Friday, December 13, 2013

Does Race Matter at Barbie's House?

It’s the rush of the holidays – wander up and down the aisles of the toy store looking for the perfect doll to go under the tree. A Barbie, a baby doll, a little friend doll. A swimmer, a horseback rider, a teacher, a fashion model; one that eats, one that poops, one that sings.  And one that looks like my daughter?

It’s the constant debate and decision – does the doll’s race matter?  We’ve all heard of the famous doll experiment where researchers gave little girls two dolls, one Black, one White, and asked which they preferred.  For reasons debated and discussed and dissected since then, the Black girls often chose the White doll.  For parents of color, that has left us in the quandary, which doll to get our daughters?  And then, what if the one she really really wants, the one that has a puppy or the one that laughs, is only available in White?  Our Baby Alive speaks Spanish, despite no one in the house being able to do so at the time, why? Because, she was the brown doll available.  Yeah, it’s that deep.

The doll experiment and social scientists since then, and parents, too, have expressed the concern that if little brown girls play with little white dolls, perhaps they will not realize how beautiful they themselves are. Perhaps they will not appreciate their own tight curls and brown skin, instead idolizing long, silky locks and bright blue eyes.  Some parents even argue that the brown Barbies emulate this same ideal of beauty, with their own long, black tresses, making little brown girls wish to have their hair permed and straightened and flowing down their back.  I wonder, do White mothers have these concerns about their daughters playing with brown dolls?

With 3 daughters, I’ve thought about this a lot.  Each time I stand in the doll aisle, I wonder, does it matter? My daughters hear that they are pretty and beautiful and are smart from us, their parents and their family. We watch TV and movies and talk about how Beyonce and Halle Barry and Jordan Sparks and Kiki Palmer are pretty. We cheer on Gabby Douglas and the Williams sisters for their athleticism. They know my friends, Black women, who are lawyers and nurses and mathematicians and professors – smart women.  Do they have to have all of that reinforced in their dolls?

I will admit, a few white dolls have wandered into our home.  Our Barbie community includes brown, white, even Asian.   Some are blonde, some brunette.  Some have really large heads.  They have curly hair, straight hair, and bad haircuts.  Some wear  fabulous shoes, one wears ice skates, some have no feet at all.  They live in the same big townhouse, share a purple convertible, trade shoes and dresses, wait patiently to get their hair braided, and sit at the same dinner table.  They all seem to get along.

And in this day, where they go to school with children from countries all over the world, with a girl from the Philipines on one side, a boy from Ethiopia on the other, a classmate who speaks Chinese and one who speaks French, one who is the fastest runner, and one who is in a wheelchair, a friend who lives in a mansion, and friend who lives in an apartment – this, this existence in harmony, is the lesson that I want them to learn.  And maybe Barbie and her friends will help teach it to them.

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Christine said...

Great post!

From the mom of boys perspective, sometimes I wonder if they feel validated re: video games that they play. I have yet to see a video game where the characters look like them. I haven't quite figured out how to solve that problem.

I like the idea of a multicultural Barbie land. I might just do that with my niece when she's old enough for Barbies.

Mommyx4 said...

Interesting point Christine about the boys' video games. I don't know about the general games - I think you're right, there. but we have NBA & Madden games and those players look exactly like the NBA/NFL folks.