Yes, this is a post about how I feel when I see a Black child with a white doll and why I think it is extremely problematic. Yes, this is a post about why I believe that Black and dual-heritage Black/white children should be given Black dolls to play with.
No, this isn’t a post about Lou and Andy from Little Britain.
So, the other day, I saw a mixed heritage (is that the right terminology?) family (white mother, Black father, 2 dual-heritage daughters). Nothing strange there. In fact, we see this type of family represented almost every day in some form or another. However, the older daughter was clutching a doll. It was clearly a favourite. It wasn’t a Disney princess or film character. It was a generic doll. The child was about 5. Again, no big deal. The doll was white with long, straight, blonde hair. So, let’s think about this. Child with afro hair and brown skin. Mother with long, straight, brown hair and white skin. Doll with long, straight, blonde hair and white skin. Maybe I was super-hormonal at the time, but it really upset me. I wondered who had bought the doll and whether the child had requested it.
Now, you might be thinking “For God’s sake! Chill out, Cee! That child has every right to a white doll! That child is half-white!” Now, I would respectfully say to you, all things being equal, you would be correct. But, as we all know, things are not equal, so…what now?
Unless you have been trapped under a rock for your entire life, you will have been exposed in some way, shape or form to the doll test. Back in the ’40s, US psychologist husband and wife team, Kenneth and Mamie Clark, who were Black PhD doctors btw, the first African-Americans to earn a doctorate degree in Psychology from Ivy league Columbia University, designed and conducted a series of experiments known as “the doll tests” to study the forming of identity and the psychological effects of segregation on African-American children.
The Clarks used four identical dolls, identical, that is, except for their colour, to help to understand the racial perceptions of Black children. They asked a number of children, between the ages of three and seven, to identify the race of the dolls and which doll they preferred. The majority of the children preferred the white doll and spoke positively about it’s characteristics e.g. it was the nice doll rather than the bad doll. As a result, the Clarks concluded that “prejudice, discrimination, and segregation” created a feeling of inferiority among African-American children, promoting self-hatred and internalised racism. Their study led to the finding that segregation in schools was unconstitutional in the seminal case, Brown v. Board of Education (1954).
The doll test has been replicated a number of times over the years and the outcome remains the same: majority of the children see the white doll as the “nice” or the “good” or the “pretty” doll and the Black doll as the antithesis of those things. Then they realise that they look like the Black doll… *heavy sigh*
So, back to this child and her white doll. Maybe she has a ton of Black dolls at home but decided on her white doll on that particular day. Who knows? What I do know, however, is that a child playing with a doll can be way more than simply a child playing with a doll. During those formative years, children learn so much about life through play and through observing those closest to them. They learn about societal norms and social hierarchies and relationships and everything. As a Black child, I would put a tea towel on my head and whip my “hair” back and forth because of what I saw outside of my house and on the television. The subliminal and not-so-subliminal messaging was clear – long, straight, ideally blonde, hair was the ultimate goal. Short, Afro hair and brown skin was not. I can only imagine what it must be like for a child who has different hair and skin to her own mother, and when I say “different”, I mean perceived as “harder to manage”, “untidy”, unprofessional”, “messy”, “wild”. I know many little, dual-heritage girls with white mothers who, quite naturally, want their hair to look like their mother’s hair. They cannot wait for the first time they are able to get their curls blow-dried straight so that they can truly look like the princesses they are told that they are.
And it’s not reverse racism. It really isn’t. Of course a dual-heritage child can play with a white doll. Of course a Black child can play with a white doll. Of course a South or an East-Asian child can play with a white doll. Of course a white child can play with a white doll. But this cannot be the only type of doll a child is exposed to. What message is that sending, especially to the dual-heritage child of a white mother?, “It’s ok dear, I know that you don’t look like me, but this doll does! Here, go play with it!” What about building the child’s sense of self and demonstrating that they and those who look like them are important enough to have dolls made in their image. In the UK, we are shown every day that we should aspire to a certain type of beauty. TV shows, adverts, billboards, magazines, newspapers are screaming their spirit-destroying messages at us. It’s relentless! I mean, we need only look at the very recently ended Love Island *sheds a tear* to see this. I know it’s trash TV at it’s finest, but bear with me. It took 3 seasons for a Black female to enter The Villa, and then, when she finally did, she was with excessively long weave (imho and maybe I’ll leave that discussion for another time *insert side eyes*) and only made the initial top three of one of the male islanders, eventually leaving the show for a guy who, upon her first showing interest in him, told her that he preferred the blonde. You just couldn’t make it up! Black and non-white girls have so much stacked against them in the first instance, we owe it to them, as our daughters, sisters, cousins, nieces, friends, to at least give them the most solid grounding we can by helping them to believe in their own beauty and worth.
There is really no excuse when we have such easy access to Black dolls. And I’m not just talking about a Barbie, Bratz or Monster High doll that has been sprayed a different colour, but still has the standard straight/slightly wavy synthetic hair that could be black, could be brown, could be blonde, and maybe even blue-green eyes, because finessing those details would take further time and investment *rolls eyes out of head*. I’m talking about a doll that someone has taken the time to really put together with the child in mind. I’m talking about a doll with textured hair that can be styled, and possibly even washed, without becoming a matted mess.
I’m talking about a doll with African features. I’m talking about a doll that comes in different shades, because, contrary to popular opinion, we don’t all look the same. Dolls like these can be accessed online through stores such as Clarke’s Closet and Ice Cream Toys and Books. They may be slightly more expensive than your standard new born (read white) baby doll, but, I can guarantee you, they are priceless if they help to build a child’s self-esteem.
If you know of any other stockists of Black and dual-heritage dolls that don’t look like they will haunt your nightmares (cos that’s another thing these dolls tend to have in common *rolls eyes*) please share in the comments. I would love to know about them and I’m sure others would too!
And by no means am I suggesting that a child’s self-worth is determined by a doll. I know that this issue is far more complex than a plastic doll with curly hair. But, we must do what we can for our kids, and if showing them that the colour of their skin and the texture of their hair is no excuse for them to feel any less of a human being, then that’s the least we can do, right?