by Lorraine Jones
Photo taken from The Oprah Magazine
Walking through the toy aisle as a kid is the equivalent of walking into a hospital or a board meeting as an adult and not seeing anyone in the room with your complexion. As a person of color, the toy aisle is yet another lens that reflects the lack of diversity in our cultural environment.
The character “Barbie” was introduced in 1959. But the first bona fide Black Barbie doll was created in 1980. “The cultural significance of this year was that it was also the year that the TV show “Julia” premiered starring Diahann Carroll as the nurse Julia Baker, and it was the first representation of a Black woman on a sitcom. Still, while the show was a success, it was controversial for how it authentically (or not) represented the Black experience,” said Christopher Byrne from Byrne Communications. Today, there is a huge emphasis on diversity and that is slowly being revealed in our culture. The scarcity of representation is finally being addressed. As our culture grasps the importance of representation and inclusion, we are beginning to see it in all sectors and industries, including toys. There has been a recent surge in representation in dolls from major companies such as Target and many others. These dolls are such a sight for sore eyes with the historic lack of diversity in this country.
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According to Abby Hau, while she was growing up, she felt dolls were simply meant to be white because of the lack of representation. “I was so used to seeing white dolls that I never even thought dolls could be black like me,” said Hau, Head of Marketing, Wellpcb PTY LTD. When you’re a child, a toy or doll is your best friend. Toys impact how children view the world. For Ashlie Amber, a country artist that fights for diversity in the genre and one of “Sounds Like Nashville’s 2021 Artists to Watch,” growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood meant finding Black hair care products was difficult enough, let alone a Black Barbie on the shelves.
These dolls allow children of color to know they are beautiful and important. "Being a girl that got picked on and had tons of dreams stolen from her because I didn't get to see people like me that had already come before me and paved the way, I now tell myself that my daughter will have everything. Books, dolls, and TV shows that represent not just her but all the colors of the world,” advised Amber. We need to normalize the diversity of color. Representation on a child’s level is just as essential. “They allow a child to see a representation of their self in the larger society and in seeing this, individuals can develop a sense of connectedness and belonging. The simple act of seeing an image similar to self can help a child affirm that they matter and have a place in society,” said Dr. Kimberly M. Martin, a clinical psychologist.
Kids internalize what they see as reality. If they don’t see dolls, TV characters, or shows of people of color in certain professions, it sends a message that other cultures should not exist in this profession. “To send positive messages to kids there has to be adequate cultural representation in children's toys. Children of color should know that they can be whatever they want to be like the dolls they play with,” says Hau. Toys also help create a sense of acceptance. “I mean, if they produce beauties that look like her, then that must mean people will accept who she is. So, she knows her kinky hair is not weird; it's only different. That her black skin isn't inferior, it's just a different shade.” A positive representation can help foster self-love at an early age.
Seeing a toy or a character on TV that looks like you creates a special light and comfort for a child. Dr. Candice Dawson, Chief Executive Officer of Prideful Kids, felt so passionate about this that in 2019 she created the “Remarkable Rosa” (Rosa Parks) and “Marvelous Martin” (Martin Luther King, Jr.) plush dolls. Her brand, Prideful Kids, provides educational toys and resources for elementary students. Dawson has seen first-hand the impact these types of dolls can have after watching her children interact with them. Historical dolls make history tangible, which is especially important because this history isn’t so distant. We are still living and fighting the same fights that Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. fought. “We wanted to bring culture and history back into the classroom, back into the home,” spoke Dawson.
Many parents of color are more excited about these toys than the kids. “Dolls can also have the same sense of empowerment on adults and may also serve as healing as well. Dolls, similar to coloring books, can help an adult tend to and heal their inner child,” said Martin. For non-minority parents, they are uncertain how to introduce or explain race to their child. This can be detrimental to a child’s understanding of the world considering in 2020 we are currently in a major Civil Rights movement that is Black Lives Matter. Historical dolls are effective ways of teaching history because it brings history alive for children, creating an avenue for parents to teach their kids about black history, in a fun and interactive way.
I urge parents of all races to be open-minded about the toys they choose for their children to make them socially aware and broaden their standards of beauty. Dolls and other children's toys should reflect the billions of children whose imagination brings them to life.
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