Growing up in England during the 1980s, where blatant racism was perfectly normal, sucked, but at least I knew where I stood. Institutionalized racism is confusing — and Kavya was all of four when she felt the isolating pain that only institutionalized racism can bring.
On New Year’s Day, we are heading out to brunch, and she’s sitting on the stairs, her head in her hands. Crying. I ask her what happened. In most cases, we verbally abuse the pain-inflicting object, followed immediately by a good stomping, and that sorts things out. But this time is different. In-between muted, heaving sobs, she says something that I hadn’t expected for at least a few more years: “I want yellow hair. Like Rapunzel.” She points to the large, manga-eyed, blonde princess with tiny toothpick-wrists, smiling on her t-shirt.
It’s one of those parenting moments where time stands still. I fight the urge to say, “Rapunzel’s hair is stupid. She can go to hell.”
My wife, Sona, sits on the stairs with Kavya and tries to comfort her. Sona’s parents don’t really understand the heaviness of what Kavya is saying, and view it as just a random tantrum.
Unlike some parents I know, I don’t have a problem with Disney princesses, of willful mermaids disobeying their fathers, or the uncomplicated nature of the evil stepmother, of parents disappearing from the narrative through death or being lost at sea. I’ve read the different versions of the stories Disney has adapted and am continually impressed with how they repackage these old stories for modern children and their parents. Taking stories like Snow White about a prince who sees the dead body of a beautiful young girl in a clear coffin, and his first instinct is to kiss her. Then to assume she must want to marry him without even asking her. The adaptations are wonderfully told, with lovely artwork and genuine tension. And that’s what’s important to this storytelling Papa. Morals Shmorals. Besides, I thought we’d have some time to diversify her reading and movies.
Instead of berating Rapunzel for her physical appearance, I ask Kavya if she knows who my favourite princess is. She looks up at me. “Who?”
“Princess Kavya.” I say, touching her nose. Instead of calming her down, she starts crying even louder. After a bit, she says, “Why do you like Princess Kavya?”
I hold her tightly in my arms as we make our way to the corridor of Sona’s parents’ house, which is decorated like it’s 1975: flowery wallpaper, carpets, and cabinets encased in mirrors from floor to ceiling. Those mirrors are lifesavers. It’s incredibly important, especially for little brown girls, to be able to see themselves. Not with any agenda or self-affirming message, just to see some reflection of themselves. She looks at herself nervously at first, and then with a bit more confidence. I plagiarize a line from Winnie the Pooh and tell her, “Because you’re you. And the most wonderful thing about Kavya Kaur Dhillon is that you’re the only one.” Then I plagiarize some more from a book we recently read together and tell her I love her through and through. She mopily adds that she loves me more than a lot. I tell her that her middle name – Kaur – means princess. “You’re a real princess,” I tell her, and So is your daadi-ma, bhuee, and your bhaina.” Kavya squeals in laughter at the thought of all her female relatives, including her grandma as princesses. “And they all have black hair,” she adds.
“Yes,” I say. “But it’s not important what color hair you have.”
Kavya’s takeaway from that conversation was that after brunch, she wanted me to find her a video of Cinderella with black hair. She wasn’t really upset because of the yellow hair. Mulan has black hair, so do Pocohontas and Jasmine, but they are pretty irrelevant as their movies came out in the 1990s, and their engagement now comes in limited capacity: cameos in other people’s shows, or as part of the Disney princess franchise. Merida has bright orange hair, Snow White has black hair. She didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about what she was going through: she wanted white skin. And that’s why me and Sona immediately understood the repercussions of what our perfect little girl was upset about, and our parents did not and wanted to quickly sort this tantrum out so we could go out to eat.
A princess figurine collection I bought Kavya several weeks prior to this incident when I made the mistake of telling her she could get one thing from the bookstore. I assumed this fool would choose a book. It featured all of the princesses. I thought this would be a good thing. Turned out that all of the white princesses had large, flowing, dresses, and were able to stand properly. The two brown princesses (Princess Tiana wasn’t there) are the ones that kept falling over because their feet are skinny and glued together. It must be a cultural thing. So, obviously Kavya got bored with them and opted for the sturdier white princesses.
The real problem is that it takes a concerted effort to find books or television shows or movies about girls who look like Kavya. And then there isn’t any merchandise. Soon she will understand that white is not just a useless crayon color, but is the default for normal. Thankfully, she hasn’t had her skin color pointed out to her. Yet. And we’re not going to be the ones that mention it because let’s face it, White is not a race or a real color of someone’s skin unless they’re an albino. It’s a power structure.
Some of my students, who are in their 20s, suffer from these same feelings of internalized racism, where they muffle their own voices or those of other students because it’s in contrast with what has been presented to them as normal. In almost all of the introductory creative writing courses I teach in New York City and New Jersey, regardless of how diverse the students are, the characters for their first stories are always white. When you don’t see yourself reflected anywhere, you start believing you can’t exist in these spaces.
A white character is presented as normal, a character we can all relate to, with universal problems, and the mere presence of a character who isn’t white immediately implies that their otherness must play a major role in the characterization. Or that they’re going to die soon, which will highlight the humanity of the white protagonist.
Many extremely talented writers, who know all about complex characters, story structure, and the art of writing kickass stories, choose to create a mythical land that resembles our own, except it’s inhabited entirely by white people. Which is fine, as long as it’s not the only thing I’m being bombarded with or that I’m being told is the most powerfully moving thing ever because a white man wrote it. Or race is so incompetently handled, it’s shocking, like with John Updike’s “Terrorist,” about an angry Muslim, who hates America, conveniently wants to be a truck driver, and (spoiler alert) plans to set off a bomb in the name of Jihad; there’s also an angry African American character, a bully from the hood, whose mother is a crack addict and names him Tylenol Jones because that’s what crack addict mothers from the hood apparently do. I shudder to think what Updike would have named the character if his mother was Asian.
Shockingly, The New York Times Review of Updike’s 22nd novel suggested he did something much more profound than what he actually did. He wrote a book fueled by his own unsubtle political agenda, lovely sentences, but ultimately a world he doesn’t know, with hollow, racist caricatures instead of complex characters, a novel which he spent too much time researching and not enough time weaving an actual narrative around. It’s a complete departure from his other stories, which are told with very human characters. He writes white people very well. Integrating race into a story is a craft based issue, whether you’re a writer from a particular community or not.
Enter CAKE Literary.
Sona Charaipotra (the wife), and Dhonielle Clayton (the evil librarian task master), are calling bullshit on this whole approach of excluding certain voices, with their book packaging company, Cake Literary. Whenever Dhonielle comes over to hash out concepts or work on outlines with Sona, Kavya assumes she’s come over to play with her. So that’s what usually ends up happening, which would explain why Kavya referred to Dhonielle the other day as, “Kavya’s friend and Mama’s worker.” I wouldn’t put it past Sona to say, “Worker, I’m going to put my feet up. You go and entertain my child!”
I’ve never really understood what CAKE Literary does – just the term, “book packaging,” sounds like the cloak and dagger of the publishing industry, so I’m glad Sona wrote this guest post for Latinos in Kid Lit, that not only clarified what it is they do, but more importantly why they’re doing it.
Junot Diaz (who I’m taking a workshop with at VONA this summer! ! !) interviewed Toni Morrisson at the NYPL and perfectly captured the sentiment at about the hour mark (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J5kytPjYjSQ):
“Shifting the narrative center of the telling, the very fact that you were sitting across from these writers as a sort of a strong kind of a north star and saying, listen you don’t have to – by default, write for a white audience, I would think that a lot of what you said really unlocked a lot of these books.”
Here is a tiny snippet of Sona’s piece on Latinos in Kid Lit that makes me momentarily sad, but also hopeful of the types of stories CAKE Literary will create, as well as the change in the literary landscape, that Kavya and millions like her, will grow up with thinking of it as “normal.”
“Growing up as a little brown girl – one of the few, back then – in small-town, suburban central New Jersey, books were my escape. I caused a ruckus alongside little Anne in Avonlea; I mourned Beth along with her sisters in the harsh winter of Maine; I honed my grand ambitions like Kristy and her babysitters’ club; I even swooned alongside Elena over the brothers Salvatore when the Vampire Diaries was originally released. (Yes, I am that old.)
But if you’ll note: in all those books and the hundreds of others I devoured, I never really saw myself, or anyone remotely like me. The majority of characters in books for kids and teens in the ’80s and ’90s were white. And according to Christopher Myers in his recent New York Times piece, “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature,” the majority still are today, by quite a landslide.
Why is this worth discussing? Because it hurts. A lot. It’s a hit to a kid’s self-esteem to be told – silently, but oh so clearly – that their story is not worth telling, that their voice is not important.”
Now go read the entire piece on http://latinosinkidlit.com
If you still haven’t had your fill of CAKE, find them on www.CakeLiterary.com, and connect with them on twitter @cakeliterary or Facebook. And if you just can’t wait for their novel, Dark Pointe, to come out in 2015 pre-order it here! or add it to GoodReads. I lied: you’ll still have to wait. Add it anyway.