There have long been debates regarding Disney’s lack of diversity and further, the lack of diversity in dolls for children of color. While reading an article on this subject matter, I came across a comment that made me raise a brow. A reader commented: “The color of these characters is not a big deal. Kids watching won’t see any difference if no difference is highlighted. They will grow up thinking anyone can fit into these roles.”
I’ve seen the sentiment expressed in this comment numerous times in an effort to brush off a call for diversity as “overreacting.” There’s this prevalent myth that kids do not see color. That they grow up colorblind not understanding race relations, but personal experience and social research has proven otherwise.
Let me start with experience:
During thanksgiving break, my 6 year old sister convinced me to play dolls with her. While brushing her doll’s hair, my sister said “Her hair is not like mine. She has white people’s hair.” Caught off guard by her statement, I asked “What do you mean white people hair Kelly?” At first she hesitated to respond but after a few minutes, she replied “Her hair is straight, not like mine.” My 4 year old brother quickly followed “Yeah, and she’s not brown like you either.”
My sister’s comment proved that even at this young age, she noticed the differences in her doll baby and in herself. She noticed that her doll’s hair is straighter, that it has a small sharp nose, a skinny body. She noticed that her doll is white and that she is brown. Most importantly, she noticed that those characteristics listed all belonged to white women.
Now to research:
In 1947, Dr. Kenneth Clark and his wife Mamie Clark conducted an experiment where they asked black children to choose between a black doll and a white doll. Clark used four plastic, diaper-clad dolls, identical except for color. They showed the dolls to black children between the ages of three and seven and then asked them the following questions in this order:
“Show me the doll that you like best or that you’d like to play with”
“Show me the doll that I the ‘nice’ doll”
“Show me the doll that looks ‘bad’”
“Give me the doll that looks like a white child”
“Give me the doll that looks like a coloured child”
“Give me the doll that looks like a Negro child”
“Give me the doll that looks like you”
Almost all of the children readily identified the race of the dolls. However, when asked which they preferred, the majority selected the white dolls and attributed positive characteristics to it.
Gordon Parks, photographer. Dr. Kenneth Clark conducting the “Doll test” with a young male child, 1947. Gelatin silver print. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (62)
The Clarks also gave the children outline drawings of a boy and girl and asked them to color the figures the same color as themselves. Many of the children with dark complexions colored the figures with a white or yellow crayon.
This experiment alone proves the importance of representation. Many young girls grow up playing with dolls. To them, their dolls represent beauty and everything they would like to be. It becomes problematic when a brown girl is idolizing the beauty of a white doll and wondering “Why does this doll not look like me? Am I beautiful?”
Debbie Behan Garrett, author of Black Dolls: A Comprehensive Guide to Celebrating, Collecting, and Experiencing the Passion, shared her views on the diversity of children’s toys in a February Collectors Weekly Article.
“I’m emphatic about a black child having a doll that reflects who she is. When a young child is playing with a doll, she is mimicking being a mother, and in her young, impressionable years, I want that child to understand that there’s nothing wrong with being black.”
Young brown girls are growing up believing that beauty is exactly
what they see in their Barbie dolls-white. It is important for brown girls to have dolls that reflect who they are. It is important that brown girls do not doubt their ability to be a princess, a superhero, a Barbie doll. In order to ensure this, we need to have more options in baby dolls. We need more black dolls with natural hair, more Latin@ dolls, more Asian dolls, more Indian dolls… We need more brown dolls. In addition, we need more diversity in Disney princesses. We need a princess from the LGBTQIA community, a princess with a disability, a princess with a hijab and so on because “Children are going to look for a doll that looks like them and if every doll is out there but none of them look like them, they might feel symbolically excluded.”
To parents of brown girls: I urge you to buy your daughters dolls that resemble them. They may not be easy to find, but the search is worth it. It is worth your daughter growing up being confident with her crowning glories. It is worth your daughter growing up knowing that she is not inferior to anyone. It is worth your daughter knowing that on Halloween she doesn’t have to wear a blonde wig, or make her cheeks rosy red.
Representation matters and even if the media is not willing to hear us, we must realize and act upon the importance of representation in our own households.