This past week, a video went viral of two young white girls being gifted with black dolls and subsequently expressing their disapproval. It has the provocative title “Parents get white girls black dolls and what happens next is shocking.” Except that it isn’t that shocking, sadly. I’m not going to link to it, because these are very young children who are clearly products of their parents at this point and don’t deserve to have their faces on blast all over the internet. But chances are, you’ve already seen it as it’s been widely shared. In case you haven’t, I’ll describe what happens.
A mom is filming her two daughters as they open a Christmas gift from their uncle. The mom is giggling and clearly expecting a response – almost as if it’s a gag on her children. The kids pull two black baby dolls from the bag. The oldest looks sheepish and a little disappointed, but she also seems conflicted. Like she’s on to the fact that her mom is fishing for a response. The mom keeps laughing and begins to push for a reaction. “Do you like it?” “What’s wrong?” The daughter shrugs and seems like she doesn’t feel like indulging her mom in whatever reaction she’s gunning for (and filming for.)
But the younger sister is not as filtered, and she sees the dolls and becomes unhinged. As she’s going into temper tantrum mode, the mom is laughing and asking “what’s wrong?” but it’s clear she already knows the answer . . . because the answer was expected. And she is filming because she thought the reaction would make for a funny video to share on facebook.
It’s disturbing and disheartening and sad. But it’s also a reminder of how easily children can pick up on racial bias.
It’s easy to think that devoid of a racist parent, no children would ever behave this way. That racism is a learned behavior. And while I do believe that racism is learned, I also believe that our children are ALL growing up in a society in which they are swimming in racial bias. And if we want to avoid our white children being disappointed in a black doll, we have to be very intentional to overcome societal norms that suggest to our children that they should appreciate white skin over brown.
A couple year ago I paid a visit to the doll section of Target and noted that every single black Barbie doll was on clearance. It was baffling and enraging. But should I be mad at Target? Are they at fault when their consumers show racial bias when they buy toys for their children? Obviously, when mothers are faced with a row full of dolls, they are overwhelmingly choosing the white dolls, prompting Target to discount the ones that aren’t selling. (And even with the discount, parents are choosing the white dolls).
And really, the only conclusion I can come to is that WE are to blame. Our society. In particular, the white majority that thinks that we are living in a post-racial society because Obama is president, the white majority that thinks that black people are oversensitive when they complain about racism, and the white majority that doesn’t even see the problem with encouraging your kids to choose dolls that look just like them.
(And if you don’t believe me, have a look at an American Doll catalog – which encourages girls to special order a doll with their exact hair, skin, and eye color, because “everyone wants a friend who looks just like them.” Or check out this podcast from This American Life on how mothers at FAO Schwartz react when the store runs out of white baby dolls in the nursery. Parents are faced with a choice: will they go for an Asian, Latino, or African-American baby instead? What happens is beyond disturbing.)
It is only through the lens of white privilege that we can ignore how this kind of “like me = likeable” subtext shapes the way our children interact with others. It is only in the comfortable seat of denial that we can pretend that this preference for same-race dolls won’t extend into our children’s treatment of minority children that don’t look like them.
And really, buying diverse dolls is just the tip of the iceberg in raising a generation that will bridge the racial gap in our country. There are so many bigger things we should be doing as parents, including making sure our community and the people in our lives and in our homes reflect the diversity that we supposedly value. But the dolls . . . I mean, buying diverse dolls is so easy. It takes so little effort. And it’s so important.
Chances are, your children will be thrilled at widening their toy selection to include more shades. But if they aren’t, it’s an indicator that you have some work to do.
We have tried to be intentional about buying diverse dolls for my kids. Which hasn’t always been easy. In fact, this year I wanted to get them a new American Girl doll, and Karis specifically asked for one with brown skin. This had been my plan anyway, but in order to do so without replicating dolls we already own, I had to order a retired doll from ebay. Because the American Girl doll collection is so abysmally lacking in diversity.
Thankfully, our scene on Christmas morning was a bit different from the viral video.
My girls were thrilled with their dolls. And while it’s easy to say that it’s just because their parents aren’t racist jerks, I think it is also because we’ve been very intentional in celebrating diversity, because we understand that doing nothing is not enough. The absence of racism is not enough to combat racial bias. (If you don’t believe me, please check out the doll test that CNN did in the last couple of years.)
I’d love to challenge everyone reading this to consider your own holiday. Was diversity reflected under you Christmas tree? If not, here are some ideas for moving forward. . .
1. Take an inventory of your home’s diversity. Are your toys sending a subtle message? Make it a point to buy dolls and action figures of every race. Watch how your kids react.
3. Take inventory of your own racial biases. Be careful with the language you use around your children. Avoid making stereotypical statements or racial jokes in front of your children. (or better yet, don’t do it at all).
4. Look for opportunities to immerse your family in other cultures. Try to find situations where your family is the minority. This is a great stretching and empathy building opportunity for you and your kids. Try attending a minority church event or a cultural festival. Again, observe your child’s reactions and open a dialogue about how that feels.
6. Just observe. Watch how your children plays with children who are different, whether it be skin color, gender, disability, or physical differences. Talk about it. Let your child know that you are a safe person to process their feelings and reactions with, while at the same time guiding them to accept children with differences.
7. Lead by example. Widen your circle of friends and acquaintances to include people from different backgrounds, cultures and experiences.
Hi, I’m Kristen. I’m a mom of four kids via birth and adoption and a writer living in Southern California. Read More.