Power to the Bebow

My daughter has recently become obsessed with the Reading Rainbow Theme Song. Tweeners like me know the ditty by heart, but when my toddler sings it, it sounds something more like this:

BYE-BYES *indecipherable* SKYYYYY
*indecipherable* HIIIIIIIIII
*babble* OOK!
*babble* OOK!

Fittingly for a child singing about rainbows, she’s also started learning her colors:
“What color is the sky?,” I ask.
“What color is the grass?”
“What color is your skin?”
“Yes, Baby,” I respond; “Your skin is a beautiful, beautiful, brown.”

It frustrates me that I don’t have more names for the spectrum of colors in the brown category. When pointing out the skin color of white characters in her books, I can use words like white, cream, peach, pink, rose, and tan. When the characters are black, I’m stuck with brown; maybe mahogany or cinnamon if I’m feeling really creative.* My lack of words for brown says as much about our dismissal of all things (and people) black and brown, as much as my internalization of that dismissal.

Despite the hole in my vocabulary, however, I’m trucking along anyway, determined to continue talking about skin color with her because I know the best way to raise a racist child is to avoid talking about race. I also know that in failing to talk about skin color with children, we teach them that the subject is taboo, making it difficult for them to have productive conversations about race later in life. I am reminded of this when my students, six weeks into a course on race in the public education system, still clam up at the start of class, awkwardly stumbling into language about “blacks” and “the races” only after insistent prodding by me. I am reminded of this by the guilty silence of my colleagues in response to observations at a recent faculty meting that we haven’t had a scholar of color give a talk at the school in two years. I am reminded of this by the radio silence I encountered in response to my explanation to a white peer that I picked a particular pre-school for my child because there were black dolls in the classrooms.

I am determined to raise a child who is comfortable talking about race, skin color, and it significance in our society. Although it’s likely wishful thinking, maybe her generation will revolutionize the discourse on race in our country, finally acknowledging worth and beauty in the rainbow of skin color among human beings. In the spirit of such a revolution, I say Power to the Bebow!

*The author welcomes suggestions!

14 thoughts on “Power to the Bebow

    1. Love it! Thank you! I kinda do wish, though, that there were actually more words describing the actual color, as opposed to using an object to describe the color. Cocoa; chocolate; pecan; walnut; cinnamon. All great words, but they describe something else, that we then use to describe a color. I guess the same might be said of cream and peach, although my guess is that if I purchased a 64 set of crayola crayons, there would be more actual colors (as opposed to names of objects) on the lighter end of the spectrum. But I could be wrong. In any event, ebony, sepia, and golden do help!


  1. i was on my phone earlier but i wanted to send you the link to this book. It’s called Shades of Black: A Celebration of our Children. i worked in borders years ago in the Childrens dept. and this has been my absolute favorite ever since then. I know you have a little one. It comes in board book form as well. if i had your address, i would have sent it to you already. lol



  2. We have “The Colors of Us” which is good too. They do refer to objects, sometimes, but I think to make it more concrete to children. Like “reddish brown, like the color of fall leaves” or “light yellow brown, like peanut butter” or “light cocoa brown,” or “butterscotch.” Colors aren’t abstract – they are descriptive of things.


    1. Is it true that the book’s black and/or ethnic characters are “Candy,” the black female babysitter, Mr. Pelligrino the Italian pizza shop owner, and Mr. Kashmir, the turban-wearing spice-seller? If so, The Colors of Us is sounding like a fail, especially when you use those guidelines posted on LIE the other day on how to identify racist/sexist books…


      1. I looked at those guidelines. And I hear where you are coming from. The Italian pizza maker and middle eastern spice-seller are problematic, although Candy as a black babysitter doesn’t bother me. I do think the guidelines are more concerned with negative stereotypes that just stereotypes in general, but you are right, stereotypes are stereotypes. Although I’d rather buy pizza from Italians than anyone else.


      2. I haven’t seen the book, which is why I asked. But assuming it’s true, I’d say it sounds like minority and/or ethnic characters are being presented through stereotypes. The Italian guys owns a pizza shop; really? The black woman in the book is a caregiver called Candy? Really??? Why don’t they just call her Mammy, and be done with it?

        For children who will not be exposed to people in all their variations–white children, in particular–those characters make me nervous. Every white child out there will be exposed to the “black (or Latino, for that matter) female caregiver” stereotype. I have no interest in furthering a book for them that reinforces that. And even for my child, who will be exposed to black women across the SES/professional/ethnicity spectrum, I see very little value in buying her a book where the only black female is presented as a black babysitter named Candy (even if Candy does exist somewhere). Just like I’d be cautious about buying her a book about families where the black mother is always dominant, or the African character is half-clothed, or the Iranian character is selling exotic spices (even if somewhere out there exists black mothers who dominate their family, people in parts of Africa donning traditional clothing that exposes more body parts, or somebody in Iran who sells spices). No thanks.

        Here is a link to the guidelines I referenced: http://www.teachingforchange.org/node/101


  3. I’m sorry; no disrespect to all the Candys out there, but the name just infantalizes the black character. Sounds like “Baby,” and “Sugar,” and “Peaches..;” and she’s the babysitter? As in, you take care of my children, and I call you what sounds like a pet name? In the context of a children’s book this all sounds wrong.

    I’m not sure I understand your distinction between good and bad stereotypes. To me, there is no difference. A stereotype is an attempt at essentializing a person; reducing them to one characteristic or personality trait because they fall into a particular category, when they should be looked at as a whole person. Saying all blonde girls are bubbly, or all black people are religious, is problematic, even if being cheerful, or having faith, is a “good thing.”


    1. In the guidelines, the focus is not just on stereotypes, they are on stereotypes that portray brown characters in a bad light. They say “infamous (overt) stereotypes of Blacks are the happy-go- lucky, watermelon-eating Sambo and the fat, eye-rolling “mammy”; of Chicanos, the sombrero-wearing peon, or the fiesta-loving, macho bandito; of Asian Americans, the inscrutable, slant-eyed “Oriental”; of Native Americans, the naked savage or “primitive” craftsperson and his “squaw”; of Puerto Ricans, the switchblade-toting, teenage gang member; of women, the completely domesticated mother, the demure, doll-loving little girl or the wicked stepmother.”

      So what they seem to be most concerned about are the negative stereotypes, not just stereotypes in general: “peon,” “bandito,” “inscutable,” “savage,” “gang member,” “completely domesticated,” “demure,” “wicked.”

      “Candy” is not the only black woman in the book – she is a teenage babysitter. There are several other black women in the book of other colors and other names. But I don’t think pet names and naming conventions in black families/communities are bad things, or things that white children shouldn’t be exposed to. I don’t see “Candy” as being negative/bad/harmful in any way, or even close to calling someone “Mammy.”

      I understand not wanting to re-enforce stereotypes, but I wonder if denying reality, as Tenay said, is the way to go always. Not every book is going to do everything. In a book about skin color, this book’s purpose was to see different colors of brown in the people this girl knew in her neighborhood. As stereotypical as it may be, in my neighborhood growing up, Italians ran the pizza parlor and the Chinese had what we called “Chinese stores.” If you would have told me at 5 about Italians or Chinese doing something else, I probably wouldn’t have related the book to my own experiences.

      I just don’t know.


      1. I don’t read that excerpt in the same way. The language expresses concerns for several stereotypes/stereotypical depictions that are problematic, even if not inherently negative; a squaw describes a group of indigenous people; inscrutable means difficult to investigate or understand; slant-eyed describes a problematic representation of phenotype, although I’m not sure it’s inherently negative; happy go lucky and watermelon eating is not an inherently bad thing. I love watermelon! But they highlight the very problem–if you say all Blacks are happy go lucky, and love watermelon, you’re trading in problematic stereotypes that reduce blacks to one dimension.

        I will admit that generally, we might be more concerned about negative stereotypes than positive ones, but stereotypes themselves are problematic; as such, I’m not limited to whatever is on the guideline sheet.

        As I explained to Tenay in my longer 2nd response (below), I am not trying to deny reality, and there is a middle ground here. The Colors of Us seems like it’s on the wrong side of middle for me and my family, and its just not something I would order off the internet without being able to read it in its entirety. But hey–that might not be the case for everyone else.


  4. Stereotypes or not, books which depict black women as the head of household, sole caregiver are truly representative of life.not black life but in general. Do you shelter your child from books that depict what is normal and true for many kids, no doubt black children she will come in contact with? I am a single mom of 4. My oldest is 14 and coparented by mom and dad, but her twin brothers have only me. There are all kinds of stereotypical families where the type rings true. Should I only let my kids see media with typical nuclear families when that’s not what they see in their own household? How healthy would that be?


    1. You know, I thought hard about this regarding a book my child currently has: Have I Told You I Love You Today?. It’s a book about a black mother, and all the ways she shows her child she loves him; ways children often don’t think about, like, “I got you dressed today; I fed you breakfast; I put you on the bus to school; we spent quality time together when you came home; I got you ready for bed and helped you clean up your room; I prayed for you after I put you to sleep.” I think the sentiment is beautiful, but I didn’t like the fact that despite the fact that there were 3 black children in total in this family that made appearances in the book, the only thing we saw of Dad was his wrist. No, seriously–just his wrist, with cuff-links and a watch on, at the breakfast table.

      I ultimately concluded that there has to be a space for a story about a black mother and her child, no matter how much it might conform to stereotypes about the division of labor in a home (the father made no appearances in the book other than that cuff-linked hand, despite the fact that he should be doing something in that house besides just showing up for breakfast) or the dominance of a black mother. But I am very careful about what I show my daughter, even if it does reflect our reality. Because our reality is not always ideal, and in choosing what I expose her to, I send messages about that to which she should aspire.

      If the book had a black mother who was always bossing people around, ordering her husband to do tasks, and chastising her children for “sass,” I would absolutely not buy it. That is more than just a benign depiction of mother and child, or even a benign (and valuable) depiction of a single-parent home led by a black woman; that is conforming to a stereotype that all black women are bossy, in charge, emasculating, etc. etc. My daughter will get enough of that; I don’t have to reinforce it at home.

      Maybe less controversially, I am careful about buying her books wherein mom is always the nurturer, or always running things domestically, even though that may in fact be the reality in our home, or in other homes. The reality is that both moms and dads can and should be nurturers, and that moms and dads should have more equal division of domestic labor. How can I expect her to look for nurturing qualities in a partner later in life, or to insist that her partner (should he be male) do his fair share around the house, if I reinforce the idea when she is a child that non-nurturing men, or men who do less, is the only norm?

      I am not suggesting that we never allow our children to see themselves, and their families, depicted in books, movies, or television. I am suggesting, however, that they are sufficiently exposed to particular stereotypes such that my additional confirmation of those stereotypes through the books I purchase is not only unnecessary, but often also short-sighted and racist/sexist of me. And that a black babysitter named Candy, a turban-wearing spice-seller, and an Italian pizza owner, all fall into the problematic stereotype category. I will not be purchasing the book.

      I did, however, purchase Shades of Black; thanks for the recommendation, Tenay!


      1. I’m glad the recommendation worked for you. It is an awesome depiction of the beautiful colors of our skin.

        And as far as your argument about what you expose your daughter to, I hear you loud and clear.

        peace and light always…


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