Let's talk about pre-socialized representation and racial mirroring

About a year and a half ago, I read this article in The New York Times, Can My Children Be Friends With White People? and it really struck me because it’s a topic I’ve thought about ever since I had my first child years ago. This quote really moved me:

“I will teach my boys to have profound doubts that friendship with white people is possible. When they ask, I will teach my sons that their beautiful hue is a fault line. Spare me platitudes of how we are all the same on the inside. I first have to keep my boys safe, and so I will teach them before the world shows them this particular brand of rending, violent, often fatal betrayal.”

What struck me is how similar the author and I saw the world for our children and how much we wanted to protect them from the same things.

When people claim that children do not see race or color, they are wrong. Children as young as 3 can see the differences in skin and hair color and yes, they definitely see race. Proclaiming with pride that your child “does not see race” is one of the most problematic things a parent can do.

“For one thing, neglecting to discuss race and privilege with a child — or just leaving it at ‘everyone is equal, no matter what’ — leaves them incredibly vulnerable to outside messages from society, their peers and the media they consume. For another, touting the inability to see skin color as the best way of interacting with others erases the lived experiences, both negative and positive, of people of color. Parents shouldn’t be working to make race invisible or unseeable; instead, they should be celebrating diversity and embracing the idea of multiculturalism.” (Washington Post)

For people of color, especially Asian Americans, representation shouldn’t just be about Hollywood, television, or pop music. It starts way earlier and much closer to home. It starts before your kids even begin kindergarten.

It starts with what kinds of bedtime stories you read to your kids, what kinds of toys they play with, what kinds of cartoons they watch. It starts with what kinds of other kids you let them play with (how many of their playmates are Asian?). In those early years, how much time are they spending with other Asians? How much time do they spend with their Asian grandparents and older relatives?

This is why, when I advocate for more representation for Asians, I want it to include more Asian children’s book illustrators and authors, children’s programming producers, more Asian pre-school and elementary school teachers. The same goes for their extracurricular activities. Who is teaching those music lessons and dance classes? Who is coaching those soccer and basketball teams? If they are not Asian, are they other people of color?

Representation cannot begin at the Hollywood level. It needs to happen in your own household.

Parents are a child’s first and biggest influence. Asian American parents such as myself have about 3–5 years before our children start school and a lot can happen in that time. There is so much a child absorbs by that time. Kids as young as 3 can internalize racism. When it comes to establishing a healthy cultural identity in their children, parents have to start in infancy.

For these reasons, I, along with several other Filipino Americans, started the Katipunan Filipino Cultural School in Baltimore. We are the first of our kind in our entire region and something that all of us wished we had growing up. It is important to many of us to provide educators and role models for the next generation that are not just people of color, or even Asian. It is important to us that they are Filipino. It’s also a huge reason I’m a huge advocate for diversity in literature, especially children’s books and young adult novels.

Representation cannot begin at the Hollywood level. It needs to happen in your own household. What kind of dolls and action figures are your children playing with? Who are the protagonists in the books you read to them?

Do they look like your family and kids? Since the media is so flooded with images of white people, white children and white protagonists, Asian American parents need to be very aware of what they are allowing their children to look at, read and play with. Luckily, we are in an era where social media has created the urgency to create content where the lead character and cast are predominantly people of color.

“I hope parents today think hard before raising children of color in areas where they’re one of few. Because racial mirroring matters just as much as media representation. You can show and tell your kids positive things about their race and culture, but if they don’t experience it regularly and see it all around them, it will always be foreign and second to whiteness.” (JS Lee)

Don’t just sit back and wait for Hollywood to start featuring more Asian actors. You are the entire world for much of your children’s impressionable years. Make them count. Use those years to instill in them pride for their heritage and to celebrate their differences, not to ignore or neutralize them.

Eliza Romero is a style blogger, pop culture writer and founder of Aesthetic Distance. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram.