Angelina Jolie is known for her unconventional family, which includes three biological children with longtime partner Brad Pitt and adopted children from Cambodia, Ethiopia and Vietnam. Her multiracial and multicultural family has generated headlines, most notably when critics have felt the need to weigh in on her Ethiopian daughter Zahara’s hair. Some challenged Jolie’s ability to style and comb it, while others had a problem with her daughter wearing braided extensions.
But the Jolie-Pitt family should be commended for their efforts to be culturally conscious, particularly when it comes to their diverse brood. Pitt once acknowledged using Carol’s Daughter products on Zahara’s hair and recently explained why he declined the role of a cruel slave owner in 12 Years a Slave, which his company produced, saying, “I didn’t want my kids to see me in this role.”
A recent photo of the Jolie-Pitt kids seems to reinforce that Jolie and Pitt may be more conscious of racial and cultural diversity than the average parent. The widely published photo captured the couple’s biological daughter Vivienne carrying a black doll with short, tightly curled hair. This may not seem like a big deal but it is.
Dolls have long been a source of angst when it comes to the self-esteem of girls, particularly young girls of color. The role of dolls in serving as symbols of beauty, racial stereotypes and racism is so significant that dolls played a key role in one of America’s landmark civil rights cases, Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
Psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted experiments with black children, who were asked questions regarding which doll was bad or ugly and given an option between a black doll and white doll. Most children associated positive qualities with the white doll, and 63 percent preferred playing with the white doll, leading the Clarks to conclude that black children “indicate a clear-cut preference for white and some of them evidence emotional conflict when requested to indicate a color preference. It is clear that the Negro child, by the age of 5, is aware of the fact that to be colored in contemporary American society is a mark of inferior status. A child accepts as early as 6, 7 or 8 the negative stereotypes about his own group.”
Six decades later the experiment was revisited. When 19 black children, ranging from age 5 to 9, were asked which doll was nice, according to Good Morning America, “Sixty years ago, 56 percent of the children chose the white doll. The majority of our kids chose black or both and 32 percent chose the white doll,” an improvement, or so it seemed. But according to those administering the experiment, some of the black girls still struggled to see positive qualities in the black dolls. “Second-grader Jamya Atkins, 7, picked the white doll as soon as she sat down and before the questions began. She said the white doll was shiny and the black doll was frowning. Nayomi McPeters, a 7-year-old second-grader, said the black doll was the ugly doll ‘because sometimes this one has its feet like a monkey.’ “
As a testament to how sensitive the issue of doll color remains, particularly for black girls, the rapper Ludacris’ longtime companion, Eudoxie, faced heavy criticism for publishing photos of toys she was planning to distribute in Africa, which included many white dolls. A number of black Americans deemed such gifts damaging to the self-esteem and identity of African children.
When asked about Jolie’s daughter playing with a black doll and whether it is culturally significant, Jeff Gardere, a psychologist who has treated children, told The Root that black children playing with white dolls can have a negative impact on their self-esteem, but when it comes to white children playing with black dolls, “I think that’s an amazing thing, because it has an opposite effect.” He explained that “white is still considered to be a preferential color and preferential status in our society, so to put a white doll with a black child will have a negative impact for most black children but to put a black doll for a white child might make that white child more sympathetic to or more open to having a black person in their lives and loving and respecting black people.”
He concluded, “I think it’s a courageous thing [Jolie has] done. I’d like to see more of that happening.”