"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.
So while it would be nice for every child to have the same privilege that blonde, blue-eyed little girls have (a choice of toys that are practically clones), there are other ways for kids who check more than one box to see reflections of themselves. This applies, of course, to all of their activities, from toys to television. As Mara Brock Akil said about the underrepresentation of black women in the media, "We walk around in our home called America and we don’t see our picture hanging on the wall."
There are plenty of other ways to hang pictures for your nieces.
That occurred to me when I asked around about experiences with dolls of various colors. One friend who's black told me she strongly preferred white Barbie as a child because "she was the one shown on the commercial," but she in no way wanted to be like the doll or be white in general.
"Everything I knew about myself and my family was weaved around the concept of blackness, Caribbean, Latino and Southern culture. We took a lot of pride in being black. So the fact that I had white dolls was pretty secondary in how I formed my identity and image and self love," she explained, adding, "I had greater influences than dolls and they were black."
So toys can be one part of a lifelong and multifaceted effort to provide those influences for your nieces, which will include education, cultural experiences and frank answers to inevitable questions about race and culture. If manufacturers haven't caught up with your nieces’ more complicated identities and accurate look-alikes aren't available, keep it moving. A "melting pot" family and relatives who care about their experiences when it comes to race and inclusion will do more for them than any one doll could.
I'd probably advise you to purchase the dolls that are the closest, roughest approximation of their features (or the ones that are on sale, which would get you the black ones—but that's another story), understanding that how these girls live is ultimately going to outweigh how they play.
The Root’s staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life—and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.
Previously in Race Manners: “How to Plan a Wedding When Your White Fiance’s Twin Hates You”