Rachel Broadwater is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey. Her work focuses on how gender, race, sexuality, spirituality and privilege intersect and complicate parenthood. Her work has been featured on such blogs as thefeministwire and loveisn’tenough. This essay was originally posted at cocoamamas where she contributes regularly.
I have managed, despite a notorious reputation of killing all living things (a cactus died on my watch) to raise my daughter and niece, ages 8 and 9, who not only managed to become potty trained – see Mom I told you – but can also put their own clothes on, use their manners, do well in school and are just magic on a stick. I don’t want to leave you with the impression that I have it all figured it out or that there have not been really crappy days when I think I should have stuck with dogs. I know that soon I will be entering tween territory and then into the abyss that is full blown adolescence. As a mixed race woman who culturally identifies herself as African American and a womanist, I have to prepare the girls to deal with the confusing and painful intersections of race, gender, and class among other things. The Steve Harvey’s, T.D. Jakes, Satoshi Kanazawa’s and their ilk who want to constrict, control and/or coerce my girls to accept an image that is not of their choosing will be coming on strong. I have at my disposal Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara, Paule Marshall, Delores Williams, and Jacquelyn Grant. I have mamas, mamis, muthas, aunties, mothers of the church, nanas, and grandmas to pray them up, plead the blood, light incense, to dance and shout, and shield them from my own temper if needed. I am also blessed to have awesome menfolk on my team starting with my husband who mended the eldest’s broken heart when she came home crying one day and ran into his arms telling him ,between snot and tears, that someone called her ugly. The girls have their Uncle Moses, an openly gay man who deeply spiritual and a singer, who always has a joke and tickle for them. Bringing up the rear is my brother James, Pa, Pop Pop, Poppy, and the men at the church. So what, dear reader, has me lying awake at night, brow furrowed and a desire to drink in the daytime?
Like many parents, we monitor the quality and quantity of the media the girls consume. After trial and error, we found three that were appropriate. One came out a clear favorite between the girls. Fantage is a website that allows children to make their own avatars, play games for coins that they can then use to buy various houses, pets and other accessories. They also are able to chat safely with other players online. The girls are always showing me some new pet, new hairstyle, or house that they purchased and I would faithfully come over, look and make the appropriate noises. Despite all of the (safe) fun the girls were having, something kept bugging me and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it was. Then it hit me: Both of the girls avatars were white girls with bright blue eyes and neon hair color.
I knew I had to handle this carefully. I did not want the girls feel like they had done something wrong or that I was angry at them. However I was curious why they chose to represent themselves in this fashion.
“You know I love the pink hair baby. I think it would look great on your skin tone. Do you want to see what that would look like?”
“We tried that already. The skin tones they had looked like dirty water. We didn’t like it.”
They said it so matter of fact that I was temporarily speechless. On the one hand it made me feel good that they had themselves in mind while being creative but it made me sad and angry that they felt the choices available to them did not reflect them. I asked them to explain exactly what they meant. With a sigh, they opened the page with the avatar choices. There were six to choose from with only two that looked darker than a biscuit. While there were a variety of hair colors to choose from, only one or two reflected hairstyles those most African American girls would identify with.
“See Titi? My skin doesn’t look like that. I’m darker than that.”
“Yeah Mama and I’m not that dark. I wanted it to look like me.”
I let them get back to their computer time while I sat and tried not to curse in front of the children. Don’t get me wrong. I love that any and everyone on the internet can be a pink pixie dust covered flying dragon who shoots rainbows out of their butts if that is what they choose. The internet for many people including many who are deemed marginal beings in broader society is a lifeline. There is someone out there who is right where you are at and you can connect with them. For children, especially, it a tool for trying out all kinds of personas. They can be whimsical, cool, powerful, and fierce or anything else they want. The one thing it seems they cannot be is those things with themselves in mind. Black bodies, especially children, seem not to be allowed to inhabit those spaces. What does it say to children of color when you cannot have complete creative control with their skin, their hair, and their eyes? When you can be anything within a white body but a black body, not so much?
I was pondering the limits of creativity for black bodies(especially female) when a few weeks later news that the author of the popular blog A Gay Girl in Damascus who described herself as a half Syrian and half American was actually a 40 year old white man living in Georgia. By way of “apology”, Tom MacMaster explained “while the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on this blog are true and not misleading as to the situation on the ground. I do not believe I have anyone-I feel I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about.”
So let me get this ish straight. A white dude living in the South can drape on the oppression of marginalized bodies like it’s a new coat because he wants to create a “voice” and my kids can’t be themselves online?
This is not the first time that white bodies have inhabited the “other” in order to prove a larger point. This is just another stop on a really long trip. With social media becoming with each passing day a critical tool in social justice circles, how will the internet and those bodies who utilize it be freed and constricted by it? With white bodies being able at any point in time to be the voice/body of the oppressed and have an audience, it creates a dead zone for those who actually are those voices, those bodies, the ones who are actually doing the work, living the reality, feeling the full brunt of it all. How will our children be able to carve out a space as artists, writers, dancers, teachers, doctors, and the like with such a narrow walk way?