Talking About Yellowface and Blackface with Your Children


Those terms represent an ugly part of our history. While blackface is now socially unacceptable, yellowface is still practiced without much backlash. Earlier this week, Sophia and I had a conversation about those terms. I didn’t plan to talk to my 7 year old about the racism that is involved with blackface and yellowface. They are pretty big subjects.
It all started with a book: Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story by Paula Yoo (Lee & Low Books). Prior to reading this picture book to Sophia, I knew very little about the life of Anna May Wong. Anna May was a well known Chinese American actress during the 1920-30s. She started her career by playing stereotypical roles like the dragon lady or the demure lotus flower. She was also distressed by white actors wearing yellow face powder and taping their eyes to play Asian roles. Because actors of different races were not allowed to kiss onscreen, the roles she could play were extremely limited. She eventually left for Europe where she was offered better roles.
I’ve read the book to Sophia before, when she was much younger and didn’t understand all the concepts in it. This time around, she understood the gist. I wanted to explain it in terms she could understand. I felt that she was mature enough to talk about these concepts.

I talked about how actors used make up to paint their skin brown or yellow because black and Asian actors were not allowed to play those roles. Her expression of shock said it all. She understood. It felt wrong and unfair to her. Because her dad used to be an actor, it was easy to make blackface relatable. She did not like the idea of her father would be denied roles sole because of his skin color.

We only touched the surface of blackface and yellowface, but I’m glad that I didn’t shy away from it. As we read, I asked if she understood the terms and we talked about it.

I loved the overall message of the  Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story. Anna May’s father taught her to always be proud of her race and culture.

Just like I’m trying to do with my kids.

Have you ever talked to your children about blackface or yellowface?

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