John-Paul Flintoff

How to talk about race?

For Book Week, my nine—year-old daughter has to make a mask representing a favourite character. Who would she choose?

Flavia, she said at once, referring to one of the main characters in the Roman Mysteries series of adventure books by Caroline Lawrence.

And then she changed her mind. “No, not Flavia,” she said. “Nubia.”

Nubia is the girl/young woman standing on the left of this DVD cover (the books were adapted for TV). Having read the entire series aloud with N, more than once, I can report that Nubia is the gentler, less bossy of the two leading female characters.

She is also (as you see) dark skinned. And, for the record, my daughter is pale like me (and like Flavia).

I was delighted that she had chosen a dark-skinned heroine. And Nubia is not her only one, as it happens: N recently included Rosa Parks in a collage of “strong” people, and while I type this she happens to be watching a favourite film, The Princess and The Frog, featuring Disney’s only black princess.

So we set about making a mask, using the materials that came to hand. Cardboard from a pizza delivery box, and (N’s suggestion) my old brown corduroy trousers because (she said) they’re about the right colour for Nubia’s skin. For the hair, we would use an old pair of black school tights.

So for an hour or so before lunch we built up the mask, cutting eye holes, and a mouth, and adding some cardboard so that the nose stuck out from the flat surface. It looked like this:

And then a friend (whose opinion I respect) took a look at it and said, “You can’t let her take that in to school.”

The problem, my friend said, was that the mask looks like the most appalling racial stereotyping. The nose especially.

Feeling a little defensive, I conceded that the mask fails entirely to capture the prettiness of the actress who played Nubia on TV. And I confessed that the nose was, in fact, my own work – a genuine effort to get it about right. If N had done it, she might possibly have created a better nose – but she might not have done.

“It’s too big a risk,” my friend said. “People can be terribly offended by this kind of thing.”

Well, I would really, truly hate for that to be the case. So I sneaked off to change the nose a bit. Then as it started to be more prominent I thought I should add some lips, and now, feeling demoralised and protective of N (who has no idea, yet, that there is any kind of issue here) I fear that my friend would tell me the lips have themselves become part of the problem.

And I’m feeling really unhappy because there’s no easy solution.

N is really pleased with the mask. She thinks it’s great. How am I supposed to explain that she has to make another one because this one is, or could be, offensive?

Using what words do I explain that?

Do I tell N that, in order to avoid any difficulties, she must choose instead a hero who has the same skin colour as herself? What kind of message does that give?

I would really appreciate some (constructive) advice on this. Is this really offensive, and to whom? Or am I worrying about nothing?

And who to ask? Are only black people allowed to comment? Or the actress who played Nubia – perhaps only she can judge?

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