Some fights are not worth fighting. I was already an hour late for a 4th of July interdependence celebration and my Modern Toddler (MT) asked to wear her princess dress. She’d just tripped over the hem of the yard sale buy, brushed herself off and announced “The princess is okay!” I was in the mood for family, not decorum lessons, so I complied.
For MT, "princess" and "pretty" are synonyms. I have to admit that when she says, “Mommy, you look like a princess,” her eyes round with appreciation, I am flooded with warmth that I never wanted to feel at the thought of Cinderella. The first time that MT pointed to a Cinderella picture and said, “Pity pincess!” I thought of a saying from my friend’s South Florida folks: “Got to be mo’ careful!”
And I’ve tried. I don’t buy any princess merchandise, we don’t watch princess movies and when I absent-mindedly bought princess pull-ups, I told MT, “It’s totally fine to poop in these.” Sometimes, when she is breathtakingly beautiful in a dress sent from her Modern Grandmother, I tell her, “You are such a beautiful lion.” She roars. And then reminds me that she is a princess lion.
I’m screwed because we live in the world.
I suppose I could quit my life to be a cultural monitor. Then MT would be a righteous little sister with no food. I could also go to Home Depot, buy the materials for a huge bubble, plaster the walls of said bubble with pictures of Lauryn Hill, and raise MT in it. Yet another option is resignation with intention. I resign to the fact that I don’t have complete control of my daughter’s socialization, and I am (most times) intentional about the time we do spend together. For me, that means spending quality time with my people, who are all kinds of beautiful.
One day, she called a gender-queer auntie a princess and a cowboy in the same hour. I want to imbue this moment with meaning, to believe that she saw her beauty and her strength (sans the racism associated with the whole cowboy narrative). I want to believe that she sees people in ways that only babies and children can, in truth and wonder. I want to believe that toddlers haven’t yet been trained in racist hierarchism, that I can stymie this training by teaching her to trust her own self-definition. So when she is a princess, I curtsy. When she is a firefighter, I cheer her on as she saves the sofa. When she is a lion, I run until I’m too tired to be afraid. When she is a mommy, I demand cookies.
Cinderella is the blond bastion of beauty that has brown girls failing the doll test all the time. But maybe it’s not her fault. She was an orphan who was good with a broom. She didn’t ask for Hollywood to glorify yellow hair and blue eyes, to demonize brunettes and make fat-phobic jokes. That system was already in place. If God is in the details, the devil is in hierarchy. The problem with the doll test, after all, is the question: which one is the prettiest? The brown girls I tutor know the answer.
Because of the work I do, I’m always thinking of Pecola, her victimization, and the freedom she arguably found in madness. I think of a friend’s recently published memoir, which illustrates the painful affects of internalized racism. Unlike Pecola, my friend made it to the other side and is in the process of healing her inner girl child. MT’s coloring protects her from the worst of racist denials of brown beauty, but I don’t want any parts of this system of ordering difference.
I long for the curriculum of the Panther Schools, especially when I read accounts of former students who say that they never, ever wished for whiteness. What did they do with hierarchy? How did they get outside of Western systems of thought? Where are the Afrocentric schools and how do I build one? How do I get my daughter to choose her fireman’s hat or her stethoscope instead of a velvet princess dress when the high is 90 degrees Fahrenheit? I don’t have all the answers, but I’m glad to be on the quest. In the meantime, the princess is okay.
Asha French is a writer and mother living in Atlanta.