Isn’t that always what racist people say? Doesn’t saying that make you an unaware racist? At least that’s the conventional wisdom. I don’t think of myself as racist; race is usually one of the last things I consider about a person–if I consider it at all. I tend to only consider race if it comes up as part of the conversation; I get that maybe I need to do more self-examination.
What did I do that is accused of racism? (First off, no one has accused ME directly of being racist; I’ve just seen others who share my position on this one matter as being called racist.)
During the Oscars someone in the employ of the satirical Internet Magazine The Onion posted an outrageously horrific comment that went beyond satire into the land of the truly cruel and hideously awful. They called the nine-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis a word that I won’t use even in example.*
The thing about Quvenzhane Wallis is that she’s a little girl who has been on the publicity and awards circuit for her movie (Beasts Of The Southern Wild) for a long time now–much of this last year. I’ve seen her a lot of places, and just like Abigail Breslin before her I watched her go from a sweet, charming kid to a publicity-savvy brat over the course of her prolonged exposure. In fact, I compared her to Abigail Breslin in a conversation with friends because the trajectory was exactly the same in my mind. Cute little girl stars in a small picture that garners a lot of attention, and then the cute little girl is everywhere being sassy and snotty. So when I said that “she is definitely not that thing the Onion said, but she is acting like a brat” I figured hey. That’s my opinion. Several other people say she’s adorable and has a great amount of self-confidence, but I think what other people interpret as self-confidence I interpret as bratty. This may be yet another in the long list of good reasons for me to not have a child.
So in googling her name along with the word “brat” I came across many people who share my opinion. Thrown into the mix with us are folks that respond with “you’re just saying that because she’s black.” They also (erroneously) point out that “no one ever says that about white kids” and follow that claim with a list of white child actors, some of whom I’ve actually heard of.
Do I think she’s a brat because she’s black and I’m less accepting of personal pride in black children? I don’t think so. I’ve seen a lot of black child actors, none of whom have struck me as bratty even though they have self-confidence (eg. Jaden Smith, Willow Smith, Keshia Knight-Pulliam). I’ve seen many white child actors who do strike me as having become bratty in the spotlight. Not only the aforementioned Abigail Breslin but also Lindsay Lohan who started to hit the skids about six months after Parent Trap came out. Yes, I do remember that far back.
I do think there is room for a good conversation, though, about what level of self-confidence in any child is perceived as “okay”, and whether that line shifts–even subtly–when the child is of a race different to one’s own. I also think there’s room for a conversation about the huge generation and culture gaps between a 42-year old Midwestern-bred woman and a 9-year-old Southern-bred child. Midwesterners tend to not push to be noticed, to try to go about our business with a minimum of fuss. Modern children everywhere are being bought and dressed in t-shirts that say “call my agent” and “talk to the hand.” Is one right and the other wrong? I don’t think we can say that, obviously. People are different. Cultures are different. I don’t approve of dressing little girls as “princesses” and slathering them in makeup, but they’re not my kids. And I know that some parents do so not as encouragement of post-feminist “waiting for a man to save me” thought, but as a way to let their daughters know that they are beautiful and special and unique. (Of course I think that such lessons can and should be accomplished without a focus on dress and makeup, but children are children and sometimes you meet them where they’re at and bring them into a new way gradually.)
All of that is my way of saying that to distill this conversation down to “she’s black. You’re white. Your opinion is an evil one” does everybody a disservice.
*If you want to know what the word is, just google the girl’s name. I’m sure it’ll pop right up.