Who would have thought that a few simple simple photos of a little boy hugging a diaper package could move thousands? And yet that’s exactly what happened when Twitter user @SleeplessInKY posted snapshots of her son on June 24, along with the caption, “Ben thinks this is him and won’t let go of the diapers.” Gracing the front of the Parent’s Choice diaper packaging he’s embracing? A photo of a brown-skinned, curly-haired child — a boy who looks just like him.
Several Twitter users immediately posted supportive comments, sharing similar stories of when their own children latched on to product packaging that showed a child who resembled themselves. Many others chimed in with a bevy of smiling emojis and LOLs. But one common sentiment expressed that’s been resonating with users most is this: representation matters.
If you’re wondering what the whole #RepresentationMatters thing is all about — and why it’s so important — I can tell you firsthand, as a white mama of three black children. The #RepresentationMatters movement is all about letting companies, creators, and advertisers know that children should see people who look like them in books, movies, advertisements, greeting cards, toys, and yes, even on product packaging. For far too long, children of color have served as sidekicks, if they are even represented at all. And when they are represented, often it’s in the form of a stereotype. Showing positive images of people who look like them — and putting them front and center, instead of off to the side — is a simple enough mission, when you think about it. And yet its effects are beyond powerful.
Until very recently, parents like me have had to scour stores and websites to find proper representation of our children. For example, if you were to walk into any given toy store right now and scope our a shelf of dolls, there might be one brown skin doll that is meant to represent all children of color. She’ll have green (not typical of many brown skinned children) or purple eyes (who has purple eyes?), light brown skin, and usually black hair that is straight (or slightly wavy) and long (again, not reflective of the many curly-haired, brown-skinned girls). Her name is something “ethnic,” such as Kierra or Jasmine.
Meanwhile, this doll sits on shelves alongside a plethora of peachy-skinned dolls, with their wide blue eyes and straight blonde hair. Their names are something like Madison, Taylor, or Jessica.
The point is, our children want options — and they need options. They do not want to be a second-thought or second best. They don’t want to always serve as the sassy, street-smart sidekick to the white superhero. They don’t want to be in the background, wearing the cool clothes but not having a speaking role. Even worse, many times the characters of color are the villains; the “bad guys.” They don’t want to be represented as some altered form of their real selves, with violet eyes and straight hair, as if the reality of their kinky hair and chocolate eyes aren’t good enough.
If my daughters or sons want a toy that looks like them, a book where the protagonist is a person of color, or even a package of Pull-Ups where the child depicted on the advertisement looks like them, companies would be smart to oblige. I’m far more likely to buy something for my child if they actually want it: and what they want is clear.
One reason I strongly feel that the children’s show Doc McStuffins has been incredibly popular is because little girls of color can admire that Doc looks like themselves or their friends. And Doc, unlike many black characters, is smart, kind, beautiful, and strong. She models for my daughters what they strive to be. And it definitely helps that Doc’s curly hair is worn in braids and her skin is brown: just like my girls’. The show teaches non-black children that a black child can be just as fabulous as the next child, thereby promoting equality and friendship.
If we want our children to be able to comfortably and confidently work, play, and learn alongside people who do not look like them, then children’s media, toys, and even product packaging is a powerful way to produce positive results. According to the book NurtureShock, babies as young as six months discriminate based on a person’s race (“discriminate” in the sense that babies can tell that there is a physical color difference in the people they see). Colorblindness simply doesn’t exist. And considering the fact that 15% of marriages are interracial, according to the 2008 census, there are more bi-racial children being raised in America than ever before.
I’m certainly not arguing that infants should begin watching diverse cartoons as soon as they emerge from the womb or that a diaper package is going to change the racial climate in America. But children of color need to be represented, and white children need to see children of color represented. Diversity is simply a win-win for all children as parents strive to raise children who are open-minded, well-rounded, and appreciated for exactly who they are.