elsa, so maybe things are looking up?