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July 06, 2015

Why I let my daughter play with Barbie dolls of all races

As a child, I loved playing with Barbie dolls. I was obsessed with them.

My mom happily showered me with all the Barbie stuff I could desire, but there was only one condition: black or Latino dolls only.

I can’t tell you how many times we were in a store searching high and low for black baby dolls and Barbies but couldn’t find dolls that I wanted or saw that they were priced differently. My mom would request to speak with the manager and proceed to flex her consumer buying power by voicing her frustration at their, and/or the manufacturers', ignorance.

She would explain to me how important it is that we, as African-Americans/blacks, use our buying power to demand acknowledgment and fair treatment. She was born in the '50s, and there weren’t nearly as many black dolls in stores at that time. Over the course of her lifetime, there was a deliberate movement to have better representation, specifically in children’s toys.

I interpreted her choosing to buy only black dolls as her way of telling them, “We are here, there is a demand for these and, therefore, continue to not just make more — but make them more widely available, too.”

Having experienced my own encounters with racism, I understood her perspective and was thankful for those who made it possible for little girls of color like me to see myself represented on a daily basis. Who can forget the historic Clark Doll Test and how it’s believed to have proven the effects of segregation and racism on the subsequent development of the black child over the past 70 years?

Fast forward from my childhood more than two decades ago, and I now have two daughters of my own who also love to play with Barbies and baby dolls (though not nearly as much as I did).

In my household, however, every doll, regardless of color, is welcome. Don’t get me wrong, we love our black dolls around here, but that isn’t the only doll you’ll see my kids playing with or carrying around.

Why? Because when Gandhi said I have to be the change I want to see, I took it to heart. The imagination is the first place a kid really begins to construct their sense of reality. As a parent, the imagination and the toys that fuel it can be the perfect way to start conditioning your child’s mind to conceive and create the positive and powerful things we’d like to see in the world.

Black people are not the only people who my daughters encounter, learn and work with; now is as good a time as any to open their minds to diversity, tolerance and genuine love for our ethnic heritage.

It’s been proven that a person’s perspective on race begins in the home. For example, Dylann Roof and countless other racists (whose actions usually aren’t so extreme and blatant) in America weren’t born racist, they were taught that way of thought.

Evil, hate, ignorance, denial and avoidance are what got America in this messy racial predicament in the first place; I don’t care to add to it by raising a child whose imagination and expression are limited to one race and one race only. You know how many people of other races have worked alongside me to help change my life and the lives of others for the better? I wouldn’t dare let my children’s minds narrow, even in “Barbie world,” to our race only; wasn’t that exactly what colonists tried to do here in America and elsewhere?

Bottom line: I believe there’s a balance, respect and appreciation to be had for diverse cultures, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds, and our home life — down to the Barbies — reflects that.

Recently, my eldest daughter and I chatted about race as it pertains to her dolls and the world around her. Check it out and, as always, have a conversation with the kids in your life and see what they think. You may gain better insight into the messages that you’ve consciously or unconsciously sent to them.

Syreeta: So what are your thoughts on playing with dolls of different races?

Arionna: I think that playing with all kinds of dolls are nice. I plan to make a show on YouTube with my Barbies. I noticed that when I watch Barbie videos, there are people from all over the world watching, so I would like to have all different types of dolls so that the kids [of different races] see that [themselves represented].

Syreeta: That’s very thoughtful of you. Why is that important to you?

Arionna: If they see that there are only black dolls on there, the black people might feel great about it, but white and other races might be upset because their color isn’t shown, even though there’s plenty of other videos where their color is shown. I don’t really like the fact that there are mostly all white people in the American Girl Stop Motion videos that I watch on my pop-pop’s tablet; there’s usually only all white people and just one black doll — that’s Addy.

Syreeta: How do you feel about Disney then?

Arionna: There are A LOT of white people in their shows.

Syreeta: And you watch it a lot.

Arionna: Yeah. We see a lot of white people on there. Even on my new [Disney] shoes that my godmom got me for my birthday, a lot of the [white] princesses are on there but not Tiana, Mulan or Pocahontas.

Syreeta: Yes, that troubled me. Do you understand why I felt so passionately about that? We had somewhat differing perspectives on that.

Arionna: I was upset because I felt like you were overreacting, like I didn’t have any black dolls or something. It made me emotional. I get emotional over a lot of things, but we’re not going to go into that right now [laughs]. Even though we disagreed, you still let me wear them…and I now get that [we] had to fight to have black Barbie dolls and a black Disney princess. I’ll admit that when I saw the shoes and didn’t see Tiana, I was a little upset about not seeing [her]. Because I feel like, well, let’s be honest, I feel like she looks a little bit like me [laughs]. Don’t want to brag but…

Syreeta: Haha! How does that feel though -- to see a princess or cartoon character that looks like you?

Arionna: I feel like a superstar. I look up to Tiana; I’m not embarrassed to say that, people, I do. I look up to Jasmine. After I didn’t see Tiana, and then I saw Jasmine, I was just so happy because I love Jasmine the same way I love Tiana. She’s pretty, she’s awesome, and she’s not afraid to do what she believes in. And that describes Tiana, too. And me.

Syreeta: I see what you’re saying. So how do you feel about the whole “only buy black dolls” belief?

Arionna: You buy me all types of dolls, but other family [members] buy me black dolls [only]. I’m not really upset about it because I get dolls either way; it’s a win-win for everybody — [they] get to buy black dolls and I still GET dolls [laughs].

Syreeta: So do you have a preference?

Arionna: I like all different types of dolls. All dolls should be taken care of and represented and played with. Blacks shouldn’t just play with black dolls, and whites shouldn’t just play with white dolls. It’s nice to know what other dolls and races look like. I have some black dolls; I have some white dolls. I have this doll that has this red dot in the middle of her head, and this other doll — I think it’s from Egypt. All dolls should be played with. But be careful because plastic Barbie dolls break more easily.