Guest post: "I don't want my daughter to be the 'token black girl'"
When Selma Nicholls' three-year-old daughter asked her for white skin and straight hair, she took her own steps to increase diversity in the media
Looks Like Me
Posted on: Tue 23-Aug-16 09:57:24
(89 comments )
In the summer of 2015, my three-year-old daughter Riley-Ann's request each day when she came home from nursery was the same: to have long, straight hair like her teachers, friends, and favourite cartoon characters. When this first happened, I stayed silent, thinking it was a phase that would soon pass. But she kept insisting on wearing a hat, and kept asking for different hair. I was surprised: I'd always made a conscious effort to tell her she is beautiful and surround her with a diverse range of books, dolls, family and friends.
I told Riley-Ann that her curly afro hair was beautiful - but this didn't work. One day, her request changed: she didn't ask for straight hair, but for white skin. She said she didn't want to be brown any more.
My heart sank, but I was careful not to react. I felt sad - angry, even - at what she was saying. I knew that just telling Riley-Ann to recognise her inner and outer beauty wouldn't work. I needed to show her that there were children out there that looked like her.
Step in, Annie. In the latest remake of the film the lead is played by the young black actress Quvenzhané Wallis. I thought to myself, if this doesn't work, I don't know what will.
I put the DVD on and walked into the kitchen, hoping this final attempt to get Riley-Ann to see the beauty of her natural hair and skin would work. Five minutes into the film - before the first song had even ended - she ran into the kitchen screaming "Mummy - take out my plaits." Grabbing me by the hand she pulled me into the living room and again asked me to remove her plaits. So I did. I took out every single one of those small plaits with beads on the ends that I had only just put in the day before.
A lack of representation doesn't just affect children; it affects their parents too. When TV screens and billboards are populated almost entirely by white children with a token ethnic minority child, it can feel like we're not getting anywhere in our fight for diversity.
Halfway through the film, I finished undoing her hair, and Riley-Ann immediately jumped up. "Mummy, look - Annie is beautiful... I am Annie and Annie is me. She LOOKS LIKE ME." For the first time, I truly understood the power of positive reflective imagery for children.
In her role as Annie, Quvenzhané Wallis had inspired Riley-Ann to embrace her natural hair and beautiful brown skin. To Riley-Ann, she was a superstar, the first young black girl with naturally curly afro hair that she'd seen on screen. My daughter saw herself in Annie, and felt empowered and inspired - so much so that the film was stuck on repeat for the rest of the weekend. I didn't mind, though, because my child fell back in love with the hair that grew out of her scalp and her dark brown melanin skin.
Riley-Ann had aspirations to be like Quvenzhané Wallis, and she was already modelling at this point. The agency treated her well, and offered her lots of jobs - but I quickly noticed that ad campaigns will often only feature one child of colour. Riley-Ann became the token black girl and I didn't feel comfortable with this. What about all the other little beautiful black girls? I wondered.
A lack of representation doesn't just affect children; it affects their parents too. When TV screens and billboards are populated almost entirely by white children with a token ethnic minority child, it can feel like we're not getting anywhere in our fight for diversity. I reached the point where I couldn't bear for my daughter to express any more negativity about herself, but I couldn't just sit back and complain - I had to do something. As a freelance producer, I have the skills to be a change-maker. So, I set up Looks Like Me talent and model agency. We aim to increase inclusivity, visibility and employability of Black and Minority Ethnic children in the creative sector and advertising, offering casting directors diversity when selecting artists or models from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds.
Redefining beauty with Looks Like Me, we can create an industry where black children are the norm, rather than token additions. Perhaps then, it won't take an 'Annie moment' for other little black girls to realise they're beautiful.
By Selma Nicholls
OP what a shame that your little girl felt that way! But well done to you on the way you have handled it. She will grow up to be strong and confident about who she is because that's what you've taught her and showed her
But don't advertisers just go with what is the largest market, if that makes any sense
But don't advertisers just go with what is the largest market, if that makes any sense
It sounds like you have handled things beautiful for your little one, but it's not just about skin colour. Finding role models for my little girl with disabilities is very very hard. And it tends to be a token person in a wheelchair (which she is not)
Powerful to read and important to hear. Thanks. Great idea, btw. Good luck.
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I mean, it's lovely what you are doing for your daughter, but if you live in a country where over 80% of the population is white I'm not sure what you expect.
For my dd it was Princess tiana, she was about 5/6 when that came out and it made her feel normal.
Annie did the same hair wise for my dd though. She had also wanted straight hair for years and now she loves her 'afro puff hair' as she calls it.
It makes me feel two ways, one I feel guilty that she and my son will have more problems in life that I will never experience. It's my fault for having mixed race children and maybe I shouldn't of. I've made their lives unnecessarily hard just because of who their dad's are.
Two, I'm very glad there is positive imagery around now a days, there wasn't ten years ago but now my dd has characters and successful people who look like her and normalise her skin colour. She doesn't have to be the first this or breakdown barriers for that because they're now broken. It's definitely a lot more tough for them then white children unfortunately but at least they're now not freak shows for random people who want to touch their hair and comment on their skin like they used to have when they were little. Imagery has really played a bit part in that I feel as it hasn't just made my dc feel normal it's made them into just people for those people who react to different races.
Brilliant post. I agree with you entirely.
This is brilliant to read. Those naysayers are missing the point entirely. If "20% of the population" is feeling unrepresented and children are growing up feeling like outsiders or like they have to change to fit in, then of course that's going to have a major impact on their life prospects
Wishing you and your daughter lots of success, and to all those who feel like they want to see their own reflection in the powerful images of advertising and art which they are bombarded with daily.
This quote always sticks in my head;
'Children need to see themselves reflected in the world around them'
It's why I will not move out of the city until after their formative years
Great idea what you have done Selma. May your work be successful. There is less representation of Asians in the media than Black people - especially in advertising. I hope you can do something here too!
As an adult of an ethnic minority/bme ive honestly never thought my life would be better or that i wasnt normal/ like anyone else just because im not white or becuase there are mainly white people on tv. Maybe more non-white people shoud apply for these jobs?
But mjing, if kids need to see themselves reflected in the world around them then you are encouraging ghettoes and people being insular and 'we dont like mixing'. I hear horrified (i kid you not) tones of voice from people who are the same background as me when i tell people where i live as its a mainly english place. They couldnt fathom living anywhere where they werent the majority
There is an ocean between 'needing to be the majority' / being insular and 'seeing yourself reflected in the world around you'
I don't know what to think. I get your point about tokenism. However your daughter was already modelling and so didn't need an Annie moment to feel beautiful. Now you've set up a model agency -so really it sounds like 'some' black girls are beautiful just like some white girls are. Unless I've missed something and the agency is focus sing solely on diversity?
But don't advertisers merely reflect the demographics of those to whom they're advertising?
In the UK, if you have five children then probably only one will be black because black people don't make up more than 20% of the population here.
Genuinely shocked at the notion that because black people make up less of the population, they should expect to be ignored? What about encouraging diversity? Yes the country is majority white and black people as well as other races make up less of the population but that doesn't mean they should expect be ignored surely?? Very sad to see that being implied in response to this thread
I agree that the tokenism is annoying.
You make (awareness of appearance & token experiences) worse by putting child into modelling. Contradictory, much?
The book 'Americanah' by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is fascinating on the politics of African Caribbean hair. You've probably read it but if not I really recommend it.
Good luck with your enterprise.
In the UK, if you have five children then probably only one will be black
It would be fine if this were the actual representation in the media but so often it isn't.
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