The Search For Black and Brown Dolls

This year, I decided that I wanted to get my 6-year-old biracial niece a black doll for Christmas. I remembered being excited when I was gifted a doll at her age, and I remembered that most of my dolls were white. Despite the fact that I spend a lot of my time thinking, speaking and writing about the lack of representation of women of color in pop culture, I was unusually optimistic in thinking that those same representations would be inaccurate when I stepped into the pink-filled doll section at Target. For some reason, I assumed that my experience here would be different. I thought for a moment that maybe it’s just us grown folks who experience the struggle and bear the burden of demanding racial representation for ourselves. I thought that maybe children were shielded from the disparity.

“Why do all the brown dolls look like hood rats?” This was the first thing that I said after taking a quick glance at the dolls that day. One of the few brown or black dolls available was wearing a glitterati leopard printed mini-dress. I was surprised that that was the first place that my mind went. I love leopard print. I wear it at least three times a week (if you don’t count the newly acquired leopard print robe that I throw on almost daily.) Part of me worried that I was simply being hyper-sensitive here, as I sometimes am, but I changed my mind the more that I thought about it and the angrier it made me. Young girls are introduced to dolls at such a young age and they tend to serve as some of the first models for what’s attainable for them. Shouldn’t young black and brown girls have some variety in their choices, especially when young white girls absolutely do? Where was the black teacher Barbie? Or the brown Barbie in her glammed out convertible? Why didn’t I see a black doll dressed for a beauty pageant? Little white girls had an array of options to choose from. Meanwhile, the only dolls resembling little brown or black girls were dressed for a night out at the club.

Recently, I’ve spoken a lot about representation of women of color in film and television. My argument about why the lack of women of color in these mediums is problematic is rather simple – that not seeing yourself represented in such an important part of our culture sends the message that you are not important. This is damaging to the self-esteem of millions of women of color every single day. It contributes to the value that we place on ourselves as well as the value others place on us and, in turn, is often reflected both in the way in which we perform in society and the opportunities afforded to us. This is parallel to the argument for why brown and black girls need brown and black dolls.

Dolls are one of the first places that young girls begin to recognize representation, even if they’re not necessarily aware of what this means. They recognize that the standard of beauty has been set when they walk into a toy store and are bombarded with thin, blonde, big-breasted white dolls. And this standard of beauty is internalized as something to strive for and follows them far beyond the time that they stop playing with dolls.

The cyclical nature of race talk is incredibly tiring because there never seems to be an end point. Talking about why the lack of dark-skinned dolls is problematic may seem incredibly simplistic and even unnecessary in terms of the bigger picture, but it feels as though we continue to have these conversations over and over again and regardless of which particular aspect of race and gender and representation we’re talking about, it all leads to the same conclusion: This is a problem. And I’m angry about it.

I’m angry that my black niece cannot walk into a toy store and have the choice of the same number of dolls that look like her as my white nieces. I’m angry at the disparity in representation between her and little white girls. I’m angry that she is probably becoming aware of this disparity. I’m angry that her little mind has to wonder about things like this. I’m angry that she is likely to carry with her the idea that she is not as valued as little white girls for years. And I’m angry that there seems to be little change in this since I was playing with dolls 20 years ago.

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  • Lia Marie Banks

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  • Lia Marie Banks

    As a little half-Chinese girl, I have to say that it was hard to even find brown-haired barbies/dolls to play with! And I was so happy when Mulan came out so there was finally a Chinese barbie! I think maybe the Mulan barbie is still the only Chinese barbie…

    • Ramou Sarr

      There probably are more Chinese and/or Asian dolls now, but they’re harder to find. You’d have to go online and do some searching around. And we shouldn’t have to do that, you know!? There has been some progress, but it has been slloooowwwwww.

  • Jude Jm

    For me, before Jasmine, (who I then included in all of my AOL Screen names) you could only be whatever doll was “White with brown features” like Midge or Belle or Tiffany maybe? I do feel however, American Girl dolls have made a bit of effort trying to bring in different ethnicities and backgrounds and stories but for the Barbie and the god awful Bratz line which are readily more available, that’s a whole other story. Although, now that I think about it, “White with brown features” could describe a lot about myself growing up.

    • Ramou Sarr

      Hey, Jude! (That’s annoying, right?) American Girl dolls have definitely gotten better at including more dolls of color, but I remember them not introducing their first brown/black doll until after I was too old to appreciate them. I ended up getting Molly because she had glasses like me. There was an article I read – I should find it – mentioning how sometimes brown/black dolls aren’t representative of that ethnicity and look like they’ve been “dipped in chocolate” which, ugh.

  • Sami Jankins

    American Girl dolls definitely have dolls of color. There is even a “make your own doll to look like you”. If she’s not ready for the historical American Girl dolls, they also have Bitty Babies of varying ethnicities. The Hearts for Hearts is another great doll collection. They have dolls representing various parts of the world, and if I’m not mistaken, a portion of proceeds go directly to help charities within the country the doll is representing. Almost all of my dolls growing up were not white, so they are definitely out there.

    • Ramou Sarr

      You’re right and I should’ve praised American Girl dolls somewhere in here, even though their introduction of diversity is more recent – baby steps. But I’m also not sure I’m ready to drop $100 on a doll for a 6 year-old.

    • Ramou Sarr

      Aaahhh, and I’m looking at the Hearts For Hearts dolls now and GREAT tip! I’m in love with Rahel from Ethiopia already.

  • Andrea Villarroel

    Another thing I noticed while thinking about this article is that most of the “brown” dolls are not even a proper shade of brown, it is more like orange! I cant imagine it being that hard to have dolls come in all colors, shapes and sizes. Which brings me to another point… we are not all going to be 6 foot tall!!! This is something that does affect little girls while they’re growing up. It is so unfair that we grow up with false expectations of how we should look like.

  • Jessica Day

    Here’s an odd thing I had never noticed before… actually allows you to separate fashion dolls in the toy section by ethnicity. The quantities for each is really telling:

    100 Caucasian dolls. 30 African American. 14 Asian. 12 Hispanic/Latino. 2 Middle Eastern. 2 Native American.

    • Ramou Sarr

      Yup, I noticed this too when I was looking for dolls. Even typing “black barbie” into Amazon was a mess. But there IS a black I Can Be President barbie – so that’s nice.

  • Meagan Leigh Bridges

    I have found this to be very true! I was never really into dolls as a child, but the ones that I would receive as gifts from others would be black, BUT they would have unrealistic and in some cases, even scary features. For example, I was once given a black baby doll that I was petrified of because the doll had a pair of lips that were much too red and big to be realistic. It was basically a stereotypical characature. No wonder most little girls prefer to play with other dolls hah! Very well written article with lots of good points!

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