Undoing the myth of White=beauty: Reading Snow White to my daughter
A friend had been staying in our apartment while we were on vacation and left some Disney-version fairytale books from her Spanish class for my then-two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. Among them, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” which my daughter picked up and immediately wanted read to her.
“Oh,” I groaned out loud. “Mama doesn’t like this book. Why don’t we read something else?”
My daughter persisted.
“OK,” I relented. “But first I want to tell you why I don’t like this book. Look at the cover. This woman’s name is Snow White and, for me, the picture is sending the message that to be beautiful, like her, you have to have White, pale skin like hers. And I don’t think that’s true. People with brown skin and coffee skin and olive skin are all beautiful. So I don’t like the message this picture is trying to give us.”
My daughter, who is quite accustomed to me describing the world in shades of gray rather than absolutes (for example, “Some families have one mommy, some have two papis…” see this post and this post on different types of families) used my own line on me, saying:
“Some people like this book, some people don’t.”
I laughed, hearing my logic so ill-applied (from my perspective), but I nodded.
“That’s true,” I replied. “Some people might like it but Mama really doesn’t like it. Are you sure you want me to read it?” She affirmed that she did and I opened the book.
Fast forward a year-and-a-half—I had successfully hidden this book from my daughter but decided to show her the book again, and ask her what she thought about my “banning” of the book.
I started by telling her that a friend had left this book for her, but I had hidden it because I didn’t like it. Then, I showed the cover to my now four-year-old daughter again and asked, “What do you think the book is about from the picture on the cover?”
“A princess,” she noted.
“Why do you think she’s a princess?”
“I don’t know,” she replied.
“What else do you notice about the person you think might be a princess?”
“She is White,” my daughter responded (likely because she often hears me point out Whiteness).
“That’s true,” I told her. “And actually her name has to do with the color of her skin. She is called ‘Snow White’ because people say her skin is like the color of snow. But we know that skin isn’t ever actually white.”
“Because that would be like the color of his beard,” my daughter pointed to one of the pictured dwarves.
At this point, I repeated my original “speech” about the message the book was sending about beauty and Whiteness, and added:
“Imagine if every princesses you read about in books had brown skin…how would that make you feel?”
“Bad,” my daughter told me, “because maybe the princesses wouldn’t want to play with me.”
“Because you don’t look like them?” I asked and got a nod in return. “Well, that would really be unfair if they didn’t want to play with you just because of how you look…”
“Because I’m White,” my daughter continued. “And so is Papi and so are you.”
”True,” I affirmed. “And who are some people in your life who aren’t White?
My daughter named a friend’s son, Mason (names have been changed), Lucas and Rina, (two friends at school), and one of the mentioned friend’s baby brothers.
“And if I were Mason or Lucas or Rina and read this book with a message saying you have to be White to be beautiful, I would feel really sad and mad. Most books show princesses that are White but children should be able to read books with beautiful princesses (or princes) that look like them!” (Click here for guest blogger Shannon Cofrin Gaggero’s post about the book My Princess Boy.)
At long last, and at my daughter’s nudge, I read the book aloud. It got worse with every page, from the questionable presentation of the “dwarves,” to the stepmother wanting to kill Snow White (see post on talking about racial justice versus violence) to the stepmother as inherently “evil” (see post on the problem with the good/bad dichotomy), and finally, to the hetero-normative happily-ever-after-ending (in contrast, see guest blogger Janet Alperstein’s post about gay marriage).
After the reading, I told my daughter: “Wow, there really are soooo many things I do not like about this book! Do you think I should hide it again or should we keep it so we can read it again?”
“Keep it,” my daughter instructed me.
“OK,” I agreed. “But if we are going to keep it out, let’s make sure we tell other people about the parts we don’t like…just like how we are doing with our project about chocolate and slave labor. Because people might not know that this book is sending a message we don’t like.”
In a related post, “What I want my daughter to know about beauty,” I wrote: “To support my daughter’s development of a healthy self image, I don’t want her to associate beauty with White culture’s image of a pale-skinned, long, blonde haired, blue-eyed, thin girl. I want her to know that beauty comes in many different sizes, shapes, and shades. I also want her to know that she should challenge the images she sees…”
At the end of the day, I want to raise a critical thinker…
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 small group workshop series 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 a four-year-old daughter and eight-month-old son.