Parents of Black children, and other kids of color, have a unique challenge when it comes to screen time: finding media that’s age appropriate and features lead characters that look like, and relate to, young viewers.

Within the last year, my 6- and 12-year-old children have latched on to Netflix and never looked back. They have their own account and self-select a wide range of programs, which they binge watch with joy. I love that they have so many options and trained them to look for the G, Y, or Y7 ratings in the upper left-hand corner of the screen. Media is so powerful, and young children are not immune from its effects. While it’s important that they participate in making age-appropriate choices, they can still be affected by choosing favorite characters who do not look like them. 

As a Black mother raising Black children, I am familiar with the detrimental consequences that effectuating the European standard of beauty has on the self-esteem and self-worth on children of color. It sets them up for something they will never be and feeds into a forced inferiority complex sponsored by racism and the lack of diversity in mainstream culture. And yet, when my daughter turns on the television, the shows she likes to watch situate the blonde girl as the prettiest and as the leader of the crew. When a Brown-skinned bestie is included, she has the same fine features, long “smooth” locs, blue/green or hazel eye color as the blonde main character, and they even sound alike. These characters are often crying over a boy, perfecting being mean girls, scantily dressed in a fully made-up face, or hoping to be kissed by the cute boy who also is white. These images, well within the Y7 demographic, are too mature for a first or second grader. 

This is less of an issue for my son, who will be a teenager soon. I give him more latitude to watch PG-13 cartoons or comedies without supervision. I haven’t completely let go of the reigns, but know that the foundation I’ve built gives him the tools to filter images that do not reflect his existence. The programs he watched as a kid had superheroes who wore black, but none who were Black. While Disney and Nickelodeon ran several programs with ensemble casts, the Black girls were sassy and the boys were dancing, singing, playing basketball and rapping—all trite stereotypes that have followed us into the second decade of the new millennium.

I’m not sure that my son noticed or wondered why there were no cartoons with Black male leads, but I did. Outwardly, he didn’t seem bothered and maybe he left those years behind with his self-esteem intact because Barack Obama was the president during his formative years and that was hero enough for him. Whereas I tossed Obama’s name like a talisman for my son, my 6-year old daughter needs more. The Obamas are no longer in office and while she aspires to be Beyónce when she grows up, the most tangible image of herself are her diverse Black Barbie dolls who range from light skin to dark with straight hair, curly ‘dos and kinky afros. Finding television shows for the 6 to 9-year old set with Black girls or boys as lead is a two and done adventure: Motown Magic holds it down for Netflix and Esme and Roy comes on occasionally on HBO. She’s outgrown Doc McStuffins, Dora the Explorer, Ni Hao, Kai-lan, and Elena of Avalor, and now her choices are cooking shows, programs featuring robots, animals or girls worried about the wrong thing. 

There are a few shows with identifiable Black friends, like Lego Friends, but that character doesn’t appeal to my daughter, who has a strong personality and is known for hitting pause so she can change outfits.

The glossy, sparkly girls are her favorite, yet none of them look like her. My daughter doesn’t understand that the lack of Black girls on television means someone thinks her experiences are not relatable.

It’s bad enough Black girls are sexualized early, thought to be promiscuous and older than they are. And, irresponsible programming featuring situations for teenagers will grow her up too fast. I’m already fighting time trying to keep her sweet and cuddly. 

Because I am trying to break the cycle of discrimination in media, I won’t let my daughter watch those types of shows. It seems as kids age out of the Sesame Street years, themes on diversity, kindness, controlling one’s emotions, being a good friend, and how differently abled people do amazing things are less obvious. Many kids learn these messages from television or videos, and I wish that the princess/girly girl shows my daughter likes promoted these values instead of snarky language and first dates.  

While she and I navigate a watch list that is age appropriate, I allow my son to watch series on race relations. I vet programs with heavier subject matter like the criminal justice’s manhandling of Black boys in When They See Us or the killing of Black boys by police like See You Yesterday. My friends and I discuss whether our boys are ready for those painful realities before giving the okay, then we make sure an adult is present to debrief with them after. As Black parents, we walk a very fine line of offering too much information too soon and keeping them cocooned within the safe bubble we have created. At my son’s age, it’s all about a slow unveiling of Black life we hope they never experience. But if they do come face to face with impossible choices that carry long range consequences, violence, or police brutality, these programs will at least start them thinking about how to act in those situations.

So far, I can’t say the same for my daughter’s demographic, but she’s still young. I will keep talking and reading to her about ballerinas, astronauts, and replaying The Princess and the Frog so that she grows up knowing that her natural intelligence, honey brown skin, kinky curly hair, and beautiful brown eyes are enough. She is still not happy about her TV choices, but until things change, unicorns and kittens are all she gets.

Racism in media is nothing new and not exclusive to Black people. Depictions of the Latinx community are typically a one-dimensional characterization of their young men as gang bangers and women as saucy vixens. Indian Americans on television almost always speak with an accent, which is then used as a device to elicit laughs. While a few exceptions come to mind—Dora the Explorer, Ugly Betty, and The Mindy Project—people of color continue to work against gross misrepresentations and exclusion during awards season. 

Likewise, Black folks have been dealing with damaging, inaccurate stereotypes of ourselves since D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation characterized Black men as sexual predators of white women, and subsequent cartoons in print and on the screen showcased black-faced whites, coonish Blacks, and slack-jawed picaninny children. Progress in the form of Blacks as lead in cartoons for young children came in 1969 with Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, The Harlem Globetrotters in 1972, another iteration of Fat Albert in the 1980s, MC Hammer’s Hammerman in 1991, The Backyardigans in 2004, and of course, Doc McStuffins in the second decade of the new millennium. I could list 20 or 30 more and add Hey Arnold! where the Black sidekick was prominently featured, but this only proves my point: Children of color have significantly less television program options that feature them as main characters than white kids.

As we stare down 2020, it would be nice if between cable and streaming services, we could find more than a smattering of cartoons or kid’s shows with kids of color as lead, doing cool stuff like traveling through space, hunting dinosaurs, or settling disputes on the playground. In the meantime, I will protect my daughter’s self-esteem by curating what she watches and takes into her spirit. Eventually, she will learn, like her brother, that despite best efforts to erase us, Black folks are still here. This strength is important, as is pride in what they both see when they look at screens that do not look back at them. 

Nefertiti Austin is the author of the forthcoming Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender, and Parenting (September 2019). Austin lives with her children in Los Angeles.

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