Biracial Girls Will Be Fine If Their Dolls Don’t Look Like Them

Race Manners: A rainbow of toys is great, but how kids live is much more important than how they play. 

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"Hello. I'm wondering if you can offer some broad guidance before I head out to the malls for Christmas shopping. I have two beautiful nieces in a very diverse, melting pot family. My sisters and I are white, and one has a daughter who is half-Japanese, and my younger sister's husband is half-African American. The two little ones are 4 and 6. Both are very much in the girly-girl phase, pink, purple, dolls, etc. and also great friends.

"I'm well aware that there are now, thankfully, dolls in many different ethnicities and even with different hair textures. But what's the right choice for these two? The 4-year-old is Japanese and Caucasian but has light brown hair and essentially looks more like brunette white dolls. The 6-year-old who is half African American has fair skin and long dark hair and probably looks more like white dolls than African-American dolls. If I purchase dolls for them, should they receive the ones that reflect their nonwhite ethnicity or the way they look, or does it matter if they are at this point unaware of any color-related differences?" —Shopping Sensitively

Well, Christmas is over, but I decided to answer this anyway. After all, the relationship between little girls of color and dolls is by no means limited to the holiday season.

It's why people were so ecstatic (seriously, what took so long?) when Natural Girls United’s line of dolls with realistic black hair came out and why it was so moving when the mom behind Chocolate Hair/Vanilla Care styled this doll's hair so its braids (as well as its complexion and outfit) would match her daughter's exactly.

Generally speaking, it sucks if little girls can't access dolls that look like what they see in the mirror (that extends beyond race to body shape and size, etc). And when they can, everyone is happy. I think we can all agree on that. 

Of course, when it comes to color, hair and background matching, your situation is extra complicated because you're dealing with kids whose identity is up in the air (it's anyone's guess how they'll see themselves 10 years from now when America's demographics have changed even more), and who might not look anything like what a factory-made plastic representation of their particular racial mixtures would, even if those existed.

I just read—and can’t stop thinking about—Yaba Blay's (1)ne Drop, which explores the way historical definitions of race help shape contemporary identities through a collection of individual stories and accompanying photos. Let's just say there's a lot of variation and very little predictability when it comes to people's actual skin and hair color and how they identify. A doll manufacturer could spend the rest of the year producing all of the variations of complexion and features and textures chronicled in the project, and there would still be people who couldn't find reflections of themselves.

American Girl has made a valiant effort here. You can go to the company’s website, mix and match "light," "dark" and "medium" skin with various eye and hair colors (and degrees of curliness), hand over $110 and get one that might be a match on paper for one of your nieces. That's a big "might." Even if everything matches up, it will still have the original (white?) facial features, so you're only going to get so far when it comes to accuracy.

But I actually don't think you should be too defeated by this. Here's why. Mention dolls and race and everyone automatically thinks of the infamous doll experiment by Kenneth and Mamie Clark—cited in the Brown v. Board of Education decision and perhaps the most popular documented example of African-American self-hatred—and its more recent re-creations. But it's important to remember that the story has never been that the white dolls made the kids think black was "ugly" or "bad." Rather, their beliefs about blackness, absorbed throughout life in a racist society, were revealed when they were asked to talk about dolls. In other words, they brought all that "feeling of inferiority" stuff to the experiment with them. The dolls didn't do it.