When I attended our first adoption education seminar, which is an informational workshop for all perspective adoptive parents, hosted by our adoption agency, I completed a worksheet that asked the question: Have you ever experienced racism? In fact, there was an entire section of the workshop that focused on race issues and adoption.
The questionnaire covered a variety of areas, but one section startled me. These questions centered on children’s toys and entertainment: Do you have access to crayons that represent your skin color? Do you have dolls/action figures that represent your skin color? Do the photographs and decor used in your classroom represent your skin color? Do you have access to bandages that match your skin tone? Do you see people who look like you in your books, games, and movies?
These questions sparked an awareness in me I had never considered. As a fair-skinned young woman, I had experienced ridicule because of my skin tone and had certainly dealt with the misogyny and sexism, but in my youth, there was never a lack of toys or princesses or heroes that looked very similar to me.
Fast forward five months from that AES and I am the very proud mama of my firstborn, who just so happened to be a dark-skinned beauty.
It took one trip to Target for me to say: Where in the hell are all the black dolls? Searching aisles in the girls’ toy department left me with very little choices for dark-skinned babies or books or cute rattling baby toys.
All My Caveats
We first went through the adoption process waaaaay back in 2010 – 2011, which was before Doc McStuffins and the subsequent discussion about what types of characters make up our movies, shows, books, and such. In my opinion, progress has been made in these very short years. The kids entertainment industry does seem more aware of variety in the types of children represented. I acknowledge there is more ethnic variety in toys today than in previous years. I applaud and cheer that progress!
This post is written entirely from my perspective, my own experiences as a WAP (white adoptive parent) living in a large metroplex loving and raising a transracial family. This is also written from a girl-mom perspective. I cannot attest to the lack or abundance of dark-skinned or the variety of ethnicities in toys and shows that target a more male audience. I mean . . . we watch Paw Patrol every now and again, but when I say God gave me girls, He really gave me girly girls. I am all for gender-neutral toys, but despite my best efforts, the cars at my house are never played with. (My eldest asked for make-up from Santa this year! Uh, what???)
Dolls That Look Like You
As a girl, I was a connoisseur of Barbies. There was nothing quite like strolling the Barbie aisle, examining each box and outfit and hair style. Package after package of white skin just like mine; walk one aisle over to find Cabbage Patch treasures and Baby Alives and Kid Sisters and Baby Uh-Ohs all in their fair-skin glory. Of course, I never had a conscience thought about their skin color, but I bet I would if the aisles were filled with dark-skinned toys.
Yet, this is the reality for my two girls. Even after the appearance of Dora and Doc and Elena, the majority of dolls that fill the aisles as most major toy outlets represent one type of girl. If I want to find a variety of dark-skinned baby dolls, an Internet search is in order. In the last six years, I’ve taken to the ol’ interwebs to search for dark-skinned soft body baby dolls, a quality doll head for hair styling, books that feature a dark-skinned girl as the main character, etc. You see, I can’t walk into my local toy store, big box store, or department store and have much of a choice.
And having a choice matters.
It is no secret to any mother that children — boys and girls alike — mimic adult behaviors — envisioning themselves as grown up, on adventures, recreating all aspects of life. Part of the pretend play is finding how you are the same as your hero, your parent, and so forth. There is just something about having a doll that looks like you. (The American Girl franchise knows that!)
Without question, when my girls play “house,” they always choose dark-skinned dolls even though we have a plethora of skin shades. To provide my girls with dark-skinned dolls with similar hair as my daughters’ — in addition to other toys, books, movies — not only equips them for darn good pretend play and affirmation, but it also teaches them they are valuable, they are “regular,” they are 100 percent part of this family and this world.
Dolls That Don’t Look Like You
While we provide dark-skinned dolls for our girls, we also provide dolls and other toys/entertainment that feature people of all kinds (skin, hair, eyes, disabilities, etc) because my two loves are not the only girls in the world. I whole-heartedly believe diversity in toys is an essential element of wise parenting. Help your children understand the world is a colorful place by providing varied choices in play. White girls can play with black dolls. Black girls can play with Native American dolls. Hispanic girls can play with Asian dolls. There is just something about playing with dolls that look different than you.
This may be the first time I am writing publicly about my difficulty finding dark-skinned dolls on store shelves; this is not, however, this first time I’ve ever talked about it in personal conversations, adoption forums, adoption conferences, etc. And yes, there are two responses to my argument that continue to pop up.
(1) You are shopping on the wrong side of town. The first time I heard this my mind went fuzzy, I squinted my eyes as if a light were shining in them, and I shook my head as if brain freeze happened. “Wait. I’m sorry, what? I’m shopping on the wrong side of town?” Did you just say this?
Okay. Moment over. I get it. I understand as much as the next person — and maybe a little more after spending seven years in traditional publishing — that supply and demand determine the products on the shelves. My word count is not nearly long enough for a discussion on why the markets cater to a white demographic (and believe me, I have opinions on this). Honestly, I believe it will do anyone good to think through this, research this . . . the “why” of this single issue I bring up: the lack of ethnic dolls on store shelves.
Nonetheless, I advocate for Target and its counterparts to stock their shelves with dolls and toys of all shapes and colors . . . no matter if I live in the “black” part of town or not. (And can we believe this is still a thing? BECAUSE IT IS.) I dream of a world where that is true because white girls are playing with black dolls and black girls are playing with Native American dolls, and Hispanic girls are playing with Asian dolls.
(2) You should be thankful there are some dark-skinned dolls on the shelf and stop complaining. Then our trips to the store for birthday gifts and Christmas gifts and other special occasions will only last a few months because as has happened many times at my own Target . . . “we’ve already got these dolls.” The store provides a total of six dark-skinned dolls on all the aisles (Barbies, babies, Disney, etc.); it doesn’t take too many holidays for me to blow right through those.
It is one thing for me to have to put effort into finding quality toys that are dark-skinned; it’s a whole other issue when my daughter strolls those same aisles. She sees package after package featuring white skin. What is she subconsciously being taught? What are your daughters subconsciously being taught? Why is the dark-skinned girl notoriously the side-kick, the “friend”? Are my daughters as important as yours?
Answer me this, friend: Where are all the black dolls?
If you have a favorite dark-skinned doll, please comment with the link below! I will also include some of our best finds in the comments below.