Should Black Girls Play With White Dolls?

Janelle Harris


My daughter’s first birthday party was full of family hyped to usher in her first milestone-packed year of life. Amidst the stampeding of little people under three feet tall, I managed to lure her onto my lap to perform the ceremonial opening of gifts.

About three or four presents in, we unfurled a pink box that I flipped over to show Toddler Girl. My mom, never one to let her private thoughts stay that way, mumbled “oh Lord” before I even had a chance to look, probably because she anticipated the fallout. Staring back at us was a white doll. Blonde synthetic strands, painted blue eyes, rosy cheeks, alabaster-colored skin.

I plastered a smile as fake as hers across my face and thanked the guest who’d brought it, a cousin who was hovering at a conveniently unslappable distance by the snack table. But I was irked. Why in the name of all that’s good and sensible would a black woman buy a black girl a white doll? 

Of course, at the tender age of 1, my child was none the wiser about the offensiveness of her new toy. She thought it was just another doll (though thank God it didn’t become an instant favorite). Truth be told, the gift giver probably didn’t think much of it, either.

But I sure did. There have been studies proving race matters even with toys, starting with the groundbreaking tests conducted by psychology husband-and-wife-team Kenneth and Mamie Clark way back in 1940. They asked African-American children to choose between two dolls — a white one and a black one — and show them which one was the pretty doll. The nice one. The smart one. Time and time again, the kids pointed to the white doll as the answer.

Before you bark that things have surely changed dramatically, watch this. The test was re-created in 2006 by filmmaker Kiri Davis — just five lil’ ol’ years ago, mind you — to very similar, very disheartening results:

If parents aren’t careful or conscious, self-hatred and low self-esteem can be ingrained into any kid, especially little black children, from the gate. But dolls are part of a girls’ introduction to what qualities are considered beautiful. So naturally, I was armed and ready to battle against young Skylar being one in that number of children who couldn’t see the distinctive prettiness of her own brown skin or kinky brown hair — starting with the toys she cuddled up to and toted around the house.

Incidentally that also meant, until she was old enough to understand that her look was as beautiful as everybody else’s, there were no Disney flicks in our house (this was, of course, pre-Princess Tiana). Snow White? Out. Cinderella? Nope. Certainly Beauty and the Beast was a no-go. I mean, the chick’s name says it all: Beauty. It doesn’t get much more in-your-face than that.

And of course, if there weren’t black dolls at the store, Skylar just didn’t get a new doll.

Once upon a time, there weren’t options for little girls of any non-white complexion. If you wanted to play with dolls, you were going to play with dolls that didn’t look anything like you. In fact, there are pictures in our family album of my mom and her three sisters proudly propping up the cream-colored dolls they got as Christmas gifts. But that was the 1950s. Thanks to the push for diversity and lots of back-and-forth between consumers and toy manufacturers, there are more options for little girls of color.

Even with that availability, I still see it from time to time. Once, while my family and I were waiting for a table at TGI Friday’s, two little black girls came in clutching these massive dolls that were almost as big as they were — but didn’t look anything like them. Yet I can’t ever remember seeing a little white girl carrying around a black or Latina doll (Dora the Explorer excluded, of course).

It was a heartbreaking reminder that some girls are still growing up comparing and ultimately hating what they see in the mirror because it doesn’t match what’s “beautiful.” They’ll perm their hair to be straight like a white girl’s and hate their curls and kinks because they won’t do what a white girl’s hair will do. They’ll stay out of the sun because they don’t want to get too black and criticize the curviness of their black girl bodies because the clothes in Abercrombie & Fitch won’t fit them like they do the models on the walls or the white girls on TV.

Heavy stuff, right? Welcome to the thoughtfulness that goes into raising a black girl.   

Is there enough diversity in kids’ dolls and toys?

Image via trazomfreak/Flickr

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