Advocacy Little Ones Race & Racism

BHM Series #23: Diversify your Child’s Toy Chest

With Black History Month upon us, I thought I’d put together some more ideas for families, educators and social justice activists interested in addressing race, slavery and anti-blackness with young children. In my search for knowledge, I am coming across some great resources that I’d like to share with you!

(This is the twenty-first in a series of posts devoted to sharing the rich history of African-Americans. For this reason, I’m reposting this post from February 4, 2015. To see more posts in this series, click here.)

The Hawaiian Barbie was the first and only Barbie I ever owed. She had brown skin just like me.

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you will know that I’m no fan of Barbie. Not only does she optimize an unrealistic and hyper-sexualized version of the feminine form, she has always represented to me the antithesis of feminism because she is the epitome of the American beauty ideal–tall, wasp-waited, large-chested and undeniably WHITE. Not that there is anything wrong with white, but being presented with that as the only option… I decided to opt out.

That said, there was a Barbie I was slightly interested in–a Hawaiian Barbie I received for a birthday one year. For the first time, I was able to own and play with a doll that had the same skin color as me… Shocking!

Today, there are many Barbie options available. Nonetheless, stores are still overwhelmingly stocked with dolls that do not reflect the communities in which most children now live. And, they definitely do not reflect the beauty and diversity of people around the world.

Barbie as an African Queen… I like it!

Imagine this, even in AFRICA, children have been bombarded with images of white, American standards of beauty. That is… until Nigerian entrepreneur, Taofick Okoya’s did something about it.

In an Elle Magazine article, Taofick Okoya explains that he created the dolls to “increase little girls’ sense of self-appreciation and confidence.” Explaining, “When little girls play with dolls, they see themselves in or as the doll, they dress it in clothes they like and act out their fantasies. The more of their own likeness they see in the things they like, the more accepting they will be of their looks and culture.” (Read more from the Elle interview here.)

Interestingly enough, Okoya explains that originally, the dolls were met with resistance from children because they “didn’t find them attractive.

Say what? African girls did not find black dolls attractive?

Black and White Children Show Internalized Bias Against Darker Skinned Children

Unfortunately, it’s actually not that surprising. According to a CNN study conducted by child psychologist and University of Chicago professor Margaret Beale Spencer, “we are still living in a society where dark things are devalued and white things are valued.” If we see this preference showing up in Africa, you can bet it’s , even truer for American children.

“Show me the ugly child?” the researcher asks. The child points to the darkest child in a row of otherwise identical children.

“Why is he the ugly child?” the researcher asks.

“Because he’s black.” the child replies.

How does this happen in our “post-racial” world? Spencer explains that children are bombarded with negative stereotypical images all the time. Children internalize these messages. Black parents are more likely to talk about race and thus reframe the negative messages children receive. White parents on the other hand are more likely to avoid conversations about race. They may try to address race by saying, “we’re all the same inside” without actually naming racial differences. In doing so, kids get the message that race isn’t something it’s OK to talk about. They may also miss important conversations they need to have to counteract the negative stereotypes that most kids are exposed to. (Watch more on this topic.)

So what can we do about this?

Diversify your Child’s Toy Chest

What kind of message does it send that only light-skinned Disney princesses were included in this package? How do you think dark-skinned girls feel that their skin color is not represented as an icon of beauty?
What kind of message does it send that only light-skinned Disney princesses were included in this package? Princesses reflect our culture’s beauty ideals, how do you think dark-skinned girls feel that their skin color is not represented?

Do what Okoya did and diversify your child’s toy chest!

If you haven’t already taken this on, you may be surprised at how hard it can actually be to do this.

Make sure your child plays with toys that reflect a range of races and ethnicities.

If you have Disney Princess dolls in your home, ask yourself: Are Tiana, Mulan, and Jasmine a part of the mix? If your kids are older, American Girl  sells dolls that are customizable with lots of hair and skin color choices. American Girl also sells historical dolls that reflect a wide range of cultural histories (including Native-American, African-American, Jewish American, Chinese-American and Mexican-American.)

While we’re on the subject, let’s talk about LEGO, a toy company that has received a lot of flack lately about the lack of female mini-figures in their play sets. (Me and my girls have a LOT to say on this topic! So expect a post on that soon.)

In addition to their problems with gender representation, LEGO sets are notoriously homogeneous. The reason behind this, the company says, is that “yellow is a neutral color” and thus refuses to diversify its offerings. Yellow, in effect represents everyman.

Storm is the only dark-skinned female mini-figure LEGO makes.

Thus, the only time you will find a variety of skin color is with the licenced sets that reflect storylines like Harry Potter, Marvel, Indiana Jones or Star Wars. In these cases, the mini-figures reflect the skin tones of the characters portrayed in the story, comic book or movie. For example, Storm of the Fantastic Four is black, so for that reason, there is a black female mini-figure in some of the Marvel LEGO sets.

What’s my take on all this? I’m not buying it. Ask any kid what race they think a yellow LEGO mini-figure is and I’d bet nine times out of ten, they’d say white. You can read a great post about this topic on the Between Worlds blog and sign a petition to LEGO to make their characters more diverse. Until LEGO gets their act together though, you can diversify your kids LEGOs yourself either by ordering parts on eBay to create DIY mini-figures or by ordering them online here or here. (I’ll be exploring this topic in future posts so keep posted!)

Ask Questions at the Toy Store

Look at all the cute white baby dolls? Does the lack of representation mean black babies are not cute or desirable?
Look at all the cute white baby dolls? Does the lack of representation mean black babies are not cute or desirable?

It’s OK to count. Take a field trip to the toy store and take pictures of the dolls you see there. What do you notice when you look through the shelves?

Ask your child, “Is everyone represented?” “Do the toys here look like our friends at school? or “like the people in our city?” Talk to your child about the idea of fairness. Ask, “Why don’t Barbie’s black or asian friends ever get to be the center of the story?” and “Which dark-skinned Disney princesses do you think should be included on the shelves?”.

The sad truth is you are actually a lot more likely to find a Vampire doll or an elephant toy than you are to find a black girl or boy doll. What does all this say about our culture? How can we say we value black culture when black boys and girls are invisible on our toy shelves?

Related reads: What Color Crayons are in Your Coloring Box?Books that Get the Conversation Started

What are you doing to counteract the negative stereotypes communicated about black people to your children? How are you actively exposing then to positive African-American role-models? Please share your ideas and comments below!

4 thoughts on “BHM Series #23: Diversify your Child’s Toy Chest

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    1. Thank you so much. I’m really glad you enjoy it. If you have any ideas for future posts, please let me know. 🙂

  2. Isn’t it sad? I was born in the Philippines and spent about 8 years there, and I remember so many products to make your skin white. And the whiter you looked, the more attractive you were supposed to be. I still see this here, sadly. We idealize how white people look.

    I think it’s a great idea to expose kids to different kinds of people, not just white or not even just their race. Books about other ethnicities and cultures help. And honestly, make friends with different people—when your kids are surrounded with a diverse group of people and extended family and friends, they know that deep down we’re all the same.

    1. You’re so right! How can we expect kids to grow up unbiased if we don’t practice what we preach? If our friends don’t reflect our diverse community? What does that say about us? What are we modeling for our kids?

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