The Case of the Black Barbie Doll

I’ll go on the assumption that everything in this article is true, but I’m not sure how this 4-year-old came up with some of the comments she did.  I can see the comments on skin-tone preferences because it’s something a  young child may in fact have seen or come across, but the comments about “She’s dead.” or “ jail.” seem a bit heavy for a 4-year-old – particularly one raised in a reasonably stable, we’ll assume sheltered (from violence, harm, etc.), and “progressive” environment such as this one.  My son is 5, and we know a number of children in this age range, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a child say anything along those lines – and I certainly can’t see how they could have had enough exposure to make the connection between something like that and race if they lived a “typical” 4 or 5 year old’s life, wallahu a3lam.  Perhaps the news is on too much and we know how many biased, negative, stereotypes are perpetuated from that alone.  God knows children pick up everything…but again, those are just some heavy topics that children need to learn about at the appropriate time, in the appropriate context. 

As for the skin issue (light = good, dark = bad)…that’s something culturally many of us still have to deal with – and have to work diligently to get rid of.  Growing up with a combination of Middle Eastern and American culture, there are undertones of that all the time.  One of my children has straight hair and lighter skin, and my other son is more tanned with curly hair, and I hear comments about how one is more handsome than the other because of that.  I don’t think people should be comparing children (particularly siblings) like that, but – putting that aside – if it was based on something more substantial than skin tone, or hair texture, MAYBE I could understand it a little.  But to me, neither of those things make or break someone’s physical beauty.  Or my little guy was born with a pretty tanned skin tone, and “Thank GOD!” when he started to lighten up as he got older.  I always find comments like this ridiculous, and insulting. For starters, he was born with jaundice, which made him more yellow (and consequently more tan looking).  Secondly,  I think he got cuter as he aged, but mostly because he lost some weight and his features became more defined.  Never did it have anything to do with skin color. 

I know it’s not just an Arab thing, it’s in desi culture, and African-American culture, and in American culture – and it’s dangerous.  To put such emphasis on something that CANNOT be changed (no matter how much “Fair & Lovely” someone uses).  The effects, particularly for young women who already have so many other image issues to worry about, can be devastating to someone’s self esteem.


The Case of the Black Barbie Doll

Submitted by H. Roy Kaplanon April 5, 2011

Leslie, a 38-year-old social worker who counsels children with stressful life situations, found her 4-year-old daughter, Sophia, engaged in animated play with her dolls. She watched incredulously as Sophia invited the four white dolls with blonde hair to a tea party while the dark-skinned doll with black hair lay alone across the room. 

“Why isn’t that doll going to the tea party?” she inquired.

“She’s dead,” replied Sophia matter-of-factly.

“Dead? How can that be? She’s just like the other dolls. Why can’t she play with them?”

“They don’t want to play with her.”

“Why is that?”

“Because she has dark skin,” replied Sophia.

Leslie’s mouth dropped to the floor as she fought back tears. How could this be? Hadn’t she and her husband worked diligently to teach her child to be inclusive? Sophia had a variety of multicultural toys and books. She was only allowed to watch progressive television shows like Sesame Street, Dora the Explorer, Diego, the Backyardigans and Yo Gabba Gabba. An only child, she attended an expensive, supposedly inclusive pre-kindergarten school which included children of color.

“Sweet Pea,” said Leslie, plaintively, “you’re hurting that doll’s feelings. You’ve got to let her play with the other dolls.”

“She can’t. She’s in jail,” Sophia replied as she rationalized her decision to exclude the dark-skinned doll.

This scenario has probably been repeated in countless homes and classrooms around the country. But it was a real situation that wrenched Leslie and me, as we tried to come to a resolution to the problem. You see, Sophia is my granddaughter, and I happened to be visiting when this incident occurred. As an advocate for civil rights and a diversity trainer, the family looked to me for an answer.

I naturally thought of the doll experiments conducted by Kenneth and Mamie Clark in the 1940s. They revealed a preference for white dolls by both black and white children. And despite attempts since then to create equal educational opportunities for all children, replications of the Clark’s work consistently reveal similar results

Social scientists attribute negative attitudes toward blackness to historical and cultural processes in our society that perpetuate perceptions of dark skin as inferior to white, stigmatizing blacks and other ethnic minorities as being lazy, shiftless, and uneducable—attitudes that affect the achievement gap in educational attainment between blacks and Latinos versus whites and Asians.  These attitudes have been referred to as symptoms of systemic racism.

Such stereotypes have even been accepted by people victimized by them, a process called stereotype threat. Some parents and teachers do not recognize the pervasive effect that white culture has on children from other ethnic groups. And we can see how negative stereotypes persist despite efforts to change them.

We can break this cycle by using multicultural materials in the home and classroom. But they should be accompanied by experiential activities that help children understand, appreciate and identify with the issues faced by children from other cultures—what educator, Jane Elliott did in her Iowa classroom by separating brown and blue-eyed children

We may never know what triggered Sophia’s behavior with the dolls. But when Leslie showed her a photograph of her sitting alongside her cousin, Dabney, a Haitian child adopted by her aunt and uncle, a broad smile creased her face. She reached for the dark-skinned doll and pushed her into the toy car with the others. “They’re all going to the party now,” she said cheerfully.

How would you handle such a situation? 

Kaplan teaches in the Africana Studies Department at the University of South Florida, Tampa.


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