Many people were touched by a recent viral story on social media about a white girl who defended her choice of a black doll when a cashier told her the doll didn’t look like her.
"Yes, she does. She's a doctor like I'm a doctor. And I'm a pretty girl and she's a pretty girl. See her pretty hair? And see her stethoscope?" said Sophia, 2, according to her mother’s Facebook post about the incident.
Little Sophia's indifference to the color of her doll is as adorable as it is inspiring, and both the mother and daughter were heaped with praise on social media.
But, lost in the focus on her heart-melting statement is an important fact: Black girls and boys regularly play with white dolls and action figures without any fanfare. And they have for a long time.
Debbie Garrett the author of Black Dolls: A Comprehensive Guide to Celebrating, Collecting, and Experiencing the Passion grew up playing with only white dolls. When she had a daughter, she wanted to "make sure that as African-American child, she saw herself in the dolls that she played with in order to reinforce her significance, her self-worth and self-esteem.
"All children need to see themselves in a positive light, and that begins with their playthings and the books that they read," Garrett said.
She said this is particularly important for non-white children "in a society where everything is geared toward whiteness." If that child does not see herself reflected in her toys, books and popular culture, she might think, "'Well, what is wrong with me?'"
Black dolls have been around since people began making dolls, but in the U.S., their availability has always been an issue. Until the 20th century, most black dolls were handmade.
By the 1930s, a number of manufacturers were mass-producing black dolls, but African-Americans remained disproportionately underrepresented.
For Garrett, who grew up in the South, finding a black doll was compounded by the unwillingness of store owners to stock them. And on the rare occasions when she would stumble upon a black doll, her mother would refuse to buy them because she found their depictions to be too racist.
In light of the paucity of black dolls, it's "of the utmost importance for black children" to have dolls that look like them, Garrett said. Conversely, she argues because "white standards are promoted as the norm," it's important for white children to have dolls that represent different ethnicities, "to promote cultural diversity and an awareness that we are all one race: human."
Samantha Knowles, director of the documentary film Why Do You Have Black Dolls?, agrees. "Black girls have had to play with white dolls for a very long time because they had no other choice," she said.
Knowles believes Sophia's story resonates because "people get very excited at the idea that black dolls are desirable."
"That little girl loving a black doll was a positive thing because historically they haven't been loved, they haven't even been available," she said.
Knowles takes issue with those who might argue it's hypocritical to say black children should play with black dolls, but white children should play with dolls of other races.
She said there is often a "desire to create a false equivalency between two groups of people that historically have not been treated equally in the country. I think that's reflected when you look even down to toys. Historically, black dolls have not been available. So, in reaction, there's been this push to make them available to black kids."
In the 1940s, a study looking into the effects of segregation by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark found that black children not only overwhelmingly preferred white dolls, but they also had negative perceptions of black dolls. The "doll test" was cited in the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education, which led to desegregation.
In 2010, Margaret Beale Spencer, a professor of comparative human development at the University of Chicago, helped CNN conduct a re-creation of the Clark doll test. They found "white bias" remains strong among both white and black children.
“Children’s play is serious business,” Spencer told The New York Times. “They are getting ideas about who they are from these objects. There are messages about one’s confidence, one’s sense of self in terms of what I look like and being powerful.”
If black children have a difficult time finding toys that reflect their own appearance, it's even harder for Asian, Latino, Native-American and other non-white children to find toys that look like them. And the lack of representation is even worse for children with disabilities.
But it's getting easier for parents to find Latino, Asian, and black dolls. Two women recently launched Hello Hijab, making traditional Muslin headscarves for dolls; 3B scientific makes dolls with Down's Syndrome; there are now dolls for boys; and Barbie and Lego offer characters in wheelchairs.
American Girl has launched a major diversity campaign, offering dolls of multiple races and disabilities.
The success of characters like Doc McStuffins, a black girl who acts as doctor to her toys, and Dora the Explorer, a proud Latina, show toy makers that there is money to be made in diversity.
"The toy industry makes what sells," Chris Byrne, content director at the toy review site TTPM. "I think that for many years you would not find a black doll except in a Toys R Us that is was in a predominantly black zip code, or demographic area. Now you see that diversity across the board."
In addition, pressure from groups calling on the toy industry to make its products more diverse played a large role in the increase of options available. The explosion of online shopping has also been key, making it exponentially easier for parents to find what they're looking for. It also makes those products more profitable for the toy industry, which can now be confident the toys can reach the target consumers.
While the toy industry's progress has been significant, most agree minorities remain underrepresented among dolls and action figures. Byrne is confident demand for diversity in toys will continue to grow, driving change in the companies.
"As children are more exposed to diverse communities then the toy industry is going to start reflecting that," said Byrne. "The toy industry always reflects the culture at large. It doesn't really lead it."
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