Why do girl pull-ups all have white folks on them?

January 4, 2009


Raising children is by far the most joyous and most challenging experience of my life and I know this is the case for any parent who truly loves his or her children. In addition to trying to raise kids that will have a work ethic like you (or a greater one) and hopefully accomplish more than you did, you often find yourself with greater challenges than expected, especially if you are a person of color in this country. I have lived as a black child in America as well as a black adult in America. With all of the racism and ignorance I have experienced as an black person here, living as a parent as a person of color in this country has proven the most challenging and I have only been at it for 2 and a half years now.

My daughters are 2 and half years old and 4 months old. Both parents are black and my sister also lives with us. Without bragging too much, I can at least say that the three of us are doing a good job of providing an example of positive black role models as it relates to the 4 Es: education, exercise, entrepreneurship, and eating right. When we go to Boston and see their grandparents and their aunts, uncles, and cousins, there is nothing but more positive black role models for them to emulate. The major challenge we face is trying to have society join us in our struggle for them to see positive images of themselves, particularly at a young age.

Case in point. My oldest daughter, Ngolela, is now at the age of wearing pull-ups, a big step for her and probably something the majority of parents don’t think twice about. I did not either until I realized one thing—there are no pull-ups out there that have black girls on them. Every brand of pull-up I could find for girls had white or Latina/Arab-looking princesses on them. I couldn’t even find blank ones. Some boy pull-up brands had no images of people on them, only cars, but they were part of the pack that came with white cowboys and astronauts on them. I was amazed by this fact and I quickly tried to see how deep this problem went. Being a doctoral student at the University of Maryland, I quickly went on our black graduate listserv and asked for help. No one could point me in the direction of pull-ups without images of white people on them. This became very frustrating!

Let me make it clear. I am no racist; I’m just real about race. If you’re just discovering me, you will find that I spend my days trying to bridge gaps between cultures, not widen them. In order to do that, however, I believe that all groups need to be confident in their own identity before branching out and losing themselves before they’re ever found. I just don’t my children arrving at the dinner table of multiculturalism with no utensils. For example, the first day Ngolela learned the word “princess,” she immediately said she wasn’t one. This was after she started wearing the pull-ups though we’ve called her princes before. Within a day of the three adults in the house constantly repeating it to her, she realized she was a princess too. Now when I tell her bedtime stories that I make up on the fly, she insists I start with “Princess Saafi…” (Saafi is her middle name).

My point from this is simple: life is a quest for representation. If people don’t see themselves represented properly and see how they fit, they will act like misfits. In addition to the pull-up problem, did you ever notice that there are no black girl cartoon characters on TV in the Dora the Explorer age range? I’ve seen white, Latina, and Asian so far and I applaud that. I see many black parents buying their girls Dora paraphernalia just to get close to a black image. Thank goodness for Bill Cosby and Little Bill or I’d be saying the same thing about young black boys. At least there’s one. If you believe I am over exaggerating on my concerns about imagery, just look at the video below which recreates the “black doll test” and understand just how early our kids start seeing themselves in a pejorative manner:

Enough said right? No.

I was recently conducting a workshop on educating black males with a group of predominately white teachers. I asked them about the pull-ups and one woman remarked: “Wow. I never had to think of that.” That’s the point. When you’re in the majority, you don’t have to worry about seeing yourself represented everywhere you go in the form of history books, statues, etc. You don’t have to be that image-conscious and it’s not just with toddlers. As historic as President-elect Obama’s nomination is, I am also impressed by Richard Liu becoming the first Asian American male newscaster on a major news network. There have been plenty of Asian newscasters on CNN but, without hopefully sounding too ignorant, they have all been young attractive women who almost fit the “Asian doll” stereotype. Having attractive broadcasters isn’t Asian specific, but I hope my point is clear.

At the end of the day, it is my hope that my daughters will be able to grow up in a world where what we tell them they could be will be represented when they walk out the door or turn on the TV so they think we lied to them about what’s possible. The new President and family will help tremendously, but it is the beginning of the work that needs to be done as it relates to countering the overabundance of sex-driven, “ghetto fabulous”, gold-digging black women that are still represented in the majority of the media that is out there today. We have much to do because despite my gripes, I realize it could be much worse. I could be Native American. Pocahontas anyone?

One Response to “Why do girl pull-ups all have white folks on them?”

  1. Shelagh Says:

    Hi Omekongo,

    Since those are Disney characters, you could ask the same question about Disney.

    Your daughters are lucky to have such a conscientious dad. I appreciate your sticking up for women the way you do.

    I also have two daughters: a three-year-old and a six-month-old. I have recently “discovered” Giant brand diapers — about half the cost of the name brands. I don’t know how their pull-ups are or if they even have them.

    There was recently a glossy insert in my newspaper (Washington Post) about the Spirit Awards. I gave it to my three-year-old just so she could see a whole magazine full of people who look like her.

    She has a couple of black dolls; I think that’s helpful, too.

    Actually, can I say “African descent” or “brown” instead of “black”? And “European descent” or “beige” instead of “white”? Even though she is of mixed heritage, she would still be considered black in our culture, just like Obama. She is learning her colors, and there is a difference between black and brown and beige and white. Her dad is very dark, she is caramel-colored, and I am beige or what is known as white.

    She likes wearing band-aids–it’s an attention-getter, I guess–I wonder if she notices their color. I think some brands have gotten darker (or more transparent) over the years, but they still blend in better on white people.

    You really do have to be proactive to combat the impressions kids are going to get from the culture around us.

    Have you seen this site https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/ it reveals a lot about our unconscious associations.

    Keep up the good work!

    – Shelagh Bocoum

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