Amina Luqman is a writer who lives in Alexandria.
For months, night after night, my husband has read the Harry Potter series to our 6-year-old son. After finishing each book, they watch the corresponding movie, and they’re now on Book 4, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” Suffice it to say, our son is a big fan. So it was no surprise when he considered dressing up as Harry for Halloween. But our hearts sank when he quickly added, in a matter-of-fact tone of disappointment, “But I’m not tan. I’m brown.”
Tan and brown are terms for white and black that my son picked up at his progressive school; they’re seen as less political and more precise, and I guess they take some of the sting off. But the words don’t change the long-standing reality: In the United States, children’s fantasies are still largely imagined in white.
“Why exactly are all the main characters in ‘Frozen’ white?” my husband asked a white friend recently. She responded thoughtfully: “Well, the movie is set in a Nordic, cold place — you know, it makes sense, right?” Annoyed, my husband countered, “The movie has a talking snowman.” It’s funny, and sad, where we draw the lines for what’s acceptable in fantasy movies. Somehow a talking snowman makes more sense than, say, a black Norwegian.
Besides “Frozen,” there’s “Brave,” “How to Train Your Dragon,” “Lord of the Rings,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ” — the list goes on. Why couldn’t the main characters in these films have been a panoply of diversity? The beauty and ease of diversity in fantasy is that it requires no explanation. It’s fantasy, after all. Just as you don’t have to provide a metaphysical explanation for the existence of a talking snowman, neither would you need to explain why one sister in “Frozen” was Latina, the other white and their dead mother Asian. A fantasy world just is. The strength of the story is all that matters.
All of these popular movie images bubble to the foreground on Halloween. After all, Halloween costumes are largely a display of American pop culture. When I was a kid, even in my mother’s anti-Halloween, Afrocentric house, I wanted to be Cinderella for the holiday. Try as a parent might, the messages seep in. Our Halloween costumes reflect who we are.
Fortunately, as children so often do, my son rose to the occasion. He bought his parents’ awkward explanation of how “Harry Potter is a made-up character, and he could be any color.” Yes, for a moment, he quietly resisted; he knew that Harry wasn’t just any color in the movie. But then his enormous childhood imagination took over, and he decided he could be Harry for Halloween after all. I’m not sure I want to know whether my son imagined away Harry Potter’s whiteness or his own blackness.
As a black parent, it saddens me that my son is faced with these tired racial confines. I also worry about his willingness to so readily accept the injustice of white cultural privilege. As an adult, I know things can be different. I know that somewhere there’s another adult sitting in a boardroom right now, deciding that the next big fantasy heroes — the next “Frozen” sisters — will be white, as if it’s some set rule of the universe.
And in the end I feel guilt. After all, I am a collaborator. My husband and I are the ones who take our son to the movies, read him the books and buy him the costumes. But it’s so hard to live any other way. As a child, my favorite book was “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” and reading it to my own child, and watching the old film version starring Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, was a parenting high point for me. I was passing along a story I loved, but I was also passing along racially biased messages I abhor.
Yes, just as my mom did, my husband and I try to provide black cultural images for my son. We look for the books, find DVDs and tell stories. There’s just not enough out there. Really, how many times can a child watch a “Cosby Show” DVD? And what images we provide are inevitably diluted by the tidal wave of American culture cast in white. I could try to raise an Afrocentric child — to create a black world for him — but the reality is I’m not really an Afrocentric adult. I’m just a parent tired of making changes on the fringes just so my son can catch a glimpse of himself in the world. It’s time for the world to change.