Last Halloween, my 3-year-old son wanted to be a princess. Assuming this was similar to his robot and rock star phases, I broached the subject again a few days after his initial declaration. “Bug, what do you want to be for Halloween?”
“A princess,” he said, his Spider-Man backpack bobbing as we walked hand-in-hand to school.
“Sure, but you know, usually princesses are girls and princes boys.” I paused. “Do you want to be a prince?”
“Noooo,” he said.
I was a liberated African-American woman. When my mother wanted to buy my firstborn, Solomon, clothes every shade of blue, I insisted, “Color has no gender!” After Bug was born, I joked he was the little girl I never had, since he was really chatty for his age, and I always imagined that’s how a little girl would be. Solomon’s speech was limited because of his autism, so talks with a child were new for me.
Our conversations were often about his favorite color, which was usually pink, although once during yoga class, he chose blue. (Yes, we both loved Parent and Pea yoga.) I laughed when Bug came downstairs one afternoon, draped in a rose-colored sheet, exclaiming, “Mommy, I’m a princess!”
I pictured Oct. 31: my handsome, sturdy brown-skinned son in a flowing wig and poofy dress, tiara sparkling atop his head. I saw us trick-or-treating in our New Jersey suburb, going from one colonial to the next, our neighbors asking “And what are you, uh, little girl?” as they dropped candy in his bag after a curious glance at me.
I could handle that. Like Bug, I didn’t mind going against the grain. Also, the simple fact that one of my sons could express himself was a blessing. If he wanted to be a princess, then darn it, he’d be a royal She.
But when I browsed for costumes, I felt uneasy. In the princess section, long wigs were the color of spun gold. Even Snow White’s silky tresses glistened through the cellophane, the opposite texture of my son’s coarse hair. Whether it was Cinderella or her fairy godmother, each package showed a picture of a smiling white woman who glowed. “You, too, can be me,” she beckoned, “for this one special day.”
I left the store in a panic. I didn’t care if my son wanted to be a princess. I just didn’t want him to want to be a white princess.
I thought about how Bug’s preschool celebrated Black History Month, but the fairy-tale books lining the shelves featured white characters. Solomon’s therapists were white and female. We avoided television, but couldn’t miss the outdoor ads showcasing pale models you either wanted to kiss or emulate. Our suburb is diverse, but we happened to be the only black family on our block.
Suddenly, white women were everywhere.
I’d gone through my own identity crisis at my predominantly white middle school. I lost patches of hair trying to get a soft (albeit oily) Jheri curl. When I was slightly older than Bug, I’d wrap a towel around my head and let it hang down my back, whipping it back and forth in the mirror, feeling beautiful. While swimming at camp, the other girls rose out of the lake, bronzed, hair slick and orderly, while I stood nearby, blackened by the sun, mortified when those same girls peered into my mass of kinky natural hair, wondering why it didn’t get wet underwater.
I didn’t want that for my son.
After the heartbreak of Solomon’s diagnosis, my husband and I were forced to define what “success” meant for our children. While we were trying to get Solomon to simply point, 1-year old Bug thrust his cup at me and said, “I’m thirsty!” Our boys were distinctly different, but we wanted to raise both to be confident and proud of who they are.
So if it turns out Bug is gay, we’d embrace his identity. But if he wanted to be white, we’d have to have a talk.
I discovered his idea of a princess had blond hair and peach-colored skin. To prepare for my intervention, I sifted through my mother’s wig collection and sorted through pictures of real African queens to give him an ethnic flair and historical perspective. I was ready.
And then Bug spied the DJ Lance Rock costume from “Yo Gabba Gabba” and dumped the princess idea. So it goes with 3-year-olds.
Not so with their mothers. We plant seeds in our children, then sculpture beautiful gardens around them, believing they will flower into our creations. But our children peek beyond those bushes out into the world and decide for themselves who they will be. Thinking we can choose for them is simply a fairy tale.By DOREEN OLIVER
October 28, 2012 9:00 am