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The Case for a Black Baby Doll

By Elizabeth Cranford Garcia

Last year, watching my 4-year-old daughter playing with some paper mermaid dolls we bought her as a souvenir from a trip, I had a little heart attack. Of the three dolls, she had chosen one to be the “bad” one in her pretend play–and it was the one with the darkest skin. She had made the black one the villain.

I was momentarily horrified, wondering what she could have possibly absorbed in her short life to make that decision. I abhor racism, I’ve always tried to treat people of all backgrounds equally, and demonstrate that to my children. I’d also already been contemplating the concept of racism, trying to understand what “white privilege” meant, and trying to answer a question I’d always wondered: Was it really possible to be racist and not know it? Was it possible that, being raised in the Deep South, even by parents who taught me to treat everyone with respect, and having quite a few African-American friends, that I could have absorbed some unconscious bias and somehow transferred that to my child? If so–how on earth could I address it?

The other thing is that her father, who is Filipino, has a much darker complexion than I do. As do his sisters and her cousins, whereas she and her brother are fair-skinned like me. She had already been exposed to some sort of variety, so I knew she already had some exposure to various skin tones.

And I’ve always considered myself to be especially conscious of avoiding attributing any kind of meaning to anyone’s complexion, knowing that children pick up on little things and misconstrue them. I’d even imagined scenarios in which, playing at a public park, she would suddenly notice that one little girl was different, and might ask me out loud: “Mommy, why is her skin/hair like that?” and none of the different possible answers I could give to a child have really satisfied me. The idea that “boys and girls look like their mommies and daddies” perhaps comes closest, though it wouldn’t take into account adoption . . . hence the quandary.

As I watched her, wondering how to handle this, knowing that I couldn’t get angry or punish her for something she didn’t understand or know to be wrong, I just stopped to ask her: “Mila, tell me about your dolls.”

She pointed to them and said, “Well, this one is Ariel” (the one with red hair), “this one is Belle” (the one with brown hair), “and this one–I don’t know her name. She’s the mean one.”

And it hit me: She doesn’t think black skin is bad–she just doesn’t know any black people. She doesn’t have any black friends. She doesn’t know any stories with black characters, or princesses that aren’t white. The strange one is the odd one out.

She wasn’t in school (because she liked being at home, and I wanted her to learn through play), and we live in the suburbs. And like many wards in the U.S., even in the South, ours is pretty darn homogenous.

I realized then, that I needed to change something.  I couldn’t wait for opportunities for her to meet black people so that she could watch me just being nice. I needed to be more proactive.

One Harvard psychologist, Mahzarin Banaji, an expert on racism and prejudice, has said this about how children learn or unlearn racism:

“So the good news is that even a child whose parents make no conscious effort to teach [him] not to be prejudiced can shed that prejudice if he finds himself in a diverse enough place and consistently observes in-group and out-group people interacting positively and as equals.’’

If I was really going to teach her to see and treat people of all races as equals, she needed more exposure and good experiences with other races. She needed black friends, storybooks with black characters she could relate to. She needed a black doll.

But first, for my lover of princesses: she needed a black princess.

Soon after, we rented “Frog Princess.” She loved it. Why hadn’t I done this before? A few months later, she told me she wanted a Tiana party for her next birthday. Which I hope will still be the case when the time comes.

She’s in kindergarten now, and I’ve seen her and her friend Kathea greet each other with excitement as they walk into school.

And even though I know my work isn’t done, I feel some relief that at least my sweet, loving girl is still just that. And as long as I am learning and aware of ways to introduce her to diverse experiences, to teach her about racism when the time comes, I feel confident that she will become a young lady who will be a force for good against the prejudices in the world.

 

How do you teach your children to love those who look different than themselves or their family? How do you open your own eyes to your possible blindspots?

About Elizabeth Cranford Garcia

Elizabeth Cranford Garcia is the current Poetry Editor for Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought, previous Poetry Editor for Segullah, and a contributor to Fire in the Pasture: 21st Century Mormon Poets. Her work has appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies, and her first chapbook, Stunt Double, was published in 2015 through Finishing Line Press. Her three small children compete with her writing for attention, and usually win.

8 thoughts on “The Case for a Black Baby Doll”

  1. Very important topic– implicit bias begins VERY early, and can definitely be combated by awareness and exposure. I am white and the very first baby doll I remember my parents giving me was a black Cabbage Patch doll that I loved and cherished dearly. I, too, now have a happy biracial marriage, so consider me a tiny bit of anecdotal evidence that experiencing diversity early really matters!

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  2. For me I just don't make an issue of it. We have friends of different races, mixed marriages and adopted kids of different races than their parents. I've always taken people for who they are and not their labels. I knew my attitude had transferred to my kids the day they expressed shock to find out their childhood friend was adopted. She is black and her parents are white but they'd never noticed. My kids were 7 and 9, their friend 16.

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  3. Don't beat yourself up too badly. I think your daughter just showed her innate knowledge of good and evil represented by light and dark. I don't think it had anything to do with being "racist" or "prejudiced." It is good to teach that skin color doesn't represent good or evil and that persons of all colors can be either. It's also good to teach our children not to judge another by the color of their skin but by the content of their character as evidenced by their actions.
    I loved reading to our children stories of people from all over the world with all skin colors. There is only one race, the human race, and we are all brothers and sisters of our Heavenly Father. We do come in a wide variety of sizes, shapes and colors, which is what makes life interesting.

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  4. My oldest daughter actually preferred dolls that were darker. Her favorite babysitters were 2 sisters from Tanzania who were our neighbors in student housing at UVa and she really looked up to them which may have influenced her preferences. When was 2 she picked out a little doll at the store that she called "Brown Lulu" and was so taken with it that I had to buy it. It was her favorite doll and she carried her everywhere. In fact, she still keeps her packed up with all her prized possessions while she's away at school. Her first American Girl doll that she *had* to have was Josephina. And, once when we were with one of my aunts, when she was about 5 years old, she got to choose something to spend her birthday money on. This time she chose the Latina Barbie doll, Teresa. My aunt about had a fit and offered to buy her TWO blond Barbies that "looked like her" if she'd put the brown one back. She wouldn't budge and we got the brown Barbie. I never really knew to have a discussion with my children about race back then. I missed so many opportunities. If I could go back in time there are so many things I would have done differently. For one, I would have called out my aunt's racism instead of uncomfortably waiting it out and merely defending my young daughter's choice as being her preference. That daughter ended up being the one who introduced me to the concept of white privelege and explained what micro aggressions were to me. My other children don't seem nearly as aware of or sensitive to racism and I'm sad that I haven't done a better job. I think part of it is that we moved from a very diverse area to an extremely homogeneous area when the other children were still young. So, whatever she learned she figured out on her own, not from me. Unfortunately, my other children learned from their environment too and I never made an effort to find a way to socialize with people who were different from our white neighbors. I could have done so much better. I can work with my younger children but what can I do for my middle children who are older? They are already benefiting from living in a more diverse area since we've recently moved again (my 2nd daughter's best friend here is Muslim where there weren't any Muslims at all at her previous school.) What else can I do? I took them to see Hidden Figures and made them watch 13th with me but when I try to have discussions about race they bristle and get defensive. Ideas on how to approach things differently would be much appreciated.

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  5. As to your question about how to answer the "why do we look different" question – I would just be honest and scientific. We have something called DNA and genes that makes us look the way we do. It determines our hair color, eye color, skin color, hair texture, thickness our height and all sorts of other things. Having different color skin makes a person no different then mommy and daddy being different heights or you and your brother having different color eyes (replace brother with someone close to them who has different color eyes), or me and you because I wear glasses and you don't (again replace with scenario that fits).

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  6. THANK YOU for raising a race conscious child! Making sure your children have black and brown baby dolls and talking about skin color is one of the simplest and most important acts we as moms can do. If we don't teach them directly about this topic, they will absorb plenty of negative ideas from peers and media. Talking about race can feel awkward at first, but those of us who don't "have to" (because our race does not obviously affect our lives) need to be pushing past that discomfort in support of all the moms who must have these conversations constantly for the sake of their childrens' safety. We need to do better! Thanks for sharing.

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  7. Okay, I just have to comment on the not noticing a racial difference between parents and kids thing! The same thing happened to me and it wasn't until I was an ADULT that it occurred to me that my friend, who was asian, parents white, was obviously adopted. I felt like a total dummy, but I just truly never thought about it. It wasn't until my husband and I were preparing to adopt our daughter and were going through all of the paperwork and decision making regarding racial preferences that, in a conversation with my mother where I was talking about not knowing too many people personally that had adopted a child of a different race, that she mentioned this friend.

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