Dear Lily June,
I’ve had a problematic relationship with dolls, anyway.
Once, in a college class I took on gender in the early 2000’s, we students were asked, if we could find one, to bring in a doll to class. We were going to use them to discuss how their bodies and appearance influenced our perceptions of what it meant to be a woman.
I wrestled with the idea of this because as a kid I hated dolls, the unconscious implied pressure to care about the physical, the surface. Barbies, despite their sometimes assumed occupations, always seemed to be more about what they wore and how they looked than what they did or who they were. The primary form of play with my friends always seemed to be putting on fashion shows to dress and redress them.
Instead, in the 80’s and 90’s, I used to pretend to be a lawyer and put my Barbies through trials. I don’t remember now their crimes, but I do remember the sentence was always death. The executions were standard: I would tie a long shoelace around their necks, then hang them from the handle of my father’s exercise bike. They would swing naked as light bulbs on a chain, until I felt ashamed and would eventually take them down, put them away. They weren’t granted a burial so much as a mass grave: a laundry basket of plastic limbs and torsos I dumped to the bottom of my closet.
Until my college class asked me to go back to my mother’s house and dig around in the attic for where the basket had ended up, I didn’t remember what all was in there until I saw it. I had forgotten the one Barbie I’d never executed, the one who wore a lab coat with a stethoscope imbedded in her chest who delivered babies for her job: Dr. Barbie. If you pressed a button on the stethoscope, it played a heart beat sound, and though, like the other Barbies, I hadn’t adored her, I also, unlike those, hadn’t abhorred her.
I had gotten her specifically because she had a job I respected, and I think there’s something poignant to the fact that–with that stethoscope imbedded –it was a job she couldn’t take off. But there was one other reason, in retrospect, that she stood out amongst the collection. Though every single other Barbie I owned was bleach-blonde, blue-eyed and white, this one was not. She was my one and only black Barbie doll.
If I said that I chose her specifically for that, that I was a pioneer for social justice at the tender age of seven, I would be lying. I have no idea what was going on in my mind at the time; likely, she was the only skin-colored option left in the store that had her profession. But I didn’t not select her because of that, either, a fact I question now, knowing that my parents were guilty of regularly making racist comments in front of me and my sister.
When my sister, for instance, whose favorite Barbie was Midge, the wedding Barbie, brought home a Puerto Rican boyfriend named Hector, all I remember was that, for months, there was static electricity in the air. I don’t know that her relationship with my mother has ever recovered. And that Hector was terrible to my sister–that he cheated on her and once even hit her–didn’t do anything to help the situation. But situations, just like people, are complicated, and my sister, a white girl from the suburbs, maintained a series of interracial relationships for the next few years. Was she looking for love or disapproval? Was her heart inclusive or rebellious? Is anything that simple?
What were my parents doing? No one talked to me about the torturous hangings I put my white Barbies through. And yet, no one stopped me from buying a black Barbie who was a doctor. Does any of that matter?
Apparently, we sometimes see dolls in same way we see ourselves.
In the 1940s, Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark, conducted what became known as The Doll Experiments, where they questioned 253 black children, between the ages of 3 and 7 years of age, with skin colors ranging from light to dark, from both the northern and southern parts of the United States. These tests would end up being repeated as a small part (a footnote) of the Brown vs. the Board of Education (1954) landmark Supreme Court case that decided segregated schools in America were inherently not equal. According to the Clarks’ published study (1947), this is how the test went:
The subjects were presented with four dolls, identical in every respect save skin color. Two of these dolls were brown with black hair and two were white with yellow hair. In the experimental situation these dolls were unclothed except for white diapers…
…In the experimental situation, the subjects were asked to respond to the following requests by choosing one of the dolls and giving it to the experimenter: 1. Give me the doll that you like to play with/like best. 2. Give me the doll that is a nice doll. 3. Give me the doll that looks bad. 4. Give me the doll that is a nice color. 5. Give me the doll that looks like a white child. 6. Give me the doll that looks like a colored child. 7. Give me the doll that looks like a Negro child. 8. Give me the doll that looks like you. (p. 169)
The children were generally fairly accurate when it came to the racial identification of the dolls (and themselves). While they recognized that they, themselves, were not white, the majority of children, though, invariably preferred, or associated good qualities with, the white doll, and rejected, or associated bad qualities with, the black doll. Specifically, the Clarks (1947) found that
- “…two thirds of the subjects indicated…that they like the white doll ‘best’ or that they would like to play with the white doll in preference to the colored doll and that the white doll is a ‘nice’ doll…” (175).
- “Fifty-nine percent of these children indicated that the colored doll ‘looks bad,’ while only 17 percent stated that the white doll ‘looks bad'” (175).
- “Only 38 percent thought that the brown doll was a ‘nice color,’ while 60 percent of them thought that the white doll was a ‘nice color'” (175).
If you think, Lily June, these results were just the product of a problematic, segregated past, and that children only internalized such negative beliefs about their own race because of the times they were living in, you would be sorely mistaken. The video below shows recreations of these experiments as late as the years 2009 and 2010, and it is heartbreaking to see almost all of the children interviewed, regardless of their race and/or ethnicity, choosing and approving of the white doll in the majority of cases.
How did I learn about the doll test? From a black student of mine who wrote about it in response to the literature we were reading at the time, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (a novel my white students by and large rejected because it was, they claimed, “too depressing.”)
Toni Morrison writes in the voice of its child protagonist,
“Adults, older girls, shops, magazines, newspapers, window signs–all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured” (1970, p. 20).
We are seventy years from the Clarks’ psychology, forty-six years from Morrison’s “fiction,” five years out from the most recent recreations of this study in the video above. Why is this still happening?!
Despite the limitations of this action, we decide to buy you a doll.
I ask my friends, colleagues, neighbors and family on Facebook to help me. What, I ask them, as a mother, do I do differently to help make a difference for you and your generation, Lily June? This is, after all, not the world I want you living in, a culture and country violently torn asunder by racism, be it external, explicit, internal, or implied. One of my friends, A., recommends suggestions so simple, I feel ashamed for not having thought about them: Buy you black dolls, and read you children’s books with black protagonists in them. She says that this is what her parents did for her, and it helped her to see her own face in places, to not feel “lesser than” quite so often.
At least, I thought A.’s suggestion was simple because, despite all of my education, I can be pretty thick, pretty naïve. It’s amazing how easy it has been for me to ignore what was always there, plain as day, for me to see. Because your mom and dad don’t have a lot of money, Lily, we went where we usually go when we want to buy you something: the local Walmart. We wanted to find you a soft doll (not a Barbie) with no parts that you could accidentally, at your age, choke on.
What we found were walls and walls of white dolls of every variety. There were soft Caucasians, plastic Caucasians, even mice Caucasians. What do I mean by that? I mean that I’d never looked closely into the faces of Disney’s Mickey and Minnie. There, in the midst of their darker fur, is a distinctly white-skinned face. Though Mickey is a fantastical, anthropomorphic figure, he is still given a predominantly Caucasian face, contrary to any mouse found in nature. Look at the reality versus the depiction:
If you think, Lily, that by the time you’re reading things, I’m being ridiculous (Mom, he’s a cartoon mouse in pants!) or that things have changed for the better, do me this quick little test. Pull up the preferred image search engine of your time and type in the word, “doll.” Count how many results you get of white dolls versus dolls that are black, Asian, Latino/Hispanic. When I use Google in 2016, these are the images returned to me. The unbalanced ratio is staggering. If you scrolled quickly, you almost couldn’t tell there were any dolls on the page that weren’t white.
We did, on the third aisle in, find your new friend Carly. She is a part of the Girl Scout organization’s “friendship doll” line, which makes your mother happy because that organization has done so much (from mental health to sexual/transgendered issues) to promote inclusivity. And like your parents, the description of her character on the back of the box says she enjoys writing poetry.
When it came to your reaction to your new friend, I’m proud to say you did with her what you’ve done with every other doll you’ve owned. While we were in the checkout line, you hugged her tightly, chewing on her hair a little, and then you threw her straight to the ground. (Dolls of any kind, in your mind, are no match for gravity).
It was when a white man at the next self-checkout stand handed Carly back to you, a quizzical look in his eye (or was I projecting that out of paranoia?), that I really thought to be self-conscious about what we were doing. What if, Lily June, someone thought we were being placating, offensive or ridiculous? What if they assumed the doll wasn’t for you? What if they assumed it was, and we were treating you, as our daughter, like just a vessel for our own political agenda? What if they thought it was a stunt? What if they were, for some reason I can’t have predicted, angry or hurt? What if they saw how the doll’s features are still, problematically, not reflective of reality (the white doll, after all, had the EXACT same eyes, nose, smile, size, height, etc.)?
And what of the gesture not being enough? You now own one black doll, and several others that are white. Shouldn’t we now buy you a doll representative of every race and ethnicity? And why stop there? Shouldn’t you own a doll, for instance, with a disability? The truth is, in a perfect world, I’d have the money to fill your toy chest with the kind of diversity you see represented in the U.N. In reality, one doll won’t likely change your entire world, or even your entire life.
In reality, you might reject dolls altogether, like your mother, and prefer something else entirely, and that will be your choice that I would definitely support. For now, it’s uncomfortable knowing the choices I make for you as my daughter might make others uncomfortable, but I think that discomfort, on everyone’s part, has its value. I’ve been too comfortable not seeing the skin color of every doll on the shelf. I’ve been too comfortable pretending to be colorblind, when being so only suits me and the people who share my skin color.
Now is not the time in my mind, Lily, to see or to teach you about gray. Now is the time to see, truly see, colors and to teach you, over and over, in words, deeds, interactions, etc., that no one skin color is preferable to another, no culture is better than another, no person is superior based on factors of their birth, culture and/or biology. But more importantly, now is the time to teach you, as early as fourteen months old, that Black Lives Matter.
No person is a felt or plastic doll, Lily. The world is filled with real, live, flesh-and-blood human beings that dolls are just a metaphor for. The journey doesn’t stop here, but it has to start somewhere. For us, it’s starting with Carly.
- Clark, K., & Clark, M. (1947). Racial identification and preference among negro children. In E. L. Hartley (Ed.) Readings in Social Psychology (pp. 169-178). New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
- Morrison, T. (1970). The Bluest Eye. New York, NY: Random House.
- By Debbie Behan Garrett – Debbie Behan Garrett – digital photograph, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12021905
- By Beercha – Flickr: The rise of blondes, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18222473
- By George Shuklin (talk) – Own work, CC BY-SA 1.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5521043
- By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39132269