The Doll Situation: Not so Black and White

Posted on November 11,2011 by shansenmspp

A few years ago I attended a professional development meeting at the school where I was teaching. We discussed the issues facing minority students there, and particularly the challenges faced by black/African-American girls. The principal showed us this video:

I mentioned the video to my supervisor at my practicum site this year, explaining to her how disconcerting it was to see black/dark-skinned children preferring white dolls over black dolls, and describing the white dolls as “nice” and the black dolls as “bad.” She told me that the same phenomenon happens in her room time and time again – in a school where fewer than 1% of the children are white, students continue to argue over who gets to play with the white doll, while the rainbow of other dolls is ignored.

With this backdrop in mind, I recently set out to go shopping for the Primary Project playroom at my practicum site. I planned to purchase baby dolls and dollhouse figures to represent the spectrum of skin colors who work, study, and play at the school, from black to chestnut, and cocoa-colored to tan, and everything in between.

In this era of multi-cultural models and exaggerated political correctness, this task was remarkably difficult to accomplish (aside from the Bratz dolls collection – not a viable option). As I passed row after row of silky-haired, blue-eyed dolls, I began to fume. I was shocked, frustrated, and infuriated to discover how difficult it was to find dolls with wavy hair and dark skin. After visiting three different stores, I finally found dollhouse dolls that fit the bill – shoved to the back of the shelf, out of reach, and behind a wall of blond. The baby dolls were slightly easier to find, although the only two choices in skin color available appeared to be white and slightly darker.

The moral of this story of course, is that race continues to be a salient factor – even for young children, even in play. And as schools seek to foster self-esteem, academic achievement, and pride in students from increasingly diverse backgrounds, I believe that we must be cognizant of the implicit signals we are sending to children about race and beauty, beauty and self-esteem, and self-esteem and ability.

While I am disheartened that the students I work with may not see themselves reflected in the toys with which they play, I realize that tracking down dolls of color is far easier than finding and hiring teachers, principals, and school psychologists of color. I wonder what I, as a white woman, truly have to offer these students, who are largely surrounded by white faces during the day at school, but faces of color at home. While I could easily write several more pages on the intricacies of race in education today, I also know that this is not a circumstance with a simple history or a simple solution. But I hope that I can spark some conversation, and muddle through the discomfort and awkwardness that comes from talking about race (most often felt by those in the white majority, as far as I can tell) in a way that opens up dialogue and perhaps allows for asking of difficult questions about racial privilege, how we perceive ourselves and others, and how we operate in our broader cultural context.
And, I hope that this conversation can be more productive, self-reflective, and complex than my attempts to lecture the stunned eighteen-year old cashier about the lack of racial diversity in the toys at Target. Maybe next time I’ll just show him the youtube video.