As someone who worked in and around the field of education for some years, I spent a lot of time around kids–mostly Black and all residing in urban areas. I was consistently surprised by their infatuation with the Disney stars of the day: The Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus, iCarly and a host of other largely White teeny-boppers with undeniably suburban sensibilities. And by “surprised”, I mean saddened, confused and a bit disturbed.

To be fair, I laud the age appropriateness of these young stars; with the exception of the early-sexualization of Cyrus (who performed an infamous pole dance at the Teen Choice Awards), these young stars are making ‘clean’ music, TV and films. Many of the Black artists marketed towards school-aged fans are far too adult, making kid-friendly sounding music with explicitly mature themes (see: Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Drake). Much of what I loved about Chris Brown when he first debuted was the fact that he seemed poised to be the little heartthrob that Black girls deserved; I lost those sentiments long before Grammy night 2009, as his music and performance very quickly became sexually charged and more appropriate for grown-ass women.

Looking back at my own youthful tastes, I did have a serious thing for New Kids On The Block. But I was checking for them at the same time that I was obsessing over A Tribe Called Quest and Arrested Development. And with their Boston roots and music that was largely rooted in R&B and Hip-Hop influence, they weren’t nearly as white bread as them Jonas boys. As far as the girls who I admired, there certainly was no Miley Cyrus-esque chick that would have ever landed her face on my book bags and lunch pails. It would have been great to have a Raven Symone or some other little brown girl to identify with, but lacking one, I also checked for the (also too grown for me at the time) members of popular music groups and the older girls around my school for my “I wanna be like her!” fix.

Seeing little Black girls with the daughter of Billy Ray Cyrus emblazoned on their nightgowns and blasting from their iPods does something to me. It’s not that I expect our little girls to walk around in head wraps listening to Lauryn and Nina (though I would love that, I can’t even lie), but I just wish that they had something more personal to identify with other than the blond, blue-eyed and largely soulless cultural products of the Disney/Nickelodeon stars.

The Whiteness of Miley, Carly and the like isn’t the only thing that gives me pause; if there was a show about a diverse crew of kids growing up in an urban environment, I could understand how Black kids in Bed Stuy may relate to them, even if the leads weren’t of their race. But show after show about White kids from middle to upper-middle class suburban settings? I suppose there is an element of escapism there, but I’d largely prefer for kids to ‘escape’ to the domestic bliss of a family like the Huxtables, where the home life may have been more ideal than what most Black kids experienced, but there was still an undeniable cultural ‘Blackness’ that made the clan relatable to many of us from very different backgrounds.

Many of us want to teach our kids the beauty of Black aesthetics and to place our culture at the center of their frame of reference, but that’s a pretty hard task when all the “cool” stuff is either extremely White or just too damn adult. I can’t blame parents who shield their kids from Nicki, yet let Miley have a place in the house. However, as I get closer and closer to being ready for my own little ones, I realize that I will have to work double time to ensure that my child has Black musicians, fashion icons and actors to admire. I now realize why my mother spent so much time exposing me to music and film from the 60’s and 70’s; lacking any interest or understanding of the Rap music that was getting bigger and bigger, she wanted me to see our people being beautiful, elegant and talented and selected images from her own youth to share. Perhaps loading my future baby’s Mp3000 (or whatever we’ll be using then) player with some Lauryn Hill might just be the way to go after all.

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  • chelsea

    Stop blaming MC she’s an adult…to get to the point, how about having a Black father that stays around and a Black mother that doesn’t let men treat her like less than a woman for starters as a “role model” stop looking to blame someone else and start in the home! It pains me at 28 years old to see all the little Black children without fathers,it’s upsetting also, so if I seem upset I am, parents can’t blame anyone for the upbringing of their child except the people who created him or her!

  • Fledgling78

    I see no problem with African American women carving out a space for themselves to express their sentiments. Vogue, ELLE, and all the rest almost exclusively market to the upper class White market, and for the record, not two weeks ago I read about Italian Vogue making a “Black” edition which effectively tokenized women of African descent.

    To all who say that if this type of article was in one of those “White catered” magazines, we’d be crying foul, you should realize that it’s precisely because it IS currently being done every day in the US and world markets that this online ezine exists. But because the mass media has the right to market who they want to market to, so do we. Too many people have struggled and died for the right to make ezines like Clutch exist to make casually tossing our desire to discuss issues affecting Clutch’s targeted audience .

    Now down to business…

    Again, I’d like to just state that I share much of the author’s concern about the dearth of quality programming and the coinciding DIsney phenomenon. I don’t see a compelling reason for our children to be exposed to such influences before they understand the reality of the lives they will lead as individuals of color, if at all. But contrary to what you may think, I do not blame Hanna Montana or anyone else in the spotlight for marketing their images successfully. I think it is ultimately up to parents to shout reason and guidance to their kids above all the ever increasing amount of media. static. To allow Disney, MTV, or anyone else to “raise” one’s children and mold their values is to be derelict in parental duties.

    The good news is that there are alternatives. They may take some looking, but for my children, I think it’d be certainly worth the effort. Up and coming children’s DJs that provide a more balanced worldview DO exist-and they are waiting for your children’s love and admiration. There is absolutely nothing wrong with teaching young Black children of EVERY hue that they are worth as much as anyone else.

    A great first step? Listen to Dj WillyWow. He’s performed at the White House for 2 years now, and provides a positive message for ALL kids that is quite firmly color prejudiced free stuff. Check him out at http://www.littlebeat.com

    I sincerely hope that we can find a way to teach our children to love themselves, even if what they hear and see in the media isn’t ideal. To do otherwise will surely portend folly for our future.