A conversation on ableism
While playing dolls with Little Light (4) this weekend, I noticed a few themes in colorism and ableism. We were practicing braiding their hair when she opted for the dark skinned doll in place of her usual favorite, Light Brown Baby, that she’s preferred for a few months. Pleasantly surprised, I asked why she wanted to use Dark Brown Baby and she stated that her usual doll was “yucky.” When I asked why, she pointed at the bite marks on the doll’s hands and feet, which the puppy had made while teething.
We continued playing, but I noted the comment to reflect on later. Twenty minutes later, we were discussing potential names for the dolls and Light referenced a favorite book of ours, Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters. When I suggested Light Brown Baby might be named after Nyasha, the protagonist, Light countered she should be named “after the mean one.” Again, I asked why and she pointed to the chewed-up hands and feet.
Noticing the pattern of bias, I asked Light, “Do you think now that Light Brown Baby has a hurt hand and feet she’s mean?” Light nodded and said, “the mean sister has chewed-up hands, too.” I replied that I didn’t think that was true, and Light suggested we should read the book to find out. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to find it, and our conversation got derailed by snacktime and baby sister needing a new diaper.
Later in the afternoon, we were playing with the dolls again, braiding their hair, and talking about all the things we love about curly hair. I used the opportunity to share my thoughts about the bias pattern I noticed.
“Light, can we please pause the game? I want to talk with you about something. I think I noticed some prejudice in the way you were talking about Light Brown Baby earlier. Prejudice is when you make an idea about someone before you get to know them based on how they look, instead of how they act. Light Brown Baby used to be your favorite doll, but today you didn’t want to play with her and you took off all of her clothes and gave them to Dark Brown Baby. Later, you said that you thought she was mean now, since she has chewed up hands and feet. That sounds like prejudice to me because I know that people with all kinds of bodies and abilities can make kind choices and can also make hurtful choices,” I gently explained. At this point, she was starting to look bored, so I wrapped it up. “Thanks for listening to my words. I’d like us to think and talk about this more sometime,” I said.
By early evening Light resumed her usual adoration for Light Brown Baby, dressing her and carrying her around the house and garden. It was interesting to notice how ability and color were ranked in Light’s eyes. She has preferred Light Brown Baby as “prettier” for months, but valued the able-bodied appearance of Dark Brown Baby over the previous skin-color ranking.
We have been reading, retelling and watching various versions of Beauty and the Beast as a lens through which to talk about beauty and behavior. Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe is a wonderful book that explores physical beauty and character, and is also just a lovely read and has been a favorite of mine since childhood. As always, the conversation will continue. I’d love to hear how you discuss these themes in your family. Have you noticed ableist ideas or patterns with your children or in your family? What resources are you using to support the conversation? Where do you feel stuck?
Note: I refer to my daughter as Light as a reference to the meaning of her name, and not the color of her skin. Out of respect for my children I try to keep their names out of public platforms whenever possible.
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