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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