The Problem With White Dolls (Participation)

The Problem With White Dolls

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]


15 thoughts on “The Problem With White Dolls (Participation)

  1. I think that it’s important for young girls to play with dolls that don’t look like them. Although at a young age, most children won’t talk about the race of the people around them, it’s important for parents to encourage their children to accept others who look different than them. When I was a young girl, my parents only ever bought me the dolls who had blonde hair and blue eyes. Learning to not judge others at a young age, is the way that our world is going to learn accept others of different races. The children are the future for this country.

  2. This story is interesting to me because when I was younger I remember having dolls of all different colors. My sister even had her favorite doll that she took with literally everywhere that was a black little boy. Maybe some children pay more attention to this than other children do, or maybe it has to do with who children are surrounded by. Growing up I always had friends of different races and I do not ever remember the differences even crossing my mind. But, maybe a child that did not have this would only want a doll that “looks like them”. It is interesting how children react differently to situations like this, though.

  3. This story is especially interesting to me because when I was young my mom let me choose my own babydoll out. Though I was three, I really had little multicultural experience because I lived in a predominately white neighborhood and hadn’t been in school yet. My mom was surprised but proud when I chose an African American babydoll, even though I had only really been around white people and was white myself. I think that children who are at the age of playing with dolls still have their multicultural innocence and don’t pick their dolls based off of bias, but off of comfort or feelings of love. It really shows how perception changes over the years, because kids usually don’t have prior bias when picking these toys. I think it’s so important for parents to let their children understand how great living in such a multicultural time can be, because when you limit children and make them feel like there is only one kind of person, it isn’t realistic and it can really limit how far they go and how much they achieve in life. Kids need to be taught that diversity is something to be cherished, and personally I will engage my children in many different kinds of toys and dolls, including dolls of different colors.

  4. When I was younger I always remember going to the toy store and seeing a large variety of different white Barbie dolls. It was very rare to see any other race of Barbie. For me, the white Barbie was normal, because it was the most common. This also was not very realistic to me though because I grew up going to a very diverse school, and had friends of many races. I remember actually being excited when there was a doll of a different race, and wanting to buy it because my friends and I would play with them and pretend the dolls were us. It was always more fun when we had a variety to play with rather then every doll looking the exact same. My opinion may be different than the one in the article, but I think it is really good for kids to experience and play with dolls of different colors at a young age.

  5. I find this story interesting because it reminds me of a study that I had watched for a different class, (I can’t remember which class) where a team of researchers had a group of children of different races, and one by one gave each child both a black baby doll and I white baby doll. I cannot recall the exact numbers but a majority of the kids of both races chose the white doll because she was “prettier and nicer looking”. I find this interesting because what we define as beautiful is obviously socially constructed and is engrained into the minds of little kids so early in life. It is sad to see that even as a little girl, a black girl could already view herself as inferior to the white kids, and believe that they are better and prettier. There is a great need for a wider selection of dolls for children. Diversity is key in teaching kids and adults how to appreciate not only themselves but the people who they are surrounded by.

  6. This is interesting to me because when i was younger i did play with dolls as well, and had a cabbage patch kid (but my uncle burned it tho) and a majority of them were white except for my brandy doll. I do agree with the author that kids now a days need to be exposed to a diverse community to respect other races and appreciate them as well, not just think that other people and dolls should be “like them”. Racism still exist as much today as it did before, people need to be more aware of the different cultures other than “white”.

  7. It is interesting to note that although dolls of different races are present on the shelves, it doesn’t mean that people buy them or want to play with them. I worked at a daycare center in high school. I vividly remember playing with the kindergartners and the dolls. The center had 5 white dolls and one black doll. All the white dolls were being played with and i handed one of the little girls the black doll. She threw the doll and said,” i hate the black doll.” This showed me that although we have dolls of different races, it isn’t doing much to help the racism issue. Children should be exposed to dolls of different colors much before kindergarden. This would help children to see the different colored dolls as normal.

  8. Dolls are not the issue here. They might be a supplemental factor, but if you want young children to be more accepting of other races, then make sure they are exposed to children of other races. I grew up in a Navy family, and ever since I can remember I have been around people of other colors. I remember when I moved to Oklahoma, I asked my parents why their were so many white people. I had been engrossed in a diverse community, and that is why I believe the best way to avoid racism from an early age is to live in a diverse community.

  9. In today’s society, there is an ideal image of what the “perfect woman” should look like. This image is a skinny, blonde haired, blue eyed, white skin and long legs, etc. People are bombarded with this “ideal image” every day through the media, through advertisements, television shows, and even the news. Ironically, when one thinks of Barbies, one of the most successful brands of children’s dolls, they imagine a skinny, blonde haired white doll; a doll that matches the socially established “perfect woman”. Its important to realize that children, growing up in an environment where what is deemed as “perfect” is almost unattainable (due to skin color, weight, genetics, etc), begin to see this image as the only type of toy that they should play with, and that the image that the toy represents is the “right ” image. Being from a military family and mixed ethnicity, I honestly didn’t take real notice of my skin color roughly until middle school. I didn’t care about what the color of the toys that I played with as a child. The media and big corporations take advantage of the fact that we live in a racially unequal society, and I think that it isn’t necessarily the dolls fault that the children acknowledge themselves as different, but rather the environment that the children are being brought up in. I agree with the author; that the way to combat children trying to live into this “ideal image” set by society is to bring up children in an environment/home that promotes diversity, whether it be through media that the child is exposed to, or the toys that the children are given to play with.

  10. I think more important than playing with dolls of multiple colors or races is the parents of a young child constantly teaching and reminding the child that color of the skin does not matter. Although many dolls are white barbie dolls which are “better” in the view of society if a parent can successfully cement the idea of equality in their child then in my mind the parents have successfully raised the child and are helping to reverse the age old idea that “white is better”.

  11. I feel that no matter what the race of the doll is as a kid you should be able to play with any race doll. But to society the white Barbie doll is viewed as normal. Like for example in the article the little girl is upset when she finds out that all of the Barbie dolls are black and not white. Kids develop the idea of white is better at a early age not because they know any better but because that’s how they are raised. Also society doesn’t make it any better by promoting things the white doll is the ideal doll. Barbie’s kind of represent the ideal lady to society white, blonde, skinny. Things like this sticks in a young kids head and they start to believe that, that is the perfect woman. But I feel that a baby doll is a baby doll kids a young age shouldn’t care what skin color the doll is as long as its a doll to play with.

  12. I think it is very important to have all different colors of dolls. This gives the children a chance to recognize themselves in what ever doll they choose. When a child plays with a doll they are expressing them self, they take care of the dolls and make sure they are ‘happy.’ Different color dolls to me should show the children that there are different colored people in the world, and that each person with a different color is still a person non the less. I would hope that this would teach a child that the color of a persons skin doesn’t matter. When it comes to barbie dolls, I think that they can be a little harmful. A barbie is portrayed as what a Man and Women should look like. This can be harmful because not everyone can look like that. Barbies can show what society “expects” children to look like and the children might start to believe it too.

  13. I definitely agree with the author of this article. I think that it is very important that little girls play with dolls of all colors black, brown, or white. They should not be “pushed” into growing up like many white girls up to now have. When young children only see white dolls out there in stores or other little girls that own them there getting the message that white dolls are pretty and that the white dolls are the dolls they are supposed to play with. They will get the message that they have a different color of skin and that if there is no dolls of their skin color for sale it’s because they are not pretty. I also agree with the author in what she states about white dolls and white girls. They consider themselves beautiful. They know and expect to see white dolls for sale in all stores. They know that their color of skin and their characteristics is “beauty” and see dolls that have those characteristics as beautiful and those that don’t and “ugly” or not normal. All little girls should be raised playing with all sorts of toys not just particular toys according to what family they come from. It may sound funny or dumb to many people but even something as simple as this “black dolls” would make a difference in a child’s life. I have a niece that has dark skin. She has darker skin than anyone from my family. My niece has always said that she is not pretty. She is only 6 now but since she was even younger she would ask my sister, “mom why don’t I look like you or my dad?”, “Why am I so dark?” We all tell her that she is pretty and that her skin color doesn’t matter but she still is not convinced. When we go out to Wal-Mart or some other store and were going through the toy department she get the princess and the frog doll and she tell my sister that she looks like that doll.

  14. This article was interesting to me because at one point some think it’s important to have different color dolls, but at the same time like the article said, girls get dolls that look similar to them. The few dolls that I had growing up were white. Although, like some people have mentioned, dolls are not necessarily the issue, it’s teaching children about other races and the social norms. I was able to pick out the few dolls that I did have and I would always choose the white ones. I did not pick the white doll because it was prettier; it was just the one that I was used to seeing because the community that I grew up in wasn’t really diverse. I disagree with the article when it says, “white girls need to play with dolls of every color so that they can grow up to be thoughtful white women”. African American dolls are not the deciding factor if a white woman will one day be thoughtful.

  15. I am interested in this article. In China, most of people are yellow; children like to play dolls and they choose the beautiful dolls or the dolls that look like themselves. I do not know how the American Child choose a doll, I guess they will choose the same color dolls as themselves. However, parents could encourage their child to buy the difficult color dolls and play with different skin colors of children.

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