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Diversifying the toy industry didn’t solve entrenched anti-Blackness in America

Studies show that children of color still prefer white dolls — and that speaks volumes to how much anti-Blackness is baked into our society, say experts.

In most major retail stores today, children can choose dolls representing all different races and professions. And if they can’t, there are endless options online, including ways to design your own.

The fact that so many dolls representing different races and backgrounds are now available is a huge change from where we were 70-plus years ago, said Elaine Nichols, senior curator for culture at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“It used to be the Black dolls available were derogatory stereotypes. There was mammy who was a Black maid, and then you had white dolls that were nurses and fashionistas. Now there are dolls that teach children about key historical figures,” said Nichols, citing Barbie’s recent Inspiring Women series.

Even so, studies show that children of color still prefer white dolls — and that speaks volumes to how much anti-Blackness is baked into our society, said Toni Sturdivant, an early childhood expert who specializes in fostering positive racial identity in children of color.

“When you are not a part of the dominant culture, when you don’t see as many images of yourself reflected positively back to you, having this toy that shows that you or someone like you was important enough to make into a toy is a pretty big deal,” Sturdivant said.

Most parents agree, according to a recent poll conducted by Grid. Four in five U.S. adults say that toy manufacturers should create more diverse dolls — including race, ethnicity and gender identity. And a slightly larger share of U.S. adults — 83 percent — agreed that it’s important that children have the option to play with dolls that look like them.

It’s not just kids playing with a doll. It’s kids acting out how they see themselves.

Adults often forget that when children play with dolls, they’re not just using them as playthings, said Elizabeth Chin, editor in chief of American Anthropologist. They’re using them to learn and process how they fit into the society around them.

Kids want to play with things that they think are valuable ... So, if they have already decided, through what they’ve experienced, that blackness is not very valuable, then that’s not a toy that they will want to play with whether it is available or not.

Toni Sturdivant, early childhood expert

If they saw something on TV, if they went to a wedding, if they have one parent instead of two — that might very well all get played out in their dolls’ lives, said Chin. And processing life for a kid is not always rated G.

“Anybody that remembers their own childhood knows nobody was using Barbie only in approved ways,” she laughed, “and that’s still the case.”

Children process race as early as 3 months old, said Sturdivant. That means by the time they hit preschool, they already have a lot of associations with different races in their head from the media, peers, etc. So, it’s not so much about having dolls of color available — although representation is important and a major step in the right direction, she added — it’s more about creating a world where Black and brown children want to play with them.

“Kids want to play with things that they think are valuable — as in what they assign value to,” said Sturdivant. “So, if they have already decided, through what they’ve experienced, that blackness is not very valuable, then that’s not a toy that they will want to play with whether it is available or not.”

Embedded anti-Blackness is a problem America can’t “manufacture its way out of”

When given the choice, the children she studied chose the white doll every time while playing. And if a Black doll was the only one available, they’d often move on or create their own doll by putting a dress on a completely different kind of toy.

On the left, a Black doll with 3C curly black hair, in the middle, a white doll with straight blonde hair, on the right a white doll with straight brown hair
Three dolls wearing matching polka-dot dresses stand side by side

When the girls did play with the Black dolls, it was usually in a violent or negative way. In more than one instance, the children pretended to cook the Black doll in a pot. In another situation, the Black doll was repeatedly stuffed down the play kitchen sink and covered in food. The same doll was also repeatedly poked in the eye on purpose. None of this was done to the white dolls.

“Availability is not enough. I don’t think that this is something that we can manufacture our way out of,” Sturdivant said. “We’re going to have to do something else to create that demand to normalize our differences.”

What her study also shows is that there has been little change in how children of color view dolls that looks like them since the first major research was done on the issue in the 1950s by Kenneth and Mamie Clark — that influenced the outcome of Brown v. Board of Education.

The Clarks’ study, like Sturdivant’s, examined how children of color reacted to white and Black dolls. The children said that they looked like the white dolls and repeatedly said that the Black dolls were bad.

Chin, who has studied the Clarks’ work and did similar research in the ’90s, focusing on how low-income children in New Haven, Connecticut, engaged with dolls of color, said that while the Clarks’ study was used to support the case that segregation would be detrimental to a child’s sense of worth, their larger point was that society needed to change.

“The Clarks themselves argued that this was a symptom of what’s wrong with our society and that what was needed was radical social change. What the toy industry does is translate that into ‘Black kids need dolls that look like them.’ It’s not that they don’t. But diverse toys are not what the Clarks were naming as a solution to the problem.”

A path forward?

Sturdivant calls on all races of parents to provide their children with diverse dolls and other toy options so that it “normalizes differences” from the very start.

Although parents see the value in diversity, Grid’s polling found that just 24 percent of those who have bought or considered buying a toy doll say the doll’s race and ethnicity factors into their purchasing decision. Twenty-nine percent of parents of children under 18 consider a doll’s race and ethnicity when deciding whether to purchase a toy doll.

And affordability is also a concern. More than half of those surveyed in the Grid poll who have purchased or plan to purchase a toy doll said price factors into their purchasing decisions.

But, said Sturdivant, the bottom line is for more positive images in society beyond just the toy aisle, citing research that shows that repeated exposure to images is associated with considering them more beautiful.

“The more often we see certain faces, the more beautiful we find them. So if you see a lot of images that don’t look like you and you hardly ever see yourself, then that can play on how you feel about yourself in terms of beauty and worth and value.”

She said that is especially important for parents of kids who fall into oppressed or marginalized groups: “They really need to pay close attention to making sure that those children feel good about themselves and then focus on how they feel about the other people.”

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