Diversifying playtime

Catonsville couple's company features multicultural toys and books to teach kids to celebrate heritage

Race And Education


WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF your 3-year-old was repeatedly shunned by all the other kids at a crowded playground?

Initially, Catonsville resident Jeanne Yacoubou didn't want to jump to conclusions when her daughter, Amira, tried to join in the fun at an Elkridge park, only to end up sad and alone while the other children played together merrily.

But after the incident repeated itself, it seemed obvious to Yacoubou what was going on: She is a white woman who had brought her light-skinned, biracial daughter to the park at times when all the other children there were white.

Apparently, someone hadn't taught the other youngsters that friendship has no color.

"I didn't know if it was my daughter or my daughter and me together that was creating the problem," says Yacoubou, whose husband, Malik, is from Benin in West Africa. "Maybe the children didn't know how to take us, and they thought, 'Is she yours?' -- that type of thing.

"On other occasions, when there were children of other nationalities there, [her child being of a different hue than others] didn't seem to be much of a problem; they would always play together," Yacoubou says.

So the former schoolteacher set out to instill in her child an appreciation for all cultures -- especially her own -- no matter whom she encountered.

When she could not find dolls and books that spoke to Amira's heritage, Yacoubou created Alaafia Kids, a company that produces educational products with multicultural themes.

They include a coloring-storybook, Wanna Play?, that was borne of her daughter's playground experience.

In the storybook version, however, a child reticent to play among others at a playground because she looks different is befriended by one of the children, and the two spend a fun afternoon together.

This month, Yacoubou is introducing Alaafia Kids' third coloring storybook. What's My Heritage uses African history and culture to explain heritage to a 6-year-old African-American boy.

Alaafia Kids also offers handmade cotton dolls, handmade African clothes for children, alphabet flip charts, multicultural puzzles and music compact discs.

Many of the products have been kid-tested by her three children, Amira, 5, Latif, 3, and Jamil, 1.

Alaafia Kids was launched in August 2004, and product sales have benefited from a recently launched Web site where items can be purchased.

Yacoubou coined the phrase Alaafia Kids (pronounced a-LAH-fee-ah) for multicultural children because the word alaafia means "peace" or "OK" in several African languages, including Yoruba and Hausa.

She believes the word appropriately describes children with more than one heritage.

"Right now, I'm focusing on mixed-race children of African descent," Yacoubou says. "But if this can work, why not expand it to children of mixed race of Asian- or Hispanic-American [heritage], as well as trans-racially adopted children? There are all types of issues around these types of family settings."

Yacoubou used a disheartening ordeal to spearhead an entrepreneurship that has enabled her to leave a teaching job and work at home.

She also has enlisted other work-at-home moms to help make many of the products. Her husband, a financial educator, also assists with the company.

Together, they are making inroads in a multicultural market that continues to grow, albeit slowly, as the nation becomes more diverse.

"The 2000 census allowed Americans to identify themselves as more than one race for the first time, and 7.3 million people did," says Matt Kelley, founder of the Mavin Foundation, an organization that celebrates and advocates for mixed-race people.

"It makes sense for a woman coming from a desire to protect her own child to do this, as well as [for] others not having those same concerns to recognize a growing market," he said.

Indeed, Yacoubou has discovered scores of people from one-race families who are interested in her products.

Monta Fleming, an African-American mother from Flower Mound, Texas, who is married to an African-American, purchased flip charts, crayons and a puzzle for her two children because she could not find such products elsewhere featuring people of color or reflecting their skin tones.

And she discovered that the quality of Alaafia Kids items is better than what she buys at department stores.

"The alphabet chart is so nice because you can write on them, they have nice pictures and they're sturdy, not flimsy," she says. "The crayons are dry-erase markers, so you can wipe them off of surfaces. I looked all over for those, and I couldn't find them anywhere else."

The Yacoubous don't believe their products will address every ill biracial children face in a world that often struggles to appreciate diversity. Their hope is that their kids are always among those who celebrate diversity.

"We give our children the image we want them to carry," Malik Yacoubou says, "because whether you say it or not, your children are your ambassadors. The children behave according to the teaching they receive."


For more information about Alaafia products, visit alaafiakids.com or call 888-313-7174




Create a secure and loving home environment to which your children can retreat if made to feel "different."

Develop a strong family identity based on unconditional love, not physical appearance.

Seek out and develop friendships with other multiracial families. Schedule frequent get-togethers and outings.

Celebrate the multiple cultural heritages of your family regularly by attending cultural events, visiting family members, preparing meals, listening to music and wearing clothes typical of those cultures.

Visit your children's school and ask about its multicultural and anti-bias curricula. Help to make such curricula a reality if necessary. If home-schooling, feature multicultural and anti-bias education in your program of study.

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