(e)race: of memory & invisibility

For this project I want to reflect upon the connection between institutional racism and everyday lived experience. By telling my story, I hope that others will feel comfortable sharing their stories too.

-Sung

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How We Met – the Story of Polar Opposites

What would happen if you mixed Joe Lambert’s style of Digital Storytelling with the “unboxing” YouTube video format? I have specific reasons for wanting to try this experiment. According to Lambert, “[Digital Storytelling] is an essentially private media,” and “while it may It may be public, it starts with the authentic voice in your head saying this story will help me, will heal me, will help me survive.”  My project on the other hand started with me thinking about my audience—my teacher, my class, and the wider internet viewership. A core premise of DS had already been compromised, and I was stuck in a dilemma about how to balance the personal and public spheres.

It wasn’t easy to pick a personal story I was willing to share with the world, especially realizing most of my stories weren’t mine at all but “ours.” All my significant stories included friends, family, co-workers, how would my public narrative impact them? I read through Lambert’s story ideas for inspiration and honed in on “Love Stories,” specifically the  “how we met” question since everyone wants to know how a white American met a black African. Especially after all the ruckus surrounding the recent Cheerios commercials, I thought our inter-racial love story would add to the conversation of race in America.

But at the same time, my husband and I also wanted to maintain a certain amount of privacy, and so we decided to use an alternative form of visuals—thus the unboxing style with its accompanying disembodied hands. We collaborated on the project because, although Lambert’s DS model is based on seven distinct steps including  “Personal or First Person Voice” which is typically one narrator,  I believe there is room for variation. Lambert describes a range of literary voices from the “me story” to “no story,” and along the spectrum is “our story.” Does this suggest that some stories should be told by more than one person? I argue yes, and in these videos my husband and I experiment with telling “our story.”

The original plan was to create one video using toy figures inspired by the hugely popular unboxing trend of pre-school toys on Youtube. Even though videos of consumers opening up and showing off new products have been around for a while, the toy unboxing videos made national news this July when “DisneyCollector BR” became the number one channel. Critics have called her videos “toy porn” and “crack for toddlers,” and while the reasons for the craze mystify adults there is no questioning that children are mesmerized. I’ve witnessed first-hand my pre-school aged nieces, both in the States and in Africa, with their eyes glued to the screen as if in a trance. One of DC’s top videos, Giant Princess Egg Kinder Surprise Disney Frozen 3D Olaf Elsa Anna Giant Minnie Mickey Play Doh Eggs, has over a 100 million hits and overall she has over 4 billion views on her channel. Not bad for an adult making a multi-million dollar living out of playing with toys!

DisneyCollector may have gotten her inspiration from BluCollection ToyCollector, a YouTube user who started his channel first and outpaces DC with over 6 billion total views. Little is known about either star and a certain mystery surrounds those disembodied hands. Folks trying to identify the toy collectors, have focused on their accents and bi-lingual programming (she also narrates videos in Portuguese and he narrates in Spanish). However, what is glossed over is the obvious discrepancies between the “white” toys and their ethnic owners.

It didn’t surprise me that most of the dolls in “DisneyCollector’s” videos were white, I’m very familiar with Disney Princesses and movies. However, when I embarked on this assignment , I didn’t expect to spend hours and hours looking for figures that would represent my inter-racial family. Although I didn’t find what I was looking for, I did stumble across  this blog pointing out the lack of interracial family doll sets. In addition to the toy brands the blogger mentions, I found that other popular toy brands such as Fisher-Price offer “Loving Family” sets only in Caucasian, Hispanic, and African-American (yep, Asian was missing altogether). Considering the rise in inter-racial families this is disappointing. According to the 2010 Pew Census,“15.1% of all new marriages in the US were between spouses of a different race or ethnicity from one another, more than double the share in 1980,” and this statistic doesn’t include families comprised of adopted children from various races and ethnicities. Still15% is a rather low number, and I get that manufacturers can’t provide sets for the all the multi-racial, multi-ethnic family options out there, but offering some diversity would be a start. How would children see the world differently, if they had easy access to dolls, including family sets, in a range of skin tones and hair colors? Writer Calvin Hennick makes a strong case for greater toy diversity in his recent article “Dad’s Conversations About Race: ‘Most White Kids Don’t Get This Talk.’

In my search I also found this Change Petition for more diversity in Lego characters, and this idea for an interracial mini-figs parts pack. (Sadly, both proposals are way below their quotas for audience support.) Lego claims their yellow figures are “race neutral,” and yet the recent Lego Movie makes it very clear that the Lego characters are not neutral. Looking on Amazon, I even discovered that the Morgan Freeman Wizard character, while a main character, isn’t  in the “Complete set” of 16 Lego movie figures. One rare toy alternative, Duplo offers a set called, “World People’s Set” as if diversity exists only in the world and not domestically.

I kept searching and found lots of white Disney princesses and princes, but few options to purchase Prince Naveen. Lots of blond Barbie dolls, but not many African-American “Steve” dolls. Even the majority of “Caucasian” doll moms had blond hair, so just finding a white doll with dark hair to represent me proved to be a challenge. The lack of diversity was even worse when I visited toy stores around my home in Los Angeles.

In the end I gave up finding toy figures to represent my family. My husband and I agreed the easiest solution would be to customize dolls to look like us, but at the same time we were aware of sensitive issues around painting a white doll brown. This video starting out as the story of our first date, and ended up being a commentary on the “whiteness” in the toy industry. Something to think about when purchasing toys this Christmas.