I met my first Cabbage Patch Kid at show-and-tell in Kindergarten. Julie Jones brought in the cherubic April Lynn and passed her around. There must’ve been something slightly creepy about the way I fondled the doll’s shiny plastic head and crunchy blond ringlets because before my time was up, Julie snatched her out of my hands. It didn’t matter, I was already in love — I had to have one.
After months of constant whining, my mother finally capitulated and drove us down to Toys-R-Us. I raced toward the Cabbage Patch Kid aisle, and I distinctly remember my heart dropping when I gazed up at the rows of dolls. They were all black. I don’t remember this next part, but my mom said it was terrifying and humiliating — I apparently screamed at the top of my lungs, “I don’t want a black doll! I want one that looks like meeeeee!!”
Never mind that Cabbage Patch Kids, no matter the skin tone, looked nothing like my five-year-old self; I didn’t understand why I couldn’t have a white one. My mom recalls grabbing me and making a beeline for the exit; apologizing along the way for her terrifying child. I can only imagine how awkward it was for every person we passed.
As a white girl, my experience even at five-years-old was that dolls were supposed to look like me. As Lisa Hix explores in her excellent essay in Bitch, little girls of color in America have a very different experience. In a new documentary by Samantha M. Knowles, Why Do You Have Black Dolls?, Debbie Behan Garrett, the author of Black Dolls: A Comprehensive Guide to Celebrating, Collecting, and Experiencing the Passion, speaks about the importance of black dolls.
I’m emphatic about a black child having a doll that reflects who she is,” Garrett says. “When a young child is playing with a doll, she is mimicking being a mother, and in her young, impressionable years, I want that child to understand that there’s nothing wrong with being black. If black children are force-fed that white is better, or if that’s all that they are exposed to, then they might start to think, ‘What is wrong with me?’
The need to see ourselves and our experiences reflected in the media we consume and the toys we buy is important for our sense of self. That need is only amplified for black girls, who are so often underrepresented and underserved.
On average, black kids don’t receive the same level of care — resources, food, shelter, heat, healthcare, education, safety, police protection — as white kids. Examples are everywhere. Nearly 1 in 3 black children live in food insecure households as compared 1 in 6 white kids, and the let’s not forget the racial disparity in education. Let’s talk about gun violence and black children — how they are disproportionately subjected to it, and yet it takes an act of mass violence against mostly white people for the U.S. to finally start putting some solutions on the table. School shootings are always horrific, but it’s not the full story to ignore the fact that from 2008-2009 (latest firearm injury data currently available), black children accounted for forty-five percent of all child gun deaths in the United States, despite making up only 15 percent of the child population.
All that comes down to: Black children have it tougher, and that’s a real problem in the United States. Our culture values white children above others, and we need to course correct stat; being thoughtful about the toys and media all children consume can help to impact positive change.
That’s what this is really about — whose childhood counts; who is worth investing in. That’s why a little girl with origins in the Indian subcontinent is playing with three blond Barbies and feeling “less than” should make us hang our heads in shame. Making sure kids of all colors play with these under represented dolls of color is not an empty gesture or stupid political correctness — it hits girls when their sense of self is developing. This is not conjecture; if we look back at the Kenneth and Mamie Clark doll experiments from the late 30s/early 40s, it’s clear to see that children are affected by race and the dolls they play with. These experiments were repeated more recently with similar results.
Don’t get me wrong; dolls aren’t perfect. They can represent beauty ideals that hurt girls — I’m looking at you, Barbie — but there are plenty of dolls that empower. I’m white in a racist culture, and I have all the luxury that affords me. I can buy dolls that look like me.
Moreover, the expectation is that dolls will look like me. But we need to change that expectation; white girls need to play with dolls of every color so that they can grow up to be thoughtful white women. We live in a culture that values white people and their experiences highest of all, and investing in diversifying their first interactions with media and toys can go a long way to teaching them that the world is filled with all sorts of people. It will help them develop empathy and eventually help them to understand that their experience is not the only one.
Another woman in the documentary says “You see, I think women know they’re beautiful. But when you see a doll, [you think] ‘yes I know I am because someone made enough thought to create this.’ That’s what it’s about, it’s about loving who you are.”
That’s especially important today, when a precious nine-year-old black girl can be called a cunt, and just casting an angelic black actress in a popular role is enough to send white people into racist fits.
None of us lives in some bubble where racism doesn’t affect us. My 16-month-old mixed-race niece lives with me, and I love her so much that it makes me finally understand why parents are OK with their 30-year-old kids living in the basement — I never want to not be with her. I have the privilege (for lack of a better word) to live a life that doesn’t include being a target of racist hate. I want my niece to know what that’s like, too. That’s how I know black dolls matter.
Why Black Dolls Matter [Bitch]