The Curious Case of the Black Princess Napkin

If you’re a mommy blogger and one of the people who calls you ‘Mommy’ is a girl, it’s apparently your sworn duty to take to your blog and agonize over what’s been called the Princess Industrial Complex — the profit-sucking vortex of tiaras and pink tulle, of fairy-tale tea sets, glittery wands and folding deluxe castles. Show me a toddler in pink and I’ll show you a modern mother in crisis: Should I ban Cinderella for Halloween? Can I be a feminist and read Snow White at bedtime? My daughter’s obsessed with the handsome prince: Where did I go wrong??? Girl-culture expert Peggy Orenstein pretty much summed up the state of gender panic with her new book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Girlie-Girl Culture. (You gotta love a title that conjures up Disney and military combat in one breath.)

So far I haven’t signed up for grenade duty in this particular culture war. Yes, I cringe at Rose’s tassled princess bike, which looks like cotton candy on training wheels. But she’s just as likely to be outside catching tree frogs as she is to be riding her pink chariot (or stealing my green eyeshadow, which she applies to her cheeks). What I am stressed about — what’s got me in a sick funk, like a sleepless beauty stalked by a beast across a dance floor — is the knowledge that when it comes to color in fairy tales, pink is the least of my problems.

Recently, I found myself at a princess birthday party in our neighborhood. I haven’t been to many of these, but when I got there, it felt like I had walked into a princess locker room at half-time, with all the princesses shooting up steroids. There was a princess bouncy castle, princess makeup sets, princess plastic rhinestone party favors, two princess cakes and, naturally, a princess performer who sparkled as she walked. Rose was the only preschooler there who came dressed in a tshirt and pants, which should have been a sign the day wouldn’t end well.

When the time came to sing Happy Birthday, out came the princess cake supplies: the pink-handled cake cutter, the pink-striped candles and a big old stack of princess napkins. There was one napkin for each Disney princess: Cinderella, Snow White, Ariel, Jasmine, Belle and Tiana — Tiana, of course being the sassy round-the-way black princess from New Orleans in the 2009 film The Princess and the Frog.

As the line of 3-year-olds formed and the cake-cutting assembly line began, something unbelievable happened. I watched in silence, and what I witnessed chilled me to the bone: Every time the Tiana napkin came up, the mommy napkin distributor laid it aside and picked up the napkin underneath. She laid it aside, and took the napkin underneath. Aside, underneath. Aside, underneath.

Do you know those scenes in Hollywood movies when a character in a crowded room has a moment of Disillusionment, when all ambient noise falls away and the action shifts to slow motion? I always roll my eyes when movies do that. But as the pile of discarded Tiana napkins materialized on the Corian counter, I fell into my own movie. Everybody else was fine – better than fine, actually. Kids were singing Ring Around the Rosie or waving wands made from pink and purple balloons. Frosting covered my daughter’s mouth. The only dark skin in the room belonged to Tiana and me. And like her, I was gagged. Smiling, unable to speak, wishing my quiet, murderous wish upon a shooting star.

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18 Comments

  1. Alex Polikowsky
    Posted – Sep 9 at   | Permalink | Reply

    The mother was not giving the girls the Tianna napkin?? WTF???
    My daughter has loved all the princesses. It goes like this. One month she loved Snow White and the next it was Jasmine. For a while it was Tianna and then Rapunzel.
    She then loved Belle and after that it was Mulan. The race has never been an issue or even something that made her blink. They are all beautiful princesses to her.
    My daughter’s father is a Scandinavian Midwesterner and her mom ( me) is a South American girl from a very mixed background.
    I just cannot believe people would do stuff like that~!

  2. Posted – Sep 9 at   | Permalink | Reply

    As a person of mixed ethnicity, with a white husband, three biological kids, and an adopted, transracial son, I hope I would have grabbed my daughter and left that party. Easy to imagine, insanely difficult to do. That is so sick and wrong, it blows me away.

  3. Pink Poppies
    Posted – Sep 9 at   | Permalink | Reply

    I am speechless. Everytime I read this post I lose my mind from the anxiety this scene engenders. I thought Tiana was a character all females of all ethnicities could enjoy for being so strong and determined to make her way. She was feistiness and awesomeness in one fabulous package. But I also thought about my friends growing up black in a largely white community and how different it would have been to have a princess of their own. I have lots of issues with the stereotypical femininity that Disney espouses but thought the baby steps they were taking with Tiana and Mulan for example would have meant a dawning awareness among the population of moms of girls. Clearly not as your experience shows. That none of the other moms noticed either is shameful. I despair and yet hope to show my child a better way. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Posted – Sep 9 at   | Permalink | Reply

    Hey this post has created a great discussion amongst some moms… are you interested in any clarifying questions?

    • Posted – Sep 9 at   | Permalink | Reply

      Hi Rene — yes, I’ve been following them while crashing on deadline at work! I’m so grateful for all your comments and so eager to continue the conversation. This was a lonely, ugly and devastating experience for me, and I’m not at all sure that I handled it in the right way. I’m anxious to hear from other moms, especially moms of color raising their kids in small towns like mine.
      I will write more tonight, but one thought I wanted to leave you all with: The party was noisy and chaotic, especially around cake time. I wondered if maybe — maybe — the napkin-distributing mom had handed out a Tiana napkin to a girl and the girl had objected and instisted on another one. Could the mom have been over-conscious that I would hear it and tried to defuse the situation by putting the rest of the Tiana napkins aside? Or if it didn’t happen, was she anticipating that the girls wouldn’t want the Tiana napkin? Am I deluded, and it was just a plain old act of bigotry? I’d give anything to know exactly what was going through her mind.

      And yes, I’ve second-guessed myself plenty: Should I have said something in the moment? Later, when I was more composed? What should I have said? How would it have affected my daughter’s experience, potentially not being invited to parties in the future? I’d love to hear more from all of you about all of this.

      • Posted – Sep 9 at   | Permalink

        Thank you so much. I am not a mom of color nor do I live in a small town. My Dh is not a US Citizen and we have had some misunderstanding etc. But this is interesting to me as I do not have girls, just two boys and I know they want a certain Star Wars character etc. My thought is the mother was frazzled, the Tiana character is new, and to make life easier she gave the girls the characters they new. Now this may be a very Pollyanna view. I was not there and I think I too would be in shock. I would also invite the mom over for tea, get to know her a bit more and say hey, could not help but observing non of the girls got the Tiana napkins…..” I agree that you could not have said any thing in the moment. Emotions are high, but I think the mother needs to know her actions, however innocent they were cause a slight misunderstanding.

  5. Posted – Sep 9 at   | Permalink | Reply

    oh. my. god. I have a son who has a dark complexion(drop dead gorgious kid, imo) and 2 who are very light. I often get the double take when I say that they are all mine.
    I am also a teacher, and I once went looking for a new stash of black baby dolls( I live in New England, not a lot of racial diversity), I found NOTHING. Seriously. The darkest I could find was Dora and a 40 dollar barbie that most 3 yr olds would rip apart. In order to get the dolls I wanted, I had to order them from magazines.
    As far as that mom goes, I am willing to bet she will regret more than just giving her kid’s friends napkins.

  6. jenQ
    Posted – Sep 11 at   | Permalink | Reply

    I am willing to bet that your kid probably didn’t notice anything amiss nor did any of the other kids. The problem is that they WILL eventually notice… whether outright (with indignation ) or subtly….as in, this is OK, this is our cultural standard. I don’t think we have EVER been at such a party… we had to good fortune of having HS friends equally as multidiverse/ multiopportunistic/ multicultural. It might horrify you that YOUR child might even be one of the ones that prefers the lighter princesses… I have certainly had THOSE experiences with my kids (due to cultural conditioning)…. (instances where my child points out a DERK person as “bad” or otherwise) I am guessing the best remedy for this situation in the immediate sense is to REQUEST the Tiana napkin for yourself….even if not your child (as she will speak for herself of course) so as to indicate to the napkin apportioning parent that this is NOT OK. And then in the long term sense….to expose your child to multicultural/ racial opportunities/ friends/ materials.

    I too struggle with the disney princess CRAP that is out there in terms of marketing. it pains me but i have found that even in NOT limiting it….my kids have a far more rounded sense of what they like than JUSt what is sold to them by disney. I foster in them an appreciation for ALL types of music/ media/toys etc. When I object to a particular toy or image or practice, I tell them why but ultimately let them make their own decisions… I often struggle when I hear them parrot cultural biases.

    Ultimately, a 4-5 year old may swing the same way as her immediate peers. Luckily this is not indicative of his/her long term sensitivity… Kids need the exposure and hopefully (due to good parenting) will make their own decisions as to what is OK and when to stand UP for what you believe to be right or wrong. I have often asked my kids what they thought about a particular thing that was disturbing to me. (Like to “back to school” anti-child sentiments. they are not necessarily sophisticated enough to have an opinion yet). At the age of 4…..there maybe would not be so much concern on their part of the bias represented by the decline of the tiana napkin.. It is rewarding to see, however, that when we have raised compassionate aware kids….that they DO see the injustice in this eventually. All the more powerful if it derives from their OWN sense of morality and injustice.

    I guess for me, I would probably not GO to that house anymore knowing the bias. (if it was indeed the party giver’s bias). I may even voice my opinion about the matter to the host. (understanding that you may be banned there ever after) After that….. i’d use it as an age appropriate teaching opp for my kids.

    Side note…. my middle sister’s favorite dolly was a black babydoll that she cherished all throughout her childhood. The first Cabbage patch kids that we got as kids were black because they were easier to GET back when there was the craze. Not saying it’s right or justified…..just reality. Great teaching opp for our kids to understand what our cultural biases are… We never saw them any different … loved those dollies.

    JenQ mother to 6 year old Amelia and 10 year old Adeline.

  7. Posted – Oct 28 at   | Permalink | Reply

    great piece. i’ve had moments like this and so related to the pain, the shame, the slow motion despair. i’m mixed race and grew up with white parents in a semi-small city. it sure is a trip. now i blog as well, at whitegirlblackface.com … sometimes i think writing is all that keeps me sane. thank you!

    • Posted – Oct 28 at   | Permalink | Reply

      Thanks so much for the comment, whitegirlblackface. I know what you mean about the writing and the sanity. Congrats on your blog, I’ll be sure to check it out!

  8. Posted – Oct 28 at   | Permalink | Reply

    It’s hard for me to imagine how this was not conscious and deliberate…

    On the one hand, I’m not the kind of mom who would take napkin requests, regardless of the characters. I don’t care if everybody wants one particular princess. Take the napkin, kiddo. You’re going to use it to wipe your mouth. I guess that’s the worst of the nasty, for me…the fact that something as completely irrelevant as a napkin required that level of attention is insidious and creepy. I can’t think of any excusable reason to honor a “no Tiana though, mommy, OK?” request, either. Even if they hate that movie as much as I hate Disney’s Robin Hood, shouldn’t a person with half a brain have realized how segregating the Tiana napkins was going to read? It looks ridiculous when I type it, but when I read the initial blog post, my stomach was just roiling. You must have felt like you were surrounded by pod people.

    I don’t know whether I would have left. Yes, probably, b/c I would not have thought of jenQ’s idea, which is excellent. If what I saw was done by the mom, I wouldn’t ruin the child’s party if I could help it, but I’d make some sort of excuse and go. I’d email the mother later to tell her exactly why I’d left. The mama’s reaction would dictate whether we spent time with that family in the future.

    I’d have taken my kid right home and explained to her exactly why we left, told her I’d speak with the mama myself and that she didn’t need to bring it up to the child (again, provided only the mama did anything that I saw). I’d have talked about how to handle situations like this if they come up in play in the future, and assured her that I would back her up if conflict arose because of it.

    Do you think you are the only person who noticed? Did anyone else react? The thing that jumps out at me is that this can’t be allowed to fly in any environment. If a white mama noticed it at a party full of white kids, it wouldn’t be somehow inoffensive just because there was no-one there who resembled Tiana to be openly slapped in the face by the host’s behavior.

    • Posted – Oct 28 at   | Permalink | Reply

      Hi Sarah — This is just the blog post that keeps on giving, isn’t it? Thanks for your comment.
      One of the things I struggle with the most, and that leaves me so drained and despairing, is all the wondering, worrying and second-guessing around race that I find myself doing in the small-town environment where we live. Why did the napkins get laid to the side? Why didn’t I say anything? What should I have done? And in lots of other situations every day: Why was the guy at the post office/ lady at the ice cream stand/ person at the coffee shop looking at me like that? Or, were they really looking at me “like that,” or am I losing my mind? It’s a continual loop of questioning and self-questioning that’s hard for me to shut off at times, and that can sap a good amount of joy from my daily life — leaving me feel emotionally robbed.

      I don’t know if anyone else noticed it. If they did, they didn’t show it. My daughter is just 3, and I didn’t feel like I could really explain the hurt, outrage and shame you described, or anything close to it, at her level without scarring her — although if you have ideas, I’m all ears 🙂 I do think there is a good amount of quiet racism that goes on, often in the presence of a black person but just as often not in the presence of black people and I doubt anything gets said.

      The idea of a white mom being aware of my presence and, with good intentions, trying to avoid a little girl’s protest at getting the Tiana napkin and having it escalate to an embarrassing scene, makes sense on some days and no sense at all on other days. i love how you put it, though — segregating the Tiana napkin. It was like my own private little Jim Crow moment. Which brings me to the other thought I have a lot: I have no idea how black folks with real, life and death battles to fight survived with their sanity, staying focused and forward-moving, without seeing the world as an extremely ugly place. I sometimes see the world that way and I’m just dealing with party napkins!

  9. Posted – Oct 28 at   | Permalink | Reply

    LOL, just noticed the date! I’ve got some blog posts people still seek out years later, on really random topics. Guess it just depends. A fb friend pointed this one out, that’s how I got here.

    I’m a white mama of white kids. That said, I can’t say with assurance that I would have discussed this even with an older child– say, my 8 y.o. daughter, had she been a mixed-race child. There’s a big difference between a mixed-race kid being othered and shamed at what should have been a fun event, and a white kid having certain ethical expectations modeled for/levied of her. The first can become a serious childhood scar; the second is simply a social responsibility. If I were you and my child didn’t notice, I might simply thank my lucky stars and deal with it on my own. I think it would really depend on the emotional needs of any particular kid at that moment: would a conversation be empowering, or paranoia inducing? When racism is the constant “elephant in the room” of your life, I’m guessing you either choose your battles wisely, or go crazy.

    WRT my own kids, I’m not going to shield them from something that doesn’t directly harm them, but negatively impacts kids in their community every day. They’re going to have to learn that sometimes, they’ll have to walk away from people and events they would otherwise like, because they did not turn out to be the people/events we thought they were when we walked in the door.

    There can’t be this idea that it somehow behooves you to do all the race work b/c you’re the mixed-race family in the room. It’s everybody’s job. I am not trying to come across as saying that you should have confronted the mother in question, at all. Sometimes you’re just supposed to get to go to a damn party.

    I think you’ve raised the one scenario I could almost make sense of: somebody *else’s* kid (not the host’s) was raising a ruckus, and in that moment the host just sought to defuse it. I could see someone having a panicked moment of “oh, shit, now what do I do?” and then talking to that kid’s parent later or something. But it still seems really weird to sort out all the napkins, and not just give that kid the nearest blonde princess to shut her up. I feel pretty pessimistic on this one.

  10. Posted – Oct 28 at   | Permalink | Reply

    Appreciate the response 🙂

    I’m certain none of the kids raised a ruckus, because I was there from the beginning. It might be possible the mommy napkin hander-outer, who was an aunt of the birthday girl and a mom herself (the mom was cutting the cake, I believe) was anticipating a ruckus, knowing her niece or her friends, and sought to avoid a scene altogether by taking the tiana option off the table (no pun intended). But I’m as pessimistic as you. I’d like to believe it, but in my heart of hearts, I don’t believe it.

    I really, really appreciate your line of thinking and owning where it comes to the race work. If more people understood the work to be done, or that they even needed to do work, the world would already be a much better place. I compare this to the way a generation of boys my age grew up re-educated about how to think of women and gender. Automatic alarms go off when a male boss calls a female employee “honey,” but not too long ago that was just fine and dandy. The problem with race is that the main thing that seems to get communicated to white children is NOT to talk about race at all. When they’re very young, they often get shushed when they notice someone has darker skin than they do, or patted on the head and sent away when they ask a question that has to do with race. So they’re learning both that skin color is something that matters (for example, if they overhear an adult saying, “Isn’t it amazing that we have a black president?) AND that they shouldn’t ask about it or refer to it out loud.

  11. Posted – Oct 28 at   | Permalink | Reply

    I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the woman who removed all the Tiana napkins, did it unconsciously. So much of the racism I see in white people is so unconscious and so much a part of who they are, that they don’t even realize it. If you asked her point blank, she’d tell you she isn’t racist. But then she’d go and segregate out all the black princess napkins without a thought. And without a thought of how that affected the black child at the party or the mom either. A perfect example of white privilege and white racism.

    • Posted – Oct 28 at   | Permalink | Reply

      thanks judy. i feel so lifted and re-centered by all these comments and support. wish i could explain more fully how much i do, but i’ve spent much of the past year just trying to get a few people i used to respect and trust that there even is such a thing as unconscious racism, and that they were comitting it. that can make you more than a little nutty.

      • bookbutterfly
        Posted – May 15 at   | Permalink

        Hi there,
        This is my first time on your blog. I really enjoy your writing, and this post. Which is why I’m posting almost a year later. 😀

        While I don’t have a daughter, I have two caramel sons, and live in a similar setting in Europe. I’ve been in similar situations and have learned, that you should not second-guess yourself. You saw what you saw and felt what you felt. Valid and legit.
        Do not let yourself get beaten up over these things, because I bet napkin-mom didn’t lose any sleep over it that night. The best way to avoid eternal self-analysis about what you could’ve said/done is to just say something.
        I also find that the direct approach is always best. Coz as Judy wrote above, napkin mom just doesn’t get it that what she did was not ok, and lines up perfectly in the category ‘racist’. I recommend staying polite and friendly.

        This is how I would have played it:

        Me (pointing at the napkins): So what’s wrong with those napkins there?

        Napkin-mom: Nothing, I… (as she realizes who you are and what she just did)

        Me (cutting in): Right. I see. Didn’t expect that from you. Well, let’s see if we can stash these in the take-home/ goody-bags for later.

        Then the ball is in her court, to defend her actions.

        If the kids didn’t notice, then it isn’t your job to teach them racial diversity. But napkin-mom sure could use some training.

  12. Ladybohemia
    Posted – Jun 1 at   | Permalink | Reply

    Wow. That must have been so painful for you as a mother, knowing that one day your daughter will be aware of how insidious, under-handed racism is still alive and well in America, the supposed “melting pot”. As a Caucasian woman, I am ashamed of my white sisters on a daily basis. Ignorance is ugly,and I’m so sorry.

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