White as “right:” Why I don’t normalize Whiteness with my children

by Sachi Feris

Around the corner from my apartment is a coffee shop with a poster-sized photograph of Marilyn Monroe. My two-year-old son and I have made many trips to this coffee shop and he always points out this image to me: a thin, blonde-haired, pale-skinned Marilyn Monroe. Already she is infiltrating my two-year-old’s brain as the standard to which all others are compared.

I always tell him: “This is a woman who is very famous—and a lot of people think she is very beautiful. But when I see this poster it makes me feel a little sad because I feel like the poster sends the message that you have to look like Marilyn Monroe to be beautiful. But, really, there are so many different ways you can look…and all of them are beautiful. You can have brown hair, or curly hair, or longer hair or shorter hair, you can have brown skin or pale skin, your body can be long and tall, or short and have curvy. I want you to know that everyone is beautiful in their own way.”

Impressed by my speech, my son agrees.

The other day I unintentionally took a photo of my kitchen counter. Later, when I saw the photo in my phone, it was, once again, a reminder of how Whiteness penetrates my children’s world, even in our kitchen. Two products (wet wipes and a cereal box) yielded three advertisements with images of Whiteness, silent reminders of what our world tells us is “normal,” “beautiful,” and “best.”

So when I read Everywhere Babies to my seven-month-old baby, I tell him: “Some babies have brown skin and might call themselves Black, or Indian, or Native American. Some babies have paler skin and call themselves White like you. And when you grow up, you will probably call yourself a White man—and as a White man, you are going to have privileges that other people (who aren’t White and who aren’t male) won’t have. So you are also going to have a special responsibility to stand up when you see someone being treated unfairly and say ‘That’s not fair, I want to help change things so it’s more fair.’”

A year or so ago, my then, four-year-old daughter came across my childhood copy of the book Mr. Messy which I had hidden based on what I deemed objectionable content. “Mr. Messy” chronicles the arrival of two White men, Mr. Neat and Mr. Tidy, who force their neat and tidy ways on Mr. Messy, who neither asks for, nor wants, their assistance.

“I want to read it!” my daughter exclaimed when she spied this new book from a familiar series.

“That is a book I decided to hide because I really don’t like the message it sends…we can read it if you want to but if we read it, I’d like to also share with you the part I don’t like, OK?”

My daughter agreed.

The ending of “Mr. Messy” is the most disturbing part—Mr. Messy is forcibly “bathed” by Mr. Neat and Mr. Tidy who have deemed him too messy to live in his now clean house. Mr. Messy is sad during the entirety of the book…but after looking in the mirror at his now-clean self, the book ends with him laughing, and telling Mr. Neat and Mr. Tidy that he is going to have to change his name…“And then they all laughed together, and became the best of friends.”

“I don’t think he would have laughed,” I told my daughter. “I wouldn’t have laughed. It didn’t seem like Mr. Messy wanted these two White men to come to his house or clean his house, and definitely not force him to bathe. I can understand why it would be nice to have broken windows fixed so that the house doesn’t get cold in the winter but other than that, it is Mr. Messy’s house. It isn’t right that Mr. Neat and Mr. Tidy think they can decide how Mr. Messy should live…it is his house and he can keep it however he wants.”

Through some conversation, my daughter agreed that she did not like the ending of the book and wrote a new ending of her own, which we pasted on the subsequent page and she illustrated:

“Mr. Messy decided he liked having his windows fixed so he wasn’t cold but everything else, he preferred the way it was before. So he went outside to play to get messy again, said good bye to the two (White) men, and let his grass grow long again.”

Whether with my two-year-old, my baby, or my now kindergartener, everyday life affords countless opportunities to dismantle “White” as “right.”

The alternative, for me, is that my White children don’t question Whiteness.

This alternative would mean that they, even as White children, grow up with a mainstream standard of beauty that does not reflect exactly how they look (even as White children!) and hence send a message that anyone who doesn’t fit this standard is “less than.”

This alternative would mean that they don’t question situations where they or other White people put their own norms of “normal” on non-White peoples’ lives.

This alternative would mean that they, as White adults, would not recognize their own obligation to stand up to racial injustice (and injustice of all kinds).

This alternative is not acceptable—so I find small moments in my everyday life to plant seeds for my children to become White adults who can stand up when Whiteness is portrayed as “normal.”

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Sachi Feris is a blogger at Raising Race Conscious Children, an online a resource to support adults who are trying to talk about race with young children. Sachi also co-facilitates interactive workshops/webinars and workshops for schools and community organizations on how to talk about race with young children. Sachi currently teaches Spanish to Kindergarten and 1st grade at an independent school in Brooklyn. Sachi identifies as White and is a mother to her five-year-old daughter and to her two-year-old and eight-month-old sons. 

Click here for more information on participating in Raising Race Conscious Children’s interactive workshop/webinar or in-person workshops.