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Parents Talk Back: A surprising starring role for minorities in media

Never could I have imagined a Marvel comic superheroine whose mother is named Aisha.

Nor had I expected to see an Asian-American mom on prime-time network TV who is funny, smart and nuts in an endearing and relatable way.

But both these characters exist, and suddenly I feel like a part of pop culture in a different way than I ever have. And I’m not the only one.

It’s one thing to watch, read and be entertained by stories that give you a window into other people’s lives. It’s entirely another to see parts of your own experiences reflected in those stories.

Sailaja Joshi realized the importance of that as a child of Indian immigrants, a sociologist and a soon-to-be mom. She wanted to have a library-themed baby shower when she was pregnant with her first child two years ago. She searched Amazon for baby books that reflected her Indian-American identity and came away disappointed. Nothing met her expectations of well-written, developmentally appropriate baby books about her heritage.

“I was frustrated that my daughter wasn’t going to see herself, her culture and heritage, in stories,” she said. So Joshi, 32, of Boston, decided to launch a company herself. Bharat Babies will produce baby, toddler and school-age books that tell stories of India’s religious and cultural heritage. Their first book, “Hanuman and the Orange Sun,” tells the story of a Hindu god and is available for preorder now (bharatbabies.com).

There have always been ways for creative people to tell the stories of their own communities, but minority groups were often relegated to ethnic enclaves. That’s changed dramatically as multicultural families’ stories have gone mainstream.

There’s the breakout buzz of ABC’s “Black-ish,” about an upper-middle-class African-American family, and “Fresh Off the Boat,” about a Chinese-American family relocating and running a restaurant in Orlando, Fla.

Parents magazine just launched Parents Latina, an English-language magazine aimed at Latina moms raising children in a multicultural family. The magazine will feature more Hispanic models, expert sources and parents quoted in the stories.

Not only does it make business sense to target rapidly growing minority groups, but diverse stories appeal to broad audiences.

U.S. Hispanic millennial moms are one of the fastest-growing consumer segments in the marketplace. Within 15 years, 1 of 3 children born in the U.S. will be of Hispanic heritage, according to U.S. Census predictions. And as early as 2044, America will become a “majority-minority” nation, where no one racial group will account for over half of the population, according to a recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We’ve tried to strike a balance between covering issues that are of interest to all moms while honing in on issues that are of special interest to our Parents Latina audience,” said Dana Points, content director for Meredith Parents Network. “For example, a significant number of second-generation Hispanic women are marrying partners who are not Hispanic.” The magazine has stories to address these specific issues.

Others also notice a growing demand among parents.

Ylonda Caviness, a parenting journalist for more than a decade, has written a newly released memoir, “Child, Please: How Mama’s Old-School Lessons Helped Me Check Myself Before I Wrecked Myself.”

“I hope that a young black person, a woman who never sees herself, her experiences” in mainstream culture, reads it and feels less alone, Caviness said. But her experience of being raised by a strong woman with common sense and hard-earned wisdom will connect to more than just African-American parents.

Parenting can be a lonely endeavor. And the more voices that add to the American tapestry, the richer and more vivid it becomes.

I had that same startling sense of recognition with Jessica Huang, the mother on “Fresh Off the Boat,” when she wanted to institute a Chinese Learning Center in her home for her sons. I want one for my kids, too! (I’m just too tired most days to make it happen.)

In the case of Kamala Khan, who headlines the Ms. Marvel comic book series, I had a disquieting thought when I borrowed my daughter’s copy to read. My daughter had gushed that it was the “most realistic portrayal” of a Muslim, Pakistani-American girl she’d ever seen in the media.

Aisha, the superhero’s mom, has the same surname as my husband. Her daughter is a conflicted Pakistani-American Muslim teenager living in New Jersey with superhuman powers.

The heroine is strong, brave and beautiful. Her mother seems kind of overprotective, strict and uncool.

Too close to home, Marvel. Too close.

Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis-based journalist who studies parenting in the digital age. On Twitter: @AishaS.

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