When we begin to see ourselves
I am a Millennial dad. That means I was born in the second half of the '80s, and I am now a parent. How time flies. This was important to explain because, in spite of the misplaced notion that we - Millennials - are the most entitled human beings, it is through this entitlement mindset that many of us in post-apartheid South Africa are leading some of the most difficult conversations in the world.
Unapologetically so, one of our entitlement peeves is agitating for the right to own our identity, especially African identity. In my view, owning your identity and your story and how you choose to be portrayed are the most powerful things. Owning your identity and how it is expressed are the only proof that you are free as a human being. This is why conversations on identity and representation matter.
As mentioned I am a father; to an incredibly observant and brilliant little girl. Side note. She's three years old and counts up to 50 on her own apart from the other magical things she does effortlessly like multilingualism- I had to brag, I mean. Anyways, but like any little girl, she loves Princesses and fairytale stories. She missed the Frozen frenzy, thank God!
As a father, I know that both the exterior and interior of black women's bodies are still very contentious subjects open for debate in our societies and even amongst Black women; their different complexions, their features, the textures of their hair, their voices and even their very existence. Throughout history, everyone has been entitled to police and dictate over Black women's bodies except for the women who live in them. And so, conversations like these are about giving back to individuals, namely Africans, the power to assume an identity and to choose a destiny without fear of disdain.
The value of an African woman's life is still relegated to the bottom of the food chain and yet her contributions to humanity are weaved into the very fabric of every family's lineage in the world. Many African women are still fighting for the right to be human in their countries, communities and even their homes.
I also know that one day my daughter will grow to become a powerful black woman. But without territory, power means nothing. So, as a father, it is my duty to secure a world where my daughter will not be apologetic about her appearance. A world where she will not feel the need to dummy down so that the people around her can feel secure in their chosen mediocrity. It is my duty to take part and sometimes lead a variety of conversations regarding the emancipation of her features and her dignified place in the story of the human race.
See, it's really not being political when I advocate for dolls and other toys to have proper African representation in the mainstream. Neither am I saying everybody else should be sidelined - two wrongs don't make it right. My thinking is based on the simple and yet fundamental understanding of the importance of correct representation during the formative years of a child's life. This includes stories where darker hues play a leading positive role for the greater good of everyone else.
Gone are the days where little girls starved themselves just because Barbie's appearance is the only socially acceptable body type. As far as weight is concerned, our conversations should be about health and not beauty stereotypes.
Gone are the days where, in mixed-race stories, the African (usually African American male) is the goofy clown who dies along the way, the Asian as the IT guru or Maths whizz (who also dies along the way) and their oozing bravado Caucasian male counterpart is the hero who gets to rescue the world and is subsequently rewarded with affection from the girl. The traditional James Bond vibe, with that, said, Idris Elba, please stand up.
Three points and then I am done.
One. Politics For those looking for politics in this piece here, they are; it is a political statement to deny the powerful impact misconstrued images of one concept of beauty, intelligence and power have on a child's self-image and overall identity as he/she grows older. There is no single standard for beauty, intelligence, power, love, care and gentleness. We cannot claim to be globalised and progressive and yet we still embrace a single narrative of the world, even when we see that it's the very thing that is holding us back.
Two. Representation vs presentation My daughter loses her mind when she sees Doc McStuffins. She loves Princess Elena and Sofia the First as well. Which in my view all have very powerful and positive narratives. Doc McStuffins is a female African American doctor. Elena is a Mexican (if I am correct) girl who uses her newly found princess status for good. Sofia the First becomes a Princess through adoption.
I don't just buy and watch cartoons with my daughter. But I also pay attention to how she interprets the characters and their stories. She knows each Disney Princess and their supporting characters by name. But there is one Disney Princess she does not call by name, that's Princess Tiana from the Princess and the Frog. My daughter insists that her name is Princess (to my frustration). I realised this was because, in all of Disney's presentations of their Princesses and other female leads, she is the only one who is addressed by her story and not her name, even in their branding. She is representing but not properly presented. See for yourself.
Three. Our place in history Millennials will not go down in history for inventing the wheel, fighting World Wars etc. We will be remembered as the generation whose entitlement led us to pioneer and normalise the importance of having difficult conversations, including the emancipation of African identity. We created the tools to conveniently address one another's issues from all four corners of the planet in the comfort of our homes. We redefined normal.
Written 9 December 2018