Uri Segal was playing gin rummy with his family several years ago when his 16-year-old daughter Maayan asked him a question: Why is the king worth more than the queen?
The question has turned into a full-blown deck of cards, “Queeng,” now in its second edition. The cards feature multi-ethnic figures, and men and women are equal.
Playing cards aren’t the only thing that’s gotten a makeover. Barbie has more than 35 skin tones, 94 hairstyles and 9 body types on shelves today, and Potato Head recently made headlines by going gender neutral.
Toy manufacturers, pop-up libraries, book publishers and more are making strides when it comes to diversity and inclusion, and as a result the next generation has more offerings than ever that promote representation.
That’s important because children can start to internalize race and gender stereotypes as early as 4 years old, according to Dr. Christia Brown, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Kentucky.
“Kids, by the time they’re starting elementary school, have biases that parents are probably unaware of,” Brown says.
It’s crucial to start teaching lessons about diversity early, she says.
“The world is diverse, and it’s increasingly diverse. Children that are better prepared for that, and can recognize it and feel comfortable with it, are going to be better equipped to navigate the world as it really is.”
In the Queeng deck, “monarch” cards serve as the king cards; “duchess” or “duke” are queens and “prince” or “princess” are jacks.
Many questions about gender and identity cropped up while the Segal family was creating the cards.
“What does it mean to be female? What does mean to be a male?” Segal recalls, noting he is no expert but rather a father who found himself faced with a child asking questions.
We are informed by our surroundings, and the movies we watch and the toys we play with affect our children, he said.
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Mattel is again expanding its Barbie range to be more inclusive and show “a multi-dimensional view of beauty and fashion.”
Brown adds: “We have to help kids have a lens for bias so that they can spot the bias when it’s happening. Otherwise, they can absorb the stereotypes that are out there.”
Brown says all kids should have dolls that reflect diversity.
Segal notes it’s important to remember that conversations about gender and equality hinge on appropriate language – and starting such conversation from a young age puts children on a path to carry that into their own lives.
“One thing is for sure, kids are looking for a role model mainly in their parents,” Segal says. “Kids are coming with questions whether we pay attention or not.”
Another way we can teach the next generation about diversity is through reading.
The National Education Association recommends diverse books throughout the year. Books on the list for March include “Tiara’s Hat Parade” by Kelly Starling Lyons; “Each Tiny Spark” by Pablo Cartaya; and “They Called Us Enemy” by George Takei, Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott.
Junauda Petrus, author of the young adult novel “The Stars and the Blackness Between Them,” is proud to have a book that features Black, queer girls that anyone can enjoy.
“My book is a universal book. I don’t think it’s any more, any less universal than books that people often (say) are ‘mainstream,'” she says. “As a writer that was centering Black, queer love in the young adult space, people would be like, ‘Oh, hey, who is your book for?'”
She wonders whether white or straight people would get the same question.
“There’s an assumption of what’s relatable, and what’s accessible,” she says. Her gut told her powerful stories are important to hear, regardless of identity.
“I read a ton of books growing up where the writers and the characters in it did not have my life or reflect aspects of who I was,” she says. “And just being a Black kid wanting to read, I read it all.”
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Petrus lives in Minneapolis lives not far from where George Floyd died May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes while he was handcuffed on the ground. People flocked to support Black writers, Petrus included, and little libraries and book boxes sprung up to spread awareness of what it means to be Black in America.
“I saw how that impacted my book sales,” she says. “I feel like there certainly is a shift, but I feel like, how much of that shift is around a certain kind of optic, versus a genuine commitment to transformation is, you know, yet to be seen,” Petrus says.
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Books and children’s media should reflect diverse people, Brown says, and kids should see these groups in starring roles and not just as secondary side characters.
She says it’s also important to talk about why there are inequalities. As kids start elementary school, start to fold in conversations about stereotypes and being able to recognize them.
Parents often underestimate how many biases kids hold, she says, and need to take active steps to prevent them.
“A lot of parents, for example, think ‘I don’t say things that are racist, or sexist, or homophobic, and therefore, my child’s not going to be racist, or sexist or homophobic,'” Brown says. “But the reality is, there’s a lot of culture that’s really got a lot of biases embedded in it, and kids are absorbing that culture.”
If you want to raise a child that will be unbiased, you need to lay the appropriate groundwork, she says. Books, toys and media can play a critical role.
And there’s a lot to read out there.
Click here for more children’s book recommendations, which include “Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut” by Derrick Barnes; “Mary Wears What She Wants” by Keith Negley and “Refugee” by Alan Gratz.