A friend e-mailed recently to talk about Hijas and reflect on raising her mixed-race daughter. Would her ethnicity affect her, would the Disney princesses steal her strong little girl away, she wondered to me. Here is what I answered. I wonder what you would add. Your own self-awareness is going to be your best asset in helping (Amelia) grow into a woman of confidence and certainty. She is already so self-assured, with a lovely presence, and that gives her great insulation from the moments that could ding her. Her ethnicity will certainly play a role on how she perceives herself and that part is really okay. So often, we think that a color/ ethnicity/ disability/ race-etc blind society is the best thing, but I would argue that really a color/ ethnicity/ disability/ race-etc aware and sensitive society is what would be best. When I was growing up, people would say to me (and it was always meant as a compliment and positive), “I don’t even think of you as Puerto Rican.” I know that they were offering me acceptance. But that acceptance was offered on that person’s terms, through the lens that person used to look at life. Instead, I think the greatest gift you can offer someone is the willingness to hear about the lens she uses to view life.
Years ago, a good friend who was in a wheelchair taught me that for him the greatest pain was the people whose eyes darted away from him in public because they were so scared of what he represented. Parents were embarrassed when their child asked him (in a line for fast food, for example) why he was in a wheelchair, but he actually believed that is a moment where he was most seen, a moment where someone was trying to understand life from his perspective. Amelia’s life will certainly be informed by her ethnicity but I love that my life is informed by my ethnicity; it has given me such a rich life. Looking back at the tough moments, I still wouldn’t change the parts that make-up my whole. There is a richness to being multi-ethnic and even if there are moments where that is hard to see, Amelia will always know the sources of that richness deep-down inside. But Amelia is also growing up in a generation that is exposed to diversity on a daily basis. Today’s youth are really blessed from that exposure and will be more socially and emotionally intelligent because of it so Amelia may not have the growing pains around ethnicity that those in our generation did. As a society, we certainly have to watch our desire to scapegoat— as we have seen happen to Middle Easterners and Latinos in recent years because of 9/11 and the immigration desire—our desire to create an other to fight against at all costs. But it’s not Amelia’s generation that is perpetuating those stereotypes, and the hope and good work of our generation has to go into stopping the indoctrination of these beliefs. If we, as a society, can do that, then we might possibly raise the most humanely progressive generation in our history.
All that said about ethnicity, there is still the possibility of a negative self and body image for any girl in Amelia’s generation. There are several concrete things that can be done to help a girl find her true self and inoculate herself against the negative. First, exposing a girl to options at a young age so that she finds something she loves as a child that is bigger and more significant than being obsessed with appearance is huge. The result: a girl that starts music lessons and loves it so much that she spends all of her free time practicing the piano rather than starring in the mirror at her flaws or the girl that finds a sport or discovers such a love of the outdoors that she discovers that the strength of her body to carry her is a beautiful, transcendental thing. The body becomes something that gives you the power to do this thing that you love rather than an ornament. I know in Amelia’s case (this was what insulated me) it has been developing a love for reading and writing because it lets her see and feel the diversity of the world, takes her on adventures and thus gives her a more expansive world view. The writing allows her to possess her own voice. It also makes her so aware of what she thinks that it becomes really hard to go against that self-standard when peer pressure sets in. A girl who possess her own voice– because of any of these pursuits– possesses herself and that can save her life.
The other big insulator is having a strong female role model who champions you and leads by example. Amelia is so lucky to have that in you. Not a lot of kids necessarily have that in their mom and so if another adult doesn’t take them under their wing, they can really suffer (as the latest cases of young celebs gone awry show us). A great role model shows you that it can be done, reinforces your genius when you begin to forget, stays the course with you. There will be those times that you feel like the allure of the Disney princesses now, Barbie later, MTV even later, feels stronger than your own influence, but I am betting that your influence, her writing, and all the great exposure Amelia has to life because of your thoughtful and deliberate nature has already insulated her more than you can ever know. Every little girl like Amelia needs a woman (or two, three, or four) like you in her life. That’s the responsibility we have now, I believe. The torch has been passed to our generation to raise the strong, world changing women we know these girls have in them to be.