The Tough Conversation This Gap Kids Ad Is Forcing Me to Have With My Daughter

I thought the latest Gap Kids campaign might be a reflection of that, but critics disagree and think that the campaign is a mere reminder of

Life & Travel

In the last trimester of my pregnancy, more than getting a needle in my spine or recovering from my c-section, I found myself worrying more and more about one thing:

Will I like the woman my daughter will one day become?

Maybe I had watched one too many episodes of Beyond Scared Straight, or maybe I feared the push and pull of adolescence I once had with my own parents when "staying with friends" was really code for getting a hotel room with my boyfriend. For some reason the knowledge that I was giving birth to a baby girl filled me with the dread of raising a teenage girl. I guess because I knew up close and personal how brutal the battles between mom and daughter could sometimes be. Also, because I knew the world had almost as much say in the woman my daughter would become as I did.

The one thought that made all the difference? "Sure, I could be raising the next cast member of MTV's Teen Mom but I could also be raising the next Michelle Obama." Neither outcome meant my child deserved any less of my love or sacrifices, and it was important to use everything I had in me to give her the greatest possibility of being her best self. I thought the latest Gap Kids campaign might be a reflection of that, but critics disagree and think that the campaign is a mere reminder of what the media really thinks about the potential of our little black girls and their limited roles in the world.

The popular clothing company’s most recent ad campaign features the tagline, “Meet the kids that are proving girls can do anything.” One picture in particular features four young girls: two Caucasian girls are pulling off some pretty impressive yoga positions and one seems to be leaning on the head a petite African-American girl or as Twitter backlash cried, “Using her as an armrest.” It didn’t take long for the social media activists to come accusing the company for racial insensitivity. Even a behind-the-scenes video clip features the little girls doing everything from DJ’ing and break dancing, and still the African-American girl ceases to play a prominent part.

Admittedly, I wasn’t immediately offended by the ad, but what I couldn’t help but wonder is how the young black model felt about being featured in a Gap campaign (which is kind of a big deal) only to have a controversy erupt over what could be assumed was an oversight from a an eager photographer’s take on edgy posing.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece on my personal blog about how appreciative I was to be raising my daughter in the middle of #BlackGirlMagic. We’ve come a long way from being portrayed in popular culture as solely the sassy, neck-rolling sidekick or the kid in class who knows all the latest dance moves. Being raised on the token typecast of popular shows like Saved By The Bell where the sole black cast member was made to represent the black race, the lack of diversity in the media was no secret. It’s refreshing to see how much has changed and that my daughter can look to the Zendaya’s and Amandla Stenberg’s of the world to see that how multi-dimensional black women actually are. We’re actresses, singers, activists, thought leaders and every now and then we can still throw a mean neck-roll in there with the best of them.  But not all of us will be thought leaders and not all of us will change the world. And that’s what diversity is about: The beauty in our differences, from the exceptional to the ordinary.

I even found myself tweeting, “I’m already tired of this conversation and my daughter can’t even talk.”  Because I’ve replayed just how exactly I’ll manage the balancing act to explain to her that while black girls are indeed magical, in many ways we are still facing the world with the odds against us.

[Tweet "How do I tell my daughter that she can be anything when I am not fully convinced myself? "]

How do I paint a bright picture of the progress we’ve made while feeling insulted that after all this time it’s breaking news to celebrate the black girl? How do I empower her and not victimize her? I found myself trading tweets with activist and educator Brittany Packett as I humbly expressed:

“I don't want to teach my daughter that every time a black woman isn't depicted saving the world, it's a racial tragedy.”

“I think I want to teach her the beauty in diversity.  Some of us (women, black, white and in between) ARE saving the world…”

“No one should be depicted as an inanimate object or ‘armrest’, but some of us ARE just showing up and nothing more, and that’s OK.”

“I guess the idea that not all of us will be ribbon twirlers and DJ’s and that’s OK, there is beauty in that too.”

I often find myself torn between calling out racism and discrimination while ensuring that my daughter doesn’t feel like her race is a reason for her to stop running before she even gets in the race. I don’t want to send a message that no matter what she does, she will always be viewed as a “black woman” instead of just a woman or better yet, a person.  Or that just because a brand doesn’t have its "appreciation for black beauty" flag flying high, that they must be racist. As much as want my daughter to feel like “black is the thing to be” as my boy Tupac once stated, I also don’t want her to think that her “black card” grants her any kind of success that she hasn’t earned. The truth is even in the middle of #BlackGirlMagic, there will be times when we’ll still be extras, we’ll still be sassy sidekicks, and we still will be the only ones who can do a proper “whip and nae nae”.  What’s most important is that it’s generally understood that we have the ability to be so much more than that and that even when it's not pictured that doesn't take anything away from our diversity. Even more so, that the Gap ad girl is more than the “armrest” that she’s been labeled as.

I agree that Gap Kids probably missed the mark with this one. To be a national brand there should be teams of people devoted to making sure the messages they send aren’t misinterpreted. I mean the message is lost in that one particular picture in general with both the girls in the middle not appearing to do much of anything. A few Twitter users did further investigation finding pictures like the one above, which features the girls appearing to be in some sort of circus act.  If anything the discussion says a lot about how selective we can be when it comes to finding examples to support our opinions on black vs. white feminism. But I still wonder if #BlackGirlMagic is making us “extra sensitive” as Twitter user KiaSpeaks made a note of:


When I think of the type of woman my daughter will become what’s becoming clear to me is the importance of not telling her how to feel or the best way to present herself to the world. It reminds me of the recent arguments of the way Kim Kardashian and Amber Rose choose to own their sexuality and what it means to be a feminist. I’m looking at my daughter eat applesauce with her fingers as I type this knowing the mess I have to look forward to. Any mother who has ever taught a toddler to feed themselves knows that your child may not always get the job done the way you would do it, what matters is that you provide the tools they need to get things done.

I looked at that Gap ad and admittedly was less offended than some Twitter users (some who weren’t even mothers themselves) thought I should be. I also took more from the campaign’s message than any picture they used to prove a point. I refuse to refer to any little girl as an “armrest,” but I’m choosing to focus on the progress we’ve made as a culture and the fact that I can honestly tell my daughter she CAN do anything. She can blog political essays about racial discrimination and injustice. She can bring a little attitude to a Gap ad on her tiptoe. She can even neck roll her way into a role as a sassy sidekick. I’ll still keep trying to strike the balance between educating her about both injustices and successes of the past while allowing her to define what that means to the path she’ll choose for herself.

What matters most to me is that she’s allowed to make educated decisions for herself about what she is or isn't bothered by and not get up in arms over anything just because social media tells her she should be offended. Lastly, that she knows who she is and what she stands for, not what any brand or Twitter tells her to be.

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