An interview with Jeremy Whitley about his race-positive, gender-bending, subversive series for kids, princeless.
Princeless series [recommended for ages 8+] by Jeremy Whitley (Action Lab Entertainment)
Synopsis: As a young girl Princess Adrienne was already critical of the princess stories her mother read to her. What kind of parents imprison their daughter in a tower? she scoffed. Until one day her parents do imprison her in a tower, as is the custom, so that the brave knight who slays the dragon guarding her can win her hand. But Princess Adrienne doesn’t want to be saved or belong to a prince. So she decides to save herself and her seven sisters who are also trapped in towers. When her ruthless father, the king, hears about the “short knight” trying to free the princesses he calls for “his” head. Adventure, suspense and fun ensue. Along the way, we meet others (like her brother, Prince Devon!) who need to go against convention and expectations just to be themselves.
Melissa: Thanks so much for writing the Princeless series! What were you trying to do in regard to race with the story?
A 4 year-old Asian American girl — let’s call her Amy — lives down the street from me. She’s a truly lovely little girl — friendly, curious, fearless.
The first time we met face-to-face was in a restaurant. She and her mom were picking up some carryout as Melissa, our girls, and I were finishing up a meal. Amy looked at me, walked over, and stroked my cheek. She reached up to touch my hair, then held my hand, talking all the while. It was awesome.
The next time I saw her was at a neighborhood block party. She saw me, came over, and plopped down in my lap. Then, as before, she talked nonstop, asking questions, making observations, showing me the ropes.
Please don’t freak when your kid notices race
My neighbor was having a stoop sale this morning, and although I have been living next to this woman, her son and husband for the past two years, today was the first day that I reached out and talked with her. She is Japanese, from Japan. Her husband is from Japan. Her son was likely born in the United States but goes back every summer to Japan.
I am half-Japanese and, like an imposter, feel both attracted to and intimidated by Japanese Japanese people when I encounter them. Maybe this is why I haven’t reached out to this neighbor before?
I get self-conscious about the degree to which I am what I say I am if she doesn’t see it. I imagine this Japanese woman looking at me and wondering to herself: Japanese? She doesn’t look or sound Japanese. But, she does know something about my dishes … hmmm.
Taking a deep breath, I respond to my daughter with a wish of my own.
I've begun to see that it’s not about having the “right” answers when kids ask about race. Don’t get me wrong: I think there are better and worse answers to offer. There’s also a lot to be said for having a calm, thoughtful answer in the first place, sending the important signal that it’s fine to talk about race openly.
At the end of the school day this past fall, I drove to pick up my 5 year-old daughter, Estella, from kindergarten. As we walked down the steps outside, Estella said she felt like walking instead of driving. It was a beautiful day, and so I happily agreed to take a walk around the block and then drive home.
We were at the tipping point of the New England autumn. Some of the leaves were beginning to turn yellow, and a few were already burning red. We were admiring the colors as Estella skipped along, her little hand in mine, when she said, “Daddy, I wish that we lived in a world where people couldn’t change their skin color.”
I’ve been intentional about talking race with Estella. As a White father with a multiracial daughter, I don’t have any sort of grand strategy beyond teaching her that race and skin color are only tangentially related. “Black” people don’t have skin that is the color black, “White” people don’t have skin that is the color white, many “Black” people have lighter skin than some “White” people, and so on. So when we talk about racial categories, I’ll often say, “Isn’t it silly that we use those words to describe people? They’re just made up.”
But I’m also careful to explain that even though race is made up, it gets people hurt, traumatized, and even killed. I’ve told her that the people we call “Black” are more likely to be treated unfairly by the police just because of the way that they look.
So as we were walking and Estella was sharing her dream of a world where “people couldn’t change their skin color,” I wasn’t shocked that she was talking about race; I was confused about her meaning.
“But Estella, people can’t change their skin color.”
“Well…the sun can do it!”
Okay. But so what?
“I don’t want my cinnamon skin to get darker or I’ll have to go to jail!”
Now I began to see. This was her way of processing my statements about Black people often being treated unfairly by the police.
But the next thing Estella said made my heart pound.
“Daddy, I wish there weren’t any Black people.”
“What do you mean?”
“If there weren’t any Black people, nobody would have to go to jail!”
To witness my 5 year-old trying to work this out, trying to create a dream of a world that isn’t unfair — and to see her arrive at that statement — felt devastating.
Without having an ounce of overt racist malice, Estella had arrived at a conclusion eerily reminiscent of what so much of America seems to believe— that the problem of anti-Black racism can be found within Blackness, which then logically extends to a terrifyingly neat and simple solution: Get rid of Black people, get rid of racism.
Of course, it would be unfair to read all of that into the casual words of a 5 year-old. But regardless of her intent, as Estella spoke, it felt like inside of her, a horrible seed was beginning to sprout, a seed I know all-too-well because it was also planted inside of me.
So there I was, a White dad who pours time and energy into the fight to end White supremacy, who intentionally brings up race in conversation with everyone, including his daughters. And now I was witnessing anti-Blackness breathing itself to life, speaking up through the vessel of my beloved daughter.
Get rid of Black people, get rid of racism.
In the past, I would have scrambled around on my hands and knees, verbally speaking, saying all kinds of things just to not feel helpless. And Estella would have picked up on my desperation, my fear, my confusion, and likely, she would have felt shame, the kind of shame that closes doors in a child’s mind — OK, I shouldn’t talk about that, it’s wrong to talk about that, it makes Daddy upset!
But my practice of studying Whiteness has shown me the way that race works by flipping reality upside down, turning the victim into the perpetrator, the sick into the healers, the cause into the effect. My basic practice as a White person fighting to “stay woke” is to flip my uncritical assumptions about race on their head and explore the truth in the new framing. So my response to my daughter this time was more measured.
“Well,” I said carefully. “What I wish is that White people wouldn’t be so scared of Black people.”
She quickly agreed with me, in the easy and simple style of young children, switching back and forth between contradictory thoughts with ease.
Of course, with that one comment, I didn’t uproot that seed inside of Estella that will encourage her to misunderstand where the problem of racism lies. There is no easy uprooting. The seeds of White supremacy are being planted inside her and all of us every day.
But at least I spokeup in that moment, using the tools I’ve developed thanks in large part to my mentors, who have invested time and love in my development. By staying calm and speaking my truth, I avoided traumatizing Estella through overreaction while staying in integrity with myself by engaging her misunderstanding.
It was one of what will be many attempts to uproot the seeds of White supremacy growing inside of my daughter since before she was born, seeking to overwhelm her mind with the vines of ignorance, turning her into yet another unwitting host for this monster of our own creation.
A treacherous stormtrooper, quietly loosening screws and bolts inside the Death Star. www.risksomething.org
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Race and representation in bedtime stories and afternoon play
Five year-old Fatimah pulled a yellow book from the shelf of Philz Coffee’s mini-library. She flipped through its pages and put it back. “No pictures,” she explained.
“What kinds of pictures do you like?” I asked.
“Smiling pictures, not angry,” she said. I pulled out a magazine from underneath a stack of books.
“That’s not a book, that’s a magazine!” She rejected my compromise as she pulled out yet another book. It, too, was rejected. “Nooo, this has no pictures!”
If we learn one thing from Fatimah’s insistent search for a book with pictures, let it be this: visuals matter.