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A Diversity of Dolls Can Help Children Learn to Be Antiracist

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Intentional Gift-Giving for the Holidays

Laura Marti – December 14, 2021

‘Tis the season for giving gifts — and if you have young kids at home, you might be considering a doll. As I was reminiscing recently with my mom about my childhood, I remembered that I had two Black dolls, among my white ones. Was I remembering that right? So my mom sent some old photos to me, and, sure enough, she found pictures of me playing with my Black dolls. One was smaller, and had a blue lace dress (not pictured), which I probably had when I was four or five years old; the other was a Chrissy doll from the 1970s (pictured) when I was eight or nine.

Me (on the left) and my cousin playing with dolls, circa 1970.

I can’t recall why I wanted Black dolls, but I specifically asked for them. I do remember thinking that the Black Chrissy doll was much prettier than the white Chrissy dolls. My parents didn’t seem to have any issues with my request, but as fairly conservative, church-going, middle-class white people, they were probably surprised that I wanted Black dolls. Whether I realized it or not, current research tells us that it may have helped shape my worldview.

📸 : Vintage Black Chrissy doll photos found on Pinterest. Released in 1969.

We talk a lot at Brownicity about how important it is to start conversations with kids about race early, and that they are capable of having these conversations in an age-appropriate way. Children are already seeing differences in skin color and picking up racial attitudes/biases by preschool ages, and they notice phenotypical differences — what we call ‘race’ — several years before adults may want to talk about it. We often look to books to help develop healthy racial attitudes, but this all got me very curious about whether diverse dolls can also help kids become culturally aware, shape their ideas, and make sense of their world in ways that embrace diversity. (Read more here about How to talk to toddlers and young children about racism.)

What the Experts Say

In this article on Maisonette (an online destination for quality products), they discuss why it’s so important to bring racial diversity to your kids’ play. “The toys your children play with help shape their view of the world,” says clinical psychologist Nanika Coor, Psy.D., a ‘respectful parenting therapist’ and consultant at Brooklyn Parent Therapy. Here are some important concepts she conveys:

Play is how kids process their lives and their worlds; it’s how they develop social and emotional awareness and learn about social values like compassion, self-esteem, and leadership. Play can create the foundation for who they will be in the world socially. Parents can really shape that foundation intentionally by thinking about what “tools” kids have to play with.

If we want to raise antiracist kids, we need to make sure we are weighting the scale towards diversity and inclusion to help them become critical thinkers, because society weights it in the other direction with homogenous images, or by not talking about it. So we have to intentionally do something different.

It is so important for children of color to see themselves represented in toys, games, and media. When kids of color don’t see themselves represented, they don’t feel as valued, like something might be wrong with them. They start to ask themselves why they aren’t there or think they need to assimilate into White society, to change themselves to belong. And White children are getting that same message—that kids of color don’t belong in their worlds. Kids [of color] will be more interested and engaged when they see themselves reflected in their books and toys and media. 

Dr. Coor says White parents should also be conscious of their kids experiencing diversity in their dolls, toys, books, media, and art supplies. She says this about White kids having diversity in their play:

It’s a way of normalizing differences. What messages are we sending if we say a white kid can’t carry a Black doll? Why not? We have to think about how to represent what the world actually looks like, not the bubble in our homes or our towns, but in a global way. When raising white kids, you have to dominate the narrative because society will give them a different idea. You have to teach them to think critically in the world around them. 

When you expose kids to other cultures and help them see the world through someone else’s perspective, it helps them develop empathy. Toys that look like other people help to develop that empathy, and it helps give them a healthy idea of their place in the world. All kids should have the opportunity to see lots of kinds of diversity. There are so many types of people in the world, and it really behooves us to let our kids know how cool it is that we’re all different. It helps them become more empathetic global citizens.

A study published in 2020 by neuroscientists at Cardiff University (United Kingdom), in collaboration with Barbie®/Mattel, used neuroscience for the first time to evaluate the impact doll play has on children. They found evidence that doll play “activates brain regions that allow children to develop empathy and social information processing skills, even when playing by themselves.” Read the full findings of the original research article here.

📸:: Importance of Play, EU

Dr. Sarah Gerson, senior lecturer at Cardiff, explains:

This is a completely new finding. We use this area of the brain when we think about other people, especially when we think about another person’s thoughts or feelings. Dolls encourage them to create their own little imaginary worlds, as opposed to say, problem-solving or building games. They encourage children to think about other people and how they might interact with each other. Playing with dolls is helping them rehearse some of the social skills they will need in later life. Because this brain region has been shown to play a similar role in supporting empathy and social processing across six continents, these findings are likely to be country agnostic.

If a doll is that important in the social development of children, how important is it, then, that kids see themselves reflected in the dolls they play with? And how important is it that all children play with a diversity of dolls in order to normalize skin color and the diversity of our world?

In this article from ABC Everyday, Alice Lee, a senior psychologist in Melbourne, Australia, suggests that parents who value diversity, regardless of their own cultural background, consider offering their children dolls of different colors and representing different cultural backgrounds. Ms. Lee says:

Earlier on, it’s about using dolls to enact life experiences and understanding their place in their world and themselves — and as they get older, it takes them through to more imaginative play. If you think about play, it’s the child’s way of understanding our world, and our world is diverse, it’s full of people of color, from different cultures.

They state in the article that there isn’t a lot of “hard data” on the effects of kids playing with diverse dolls, but the general consensus is that kids benefit from playing with dolls that look more like them — skin color, hair texture, ethnicity, and even things like being in a wheelchair. It can allow children from marginalized groups to feel “seen.”

Representation in Dolls

As I’ve become more attuned to issues of race and diversity, I’m learning to pay more attention to representation for Black and brown communities. Lack of representation is still a huge issue in the major doll companies. While researching for this post, I learned that the Black dolls I had were most likely made from the same mold as the white dolls, and it’s obvious from the pictures that no one was really thinking about different hair textures or more accurate facial features at the time. 

But there continues to be progress, thanks to those who have stepped up to make changes in the industry for young children of color. Niya Dorsey is one of those people. She’s the founder of Brains and Beauty Dolls, a doll company she started because she wanted her own daughter to grow up with a doll that truly represented her, and to inspire and empower little girls all over the world. Dorsey says on her website:

By offering the ability to buy natural hair dolls online, we strive to develop self-awareness and positive self-esteem in young girls. Our goal is to inspire little girls to embrace their uniqueness, individual beauty, intelligence, culture, and leadership ability. We also challenge young girls to achieve their goals and dreams in style. 

📸: Brains and Beauty Dolls (Malia, Nia, and Khari) on Instagram

In her blogpost 5 Lessons Children Learn From Playing with and Caring for Multicultural Dolls, she shares:

Learning about inclusiveness can help children learn about race and the issues that children of color can face in their daily lives. By playing with diverse dolls, you can encourage your child to learn more about other people that they are bound to interact with within their neighborhoods and schools. Your child can gain a better understanding and appreciation for all races and ethnicities.

Here are five benefits she describes that playing with multicultural dolls can provide:

  1. Promoting inclusiveness
  2. Celebrating color and cultures
  3. Encouraging diversity
  4. Improved social skills
  5. Increased sense of responsibility

Read more from Nina Dorsey on her blog and check out the dolls here.

Ozi Okaro is another person who is creating better choices for diverse dolls. She’s also a mom who launched her own doll company because she didn’t see dolls that looked like her kids. Here she shares that she had a seriously warped perception of beauty, and it all stemmed from the dolls she played with — which looked nothing like her. The Ikuzi Dolls collection features beautifully crafted dolls available in different shades of brown skin tones and hair textures. Okaro said:

Growing up, I loved dolls but only had one black doll — and I didn’t think she was very pretty! Positive role play in the early years is critical to building self-esteem, self-love and self-pride, and my dolls had a big impact on my perception of beauty. As a mother, I was determined to give my kids dolls that looked like them so they could learn to love who they are and be proud of their roots.

Ikuzi Dolls | 📸: https://www.ikuzidolls.com/

So as you’re considering gifts for the holidays, don’t overlook the importance of diverse, multicultural dolls in helping your kids to become more culturally aware, more inclusive, and more appreciative of all races and ethnicities. Help empower them to be confident and comfortable in their own skin, and to see their intrinsic beauty and value. Diversifying your kids’ play today can go a long way toward preparing them for their future in a very diverse world — and contributing to making it a better place.

Resources


Laura Martí is Content Creator and Resource Curator for Brownicity. Trained as a microbiologist and currently a wife and mother of four, she has been on an antiracism journey since the death of Trayvon Martin. She shares from her own learning with the goal of educating others and lifting up the dignity of every person.