(Originally posted on LiveJournal in March 2009. But it seems, sadly, continually relevant.)
Hi. My name is Em…
and I am racist.
I say that without a sense of irony and with some small sense of shame. It is primarily passive racism at this point, but I benefit from the color of my skin in innumerable ways every day. And if you are reading this, and you are white, so do you. And you have been trained by our society not to see it and to embrace it and to benefit – every day – from the fact that you are not a person of color.
I am racist. I don’t like it. I hate it. But every fucking day I struggle with myself. I fail at being an anti-racist ally every fucking day. But I keep trying. And I learn. I’m not saying this because I want someone to give me a cookie and a pat on the back for trying not to be an asshole. I’m saying it because we can all learn together if we want to, but first we have to see our prejudice for what it really is. We have to own it. We have to admit to ourselves the way that we react to people of different races and not try to explain it away as something other than an instantaneous value judgement based primarily on the color of someone’s skin.
There has been a ton of fail around these here internets lately – RaceFail, if you will. It is bleeding over – as it should – into other venues I frequent (and if you frequent them too, then a lot of this might look a little familiar, but it needs to be said). It makes people uncomfortable. Fact is, it’s not nice to be confronted with our own privilege. It’s not nice to think that we as white people might be racist. It’s a lot easier to talk about racial prejudice, and privilege. It’s lot easier to not push ourselves out of our comfort zone. It’s uncomfortable, and it sucks, and it burns and if we are even the slightest bit concerned with social justice, it can make our entire selfhood squirm to call our race based prejudice by its actual name. RACISM.
But here’s the thing.
It’s not about us. It’s not about the white people.
It’s not about how our feelings get hurt when people call us out for saying stupid shit.
It’s not about how an innocent comment (or chapter or essay or statement) was misconstrued.
It’s not about how hard it is to be sensitive to other people’s cultural sensitivities.
It’s not about how it stings and burns and makes us want to rage when someone suggests that we are, in fact, racist.
It’s not about us white folks.
At its root it’s about systematic racism and how generations of racial oppression have created a system in which what a white person says is valued more highly than what a person of color says. It’s about how generations of passive lack of resistance have benefited white people at the expense of people of color. It’s about using the language of oppression to cast white people we don’t like into the role of racial other when there is no other target, or to make the case that we’re not racist, we’re classist. It’s about white being the default and non-white being “special interest.” It’s about not having to bear scrutiny for our entire race when we fuck up.
It is not about how uncomfortable we feel. If it hurts to be called a racist, too damn bad. If it hurts that much, do what you can to help create a world that is less racist. It’s our fault as a race, not peoples of color. We can listen. We can speak up. We can see to it that we learn and that we don’t leave anti-racist work to people of color. We can call out our friends.
We can own up to our own racism.
So, uh. Yeah. I haven’t really been by here much lately, but I’m looking for a place to put some feelings and this seems like a decent outlet. I’ve meant to note for a while that I’m not blogging at Grounded Parents, a Skepchick sister site for skeptical, non-believer parenting discussion. So that’s where you can mostly find me.
GP is actually relevant to this discussion, to some degree, since that’s where I “came out” as being a suicidal child.
What I don’t mention in that post is that I still have bouts of what I guess is situational, usually manageable depression, which sometimes manifests itself as suicidal ideation. I haven’t had more than fleeting thoughts in decades, but it’s still there, fluttering around the edges on rare occasions. And so I’m having some complicated feelings about Robin Williams’ suicide today. Not so much about him specifically – I am saddened by his death and the loss of a great talent, to be sure, but I’m a little weird, I guess in that I don’t tend to react strongly to the death of people I don’t know personally, and sometimes not even then – but because of the developing narrative about what it means to be depressed and to experience suicidality and to literally choose for oneself whether to live or die.
There have been moments in my life where I have stood on that precipice and made a different choice. Part of what has kept me alive was the knowledge of what chosing to opt out of living and leave my family would do to them, particularly my children. So I’m actually sort of torn on the idea that suicide is not selfish is the wrong message, because internalizing a form of that has actually helped me. But that’s me. No one gets to tell another person how to process their pain, which is part of why it was so hard for me to wrap up my GP post above. What motivates one person doesn’t motivate another and I don’t know what the answers are, except that pithy cheer up buttercup isn’t one of them, nor is piling onto people who are already suffering by telling them that they are selfish or weak or pathetic – all things that I’ve seen thrown at folks who are depressed.
My heart aches for Mr. Williams’ family and friends and for anyone who has lost a loved one to suicide. And my heart aches just as much for the individuals who are suffering enough to need to end it.
So, I’ve been meaning to post since Christmas, about a host of things, really, but mostly as a recap of Lego Friends – specifically, the actual building experience and how it compares to building other kits.
As a quick recap – we have more than one hundred thousand Lego bricks in our house, not even including the Duplo and random Mega Blocks and other similar brick sets. These are comprised of a combination of hundreds of project specific themed kits purchased new, a “general” bin – version pink purchased new, and probably a couple thousand bricks purchased via Craigslist or Ebay – both themed kids (original Hogwarts sets FTW!) and big storage bins filled with random bricks that parents wanted out of their house.
We have a lot of Lego. I have personally built most of the project kits, ranging from huge age 16+ architectural sets like the Taj Mahal and Tower Bridge, the Lego Architecture Frank Lloyd Wright and other modernist buildings, the Death Star playset, and probably hundreds of smaller sets – lots of Star Wars, most of the Harry Potter series, Helms Deep and a few other LOTR, virtually the entire Atlantis and Monster Fighters series, Ninjago, Space Police, Kingdoms, it goes on and on. Up until about two years ago, my son built the minifigs and patiently waited for me to build the rest. Now if it’s under 1000 pieces, I usually don’t bother unless it’s Architecture or he asks me really nicely. At last count, I’ve built 3 of the 5 largest Lego sets ever made (and that’s mostly because I’ve yet to bring myself to spend $500+ for the collectors edition Millennium Falcon).
What this means is I have a lot of experience building these sets and I am pretty well familiar with the complexity of various building levels and what the age ranges on the package really mean. And I’m here to tell you – despite what you might have heard to the contrary, Lego Friends is not dumbed down.
Is it very pink? It surely is.
Is it appallingly gender segregated, both in marketing and figure allotment? Absolutely.
Is it persistently and stereotypically “girly” for every value of purple hair bows and hot pink ice cream and lots of randomly placed flowers? And how.
But the building experience is not dumbed down. The building experience for Lego Friends is virtually identical to the experience in other sets in the 5-9 year age range. The separate baggies with numbers on them? In every single set I’ve built that was originally put out after 2010 or so. The use of larger singular wall and other structural pieces to simplify building and increase structural integrity during play? In dozens of other sets, including Hogwarts, Monster Fighters and numerous others not specifically aimed at obsessive adult audiences.
The pink and green camper that my daughter received for Christmas is almost the same set as this City set that came out in 2009. The main difference? Some of the accessories, which presumably account for the 309 pieces in the Friends set to the 165 in the City set, the colors and the figures.
As it so happens, my daughter, who just turned 3, loves pink. LOVES IT. When given the choice for almost anything, she wants pink (a choice between pink cake and chocolate cake being about the only exception). Our son is 7 years older and try as we might, we were never able to totally extricate all “real” Lego from her toddler world. Since she was never very mouthy (for values of toys going in, that is), we went ahead and let her play with some under close supervision and one day last fall my husband thought to grab a pink bin we’d purchased with the hopes of easing our son’s play with some of his friends in the neighborhood who happened to be girls. Our daughter’s eyes lit up and she immediately declared “MY LEGO!” Now, whether at the tender age of two she had already internalized that she was supposed to want the pink set with flowers and horses or if she just saw something being given to her that happened to contain an awful lot of her favorite color, I don’t know. But she was thrilled. And seeing just how thrilled she was, we decided to go ahead and get her some Friends sets because quite frankly, we thought she’d like them.
And she does. My son has never been very into the City sets, so we have a ton of fantasy Lego sets, but not a lot of real world stuff. So we got her the aforementioned camper because she also loves vehicles and Olivia’s Science Lab, because, SCIENCE! For her birthday last week she got the pool, because she loves swimming. And I’m pretty sure we picked up the animal habitat sets at some point in there. We picked these sets very deliberately – because they show girls being active and using their brains and – in the case of the pool and the camper – provide a lot of opportunity for little hands to manipulate things. And she still plays with other sets and still likes to steal her brother’s minifigs and current standard figures tend to do a lot of intermingling. Actually watching her play with them makes me feel a little better about that – she doesn’t care that the size and shape are different as long as it can fit in the car/house/slide. So there’s that.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not becoming a Friends apologist. I still hate the way that Lego markets them (still in the pink aisles, next to the Polly Pocket and Lalaloopsy). I still wish they had fully integrated the line as a subset of Lego City and made the whole thing less gendered. I’m actually weirded out by the fact that Heartlake City is evidently some sort of fake!Amazonian commune with no men…or adults. The weird tweeny inter-world that the Friends occupy is weird to me as well. These two issues get to the heart of the Friends problem to me – it’s not that it’s pink or flowery or that some of the options are to be a performer or open a bakery or work at an ice cream stand, all of which are totally valid options and the dismissal of the line on that basis strikes me as playing into the idea that traditionally girly is inherently bad or lesser. In fact, part of what I like most about the whole concept is the variety of options it provides girls – the Friends sets show girls playing sports and loving science and building tree houses and going biking and playing water basketball and being girly doing it, which is actually a fairly missing message in mass marketing – that liking those things doesn’t make you a “tomboy”, it makes you a girl who can love sports and science and other things that people think of as not-girly and still like pink and hair bows. In all honesty, there are a lot of things that I like about the sets – the ones I’ve built have been honestly fun – having different colors keeps it interesting, and the styling is in some ways more inventive than yet another space ship or armored vehicle.
And it’s these differences – characterized along gender lines that most bother me about the sets. My only real issue with the sets themselves is the total absence of any figures other than the hyper-feminine “girly figs”. Heartlake City has some fun building and play potential, but it needs to diversify – we need more cross gender play for all kids and we need real options for girls. And Friends gets halfway there – traditionally appearing girls are shown doing all sorts of things and Friends reaches out to those girls who may have gotten the idea that Lego is a “boy thing” (can’t imagine how that happened Lego Marketing Department). But there’s a flip side that is totally missed, which is that girls who don’t necessarily like pink or skirts or tops printed with little flowers still may like ice cream and cupcakes and swimming pools and horses and performing and dogs and swimming pools and science labs. We need to make room in our cultural sensibility for those girls. And we need space for boys to like all of those things too.
It probably comes as no surprise to anyone who actually knows much about me that I’ve been following the growing controversy about the new LEGO Friends line with some interest. For those of you not following along at home, the short version is that it appears that someone at Lego HQ realized a few years ago that perhaps focusing their products on male dominated films and a wide variety of warrior story-lines was limiting the number of girls who were purchasing Lego. To their credit, they realized that perhaps they needed something a little more varied than the horse heavy barely-beyond-Duplo “Belville” line, however, they failed to realize that simply expanding that idea into an ice cream shop and a beauty parlor might not be enough. Cue angry female Lego fans who crave more inclusion without pabulum.
This is a tough issue for me – I understand the objections and I have many myself, which I’ll address more holistically below. At the same time, I am no small fan of Lego. We have a Lego room in our house people. And it is still not large enough to contain everything, including things like my personal Frank Lloyd Wright sets (which have pride of place on the mantle, duh), the Taj Mahal and Tower Bridge. The Death Star playset that my son and I “share” is in the former-guest-room-turned-baby-free-Lego room (don’t worry Mom, we’ll set the bed up before you guys visit). We have a lot of Lego (and a lot of Duplo, for that matter). We buy a lot of Lego. I’m pretty sure not a single major holiday, including Easter, has passed in the past three years where Lego wasn’t involved somehow. Although we’ve yet to stand in line for the annual Brickfair, we definitely ID as a Lego Family.
So, I suppose we are actually not remotely the target audience for the Friends line, which may explain the vast chasm of disconnect between what I personally would like to see in playsets aimed at my daughter and what Lego has produced. After all, we make a trip to the local Lego store every couple of months and buy probably 20+ sets a year, if you count the 75 piece/$10 or so ones. We know the brand, we know what is offered and we know the huge variety of what you can make of it. We know that the Taj Mahal can become Princess Leia’s palace with the addition of a few figures. We also know that there are not nearly enough female figures in most traditional Lego sets.
Which brings me to what really really bothers me about the Friends line; it’s not that Lego is (finally) making more female characters and placing them in familiar situations (there is nothing inherently wrong with ice cream and beauty shops and puppies and wanting to lounge by the pool – I like all those things very much, thank you and if the sets were presented in a more gender-neutral brand consistent way, I’d find them pretty appealing) – it’s that those characters are inherently separate and not consistent with its branding and the “regular” minifig. It’s that Lego is giving into the culture-wide push to define little girls as “special” or “other” or not part of the “regular” types of toys and to reinforce the idea that there are boys toys and girls toys. In fact, with Friends and the marketing around it, Lego does one worse – it defines the pinkified, girlified, cupcake-ice-cream-puppified Heartlake City as being “for girls” and everything else as “regular”. There are now “normal” Lego, which include things like Harry Potter (which I’m told is pretty darn popular with girls), City (where in most places typically lots of girls and women live, play and work alongside men), Ninjago (pretty sure lots of girls like martial arts as well), and the other stuff. These are never labeled “for boys”, however, by explicitly labeling Friends as “for girls” and by separating out the corporate communication to include “Lego Club for girls” and just “Lego Club”, Lego is reinforcing and promoting the idea that girls are not only other, but that they are less-than. That girls are not part of everything, but that we need our own little girls only reservations.
From a marketing perspective it’s a little bizarre too – as stories about the Friends line come out, there are lots of examples of boys saying that they kind of like the new sets too – except that they are a little too girly, that the strangely larger, bustier girly-figs don’t fit with the rest of their set, that they wish it were a little more balanced. My son loves the inventors lab and kind of likes the tree house and just isn’t sure how he feels about getting them. Which is fine, since his mom isn’t sure how she feels about buying them.
Which brings me to the hopefully semi-productive part of this post, which I call “Things I wish Lego had done differently to appeal to girls”:
1. Made the figures consistent with traditional minifigs. The difference defines the Friends line as “other” and not fully compatible with existing Lego.
2. Made the line part of Lego City. Surely they could have come up with a “Sweetlake” neighborhood or something that would have allowed for a different, less boxy “perceived-as-boyish” look while still considering the fact that in real life, people in cities need stores and restaurants and eat ice cream and cupcakes and take their pets to the vet. This would encourage cross-gender collaborative play and make it easier to keep treating kids as kids, not as gender stereotypes.
3. Started adding more female figs to its sets in general. In the past I’ve been encouraged by the way that most storylines quietly included at least a token woman or two. Atlantis, Agents, Pharaoh’s Quest –all had women in roles as scientists and explorers. My son and I fervently hope that the Green Ninja in Ninjago will turn out to be Nya (or another female Ninja). I am less than heartened by the lack of non-victim females in the Martian series and the complete lack of them in the new Dino series. I will be horribly disappointed if all non-movie character female figures get relegated to Heartlake City and the few good strong female figs start to disappear from the non-Friends sets.
4. Talked to its actual customers and looked at its branding, rather than going for the easy out. If Lego really wants to know why more girls don’t buy its products, then maybe it should look at the past 10-30 years of corporate history and branding, at least in the US. Because what I see is an egalitarian, largely gender neutral company that lost its way (or that gave into falsified backlash narratives), not an inherently boy-skewed toy that wants to broaden its base. If Lego is disappointed in its sales to both genders, then all it needs to do is stop pushing the vast majority of its products for kids over the age of 5 to only one of them. As noted above, Harry Potter should appeal equally to both girls and boys. There is nothing inherently gendered about ancient Egypt or underwater exploration or Atlantian myths. Or Cities. Or games based on classics like Connect 4 and Mastermind. Or movies – where are the Disney movie tie-ins for films not aimed mostly at boys? Will we get Brave sets this summer? For that matter, not that I’m really a fan of Disney Princesses, but Cinderella’s Castle seems like an awesome potential set with lots of pieces and potentially complicated building instructions and lots of blue and white and clear…but I digress.
5. Taken pains to avoid the boys are people, girls are girls trap. This is most obvious in the magazine marketing, with any kid who checked the “girl” box when she signed up suddenly getting a “Lego Club Magazine for girls” whereas the boys continued to get the same magazine they always got, *not* labeled as “for boys”. But it also relates to marketing and where consumers find the products. I haven’t seen where the Friends line is in my local Lego store, but I’ll be pretty annoyed if they are over in the corner by the Duplo, which is where Bellevue always was. And I can tell you exactly where I found them at my local Target – 5 aisles away from the rest of the Lego, sharing a hot pink endcap with Polly Pocket. Now, Lego might not be able to control it, but you know what – they can. They can encourage retailers not just to keep their products together, with the possible exception of the games, but to put them in the transition aisles in the middle of the toy section where both boys and girls shop. They can take a stand against boy and girl aisles altogether.
6. They can start addressing all of their customers with respect. This means not telling a girl who is unhappy with this marketing that it’s her problem she doesn’t like the new line. It means addressing and acknowledging the tens of thousands of customers who’ve signed petitions registering their objections.* It means showing that they have some sense of awareness that many of their existing customers feel sold out and unappreciated and totally unrecognized by a company that they believed thought better of them. This means telling their designers at their themeparks to be respectful of women and girls and not to belittle them. It means recognizing that yes, some women like lipstick, but that it’s not an inherent part of being female. And maybe it should start not just with researching non-customers, but with bringing on more female designers and talking with more female fans about how to make the product something that we’re proud to love.
*Edited to note that LEGO has finally responded and agreed to a meeting with the folks from SPARK Summit.
**ETA2 – evidently there is 1 female character in the Dino sets, which I missed on my first pass through them.
At least once in pretty much any discussion about patronizing idiot-chic tee shirts, uber sexy Halloween costumes, or itty-bity sexpot bikinis for 2 year olds, at least one person will take the time to comment “If you don’t like it, just don’t buy it.” It’s one of many phrases that could (and does!) fill an anti-sexualization/anti-stereotyped gender roles bingo card (along with comments about pedophiles and gender neutrality making kids homosexual). And on one level, it’s a reasonable assertion – if we don’t like a particular consumer product, rarely, if ever, are we forced to spend our hard earned money on that product.
But it’s also extremely short sighted.
As Melissa, at Pigtail Pals has eloquently stated, it’s not about the t-shirt, or the costume or the bikini or the miniskirt or whatever. It’s not about crushing our tween’s budding sexuality or prudishness. It’s about recognizing that the singular product(s) that garner media attention are but a drop in an ocean of sexualization and negative stereotyping of our children that masquerades as “positive” sassiness. It’s about recognizing that children who are bombarded with image after image of boys being active and girls having tea parties and dressing up as princesses start to see these roles as their rightful place in the world.
Do I think that I, as a lawyer and a feminist and an active, powerful woman am the strongest role model my children have for what a woman can be? Absolutely. And I’m thankful every day that my kids have fabulous women and men in their lives who provide them with terriffic support and examples.
But I don’t think for one minute that these are enough. Because we do not live in a bubble. My kids see supposedly “educational” programming that relegates women to cute supporting roles. They see toys in the toy aisle that encourage little girls to project an image of adult women dressed for a night at a dance club. These images are so pervasive that kids only see the “novelty” in each doll – hey, that one looks like a werewolf instead of a fairy instead of a mermaid instead of a doctor wearing clothing that is completely impractical for practicing medicine (ever try to rush around a hospital and stand performing surgery in stiletto sandals? Yeah, me neither). They see images of boys rejecting anything “feminine” and being told to be a “real man”.
And even if I could raise my kids in a bubble of non-sexualized, non-stereotyped messages until the age of 18, I wouldn’t want to. My job as a parent is to teach my children to successfully navigate the world as it is, not a magical land where no little girl feels like she needs to dress as a sexy witch for Halloween or no little boy is ashamed of liking pink toenail polish, much as I may wish that were actually our culture. And my job as a human being is to want something better for all little kids – not just those with parents who see this stuff, but those who don’t. The kids of parents who see nothing wrong with a t-shirt proclaiming that their daughter is too pretty to do homework may be my daughter’s daycare classmate, or my son’s date for the prom. All kids deserve better, not just mine.
So sure, I won’t buy the t-shirt or the costume or the bikini. And, of course, other people who think it’s harmless can continue to do so. But I will sure as hell try to change their minds.
So, this morning was a little different from 2008. It actually wasn’t the first time I returned to the polling place, thanks to Virginia’s strange gubernatorial schedule, but it felt more similar, thanks to the national coverage about what’s at stake. Today, I pulled out of the driveway with the baby at 7:24, drove to the polling place, parked, got her settled in her stroller, checked in, voted, got her back in the car and was driving off into the sunrise by 7:37.
But it still felt like a community. The people handing out sample ballots were chatting with each other regardless of the color of the paper they were handing out. People held the door for me with the stroller and poll workers waved at my daughter and gave me a “Future Voter” sticker to put on her bunting (one major difference, other than the complete absence of a wait in line was the temperature, which was around freezing this morning).
Lines were longer at the baby’s daycare center, which also serves as a polling place, and people seemed more confused and stressed. Parking was more difficult thanks to the convergence of pre-work voters and parents trying to drop off their kids. The person handing out sample ballots (there was only the one on the parking lot side) was less cheerful and seemed frustrated by the mix of people and was taken aback by my cheerful “Already voted!”
Sometimes voting seems like work – it’s a hassle to get up early and make time to stop by the polls. A lot of the time it really feels like it doesn’t matter or make a difference. Taking the kids can be a pain, especially if there are long lines or there are a lot of things on the ballot. But it’s the work that makes our democracy work. It is the bare minimum of our job description as citizens. Less painful that taxes but also more of a conscious effort, voting is voluntary, but essential. Sure, you can do more – you can make an educated choice, you can campaign, you can rally. But our system of government, while heightened by these things, does not require them. But if you don’t take that 15 minutes, or 30 or 50 to make your voice heard, then it all falls apart. And if you don’t want to vote, that’s fine, but at least do it consciously. (Don’t) do it for a reason not because you just can’t be bothered. No matter who you vote for, we’re all in this together.
So, here’s the deal – I’m 34 weeks pregnant, I feel like a whale, my back hurts and I really really really don’t want to end up with preeclampsia and on bed rest in the next three – six weeks, so I’m trying to keep my stress levels down. Evidently, part of what this means is that instead of engaging in controversial discussions in my usual online haunts, I’m going to get it all out here and hope my annoyance dissipates in the act of more general ranting.
So, lucky you, my handful of readers, or something like that. Anyway, without further ado:
1. So, the esteemed Governor of Virginia has decided that it’s not only appropriate to issue a proclamation about Confederate History Month (April Fools? Please?), but to do so in a way that erases all references to slavery as being essential to “the Confederate way of life”, but to tie it into Civil War tourism. How family friendly…for certain values of family that are somewhat more limited than my preferred definition. And how proud am I as a VA resident of more than a decade.
2. Amanda Palmer. I suppose to be over her, I’d have to first be into her, and the main reason she’s even on my radar screen is because of Neil Gaiman and various associations therefrom. But really. Her public statements have started to read like a checklist from Stuff White People Do:
-Misuse of the term “irony” to justify comparing product placement to giving money to the KKK? Check.
-Appropriation of voices of oppression?
-Veiled allusions to economic slavery?
-Appropriation of artforms giving voice to non-privileged people?
-All of the above wrapped in a bundle of “people are so over sensitive and just don’t get me”? Check, check and check.
There’s a whole ‘nother post bubbling there about artists and the current culture of immediate access and how that changes the way that we interact with the people who make the things that we enjoy and effects how we are even able to enjoy them (which I started exploring here, actually). But that will have to wait.