I am a black woman who was raised in a black household. (If you are wondering why I am calling myself black rather than African-American, check this post out.)
Last weekend I was out with some friends and struck up a conversation with a stranger who was black. Somehow we started talking about our kids and he mentioned that his girls are only allowed to play with black dolls. His daughter asked for a Moana doll, making the argument that she is brown. His reply was “not our kind of brown.” The conversation moved on from there but that point stuck with me.
The “black doll/white doll” discussion has historical significance.
The Doll Test was first documented as the Clark Doll Experiment in 1939. This was when over 100 school-age children were asked a series of questions about two dolls who looked exactly the same with the exception of their skin color. The black kids often selected the “white” doll as better in many ways.
Some of the questions were:
“Show me the doll that you like best or that you would like to play with.
Show me the doll that is the ‘nice’ doll.
Show me the doll that looks ‘bad.'”
Kenneth and Mamie Clark were African American psychologists who studied these behavioral habits in children and testified as expert witnesses in one of the five Brown v Board of Education cases, stating:
“To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone.”
Fast forward to when I was a kid in the 80s. Most of my dolls were white with long straight hair. I know it was a matter of availability rather than choice, though, because whenever my mom stumbled across a doll with any degree of artificial melanin, she bought it. No holiday or birthday required. I do remember having a hair complex, annoyed that my own hair didn’t hang or move with my head like my dolls’ did.
And all of my dolls got Luster Pink Oil applied to their heads during styling.
(Finding black and brown dolls these days is significantly easier. This one is on Amazon).
I went to school with a very diverse crowd. Well, a mostly White, some South and East Asian, some Hispanic, and a small cohort of Black crowd. My school was small. Even amongst the White people, there were a lot of countries of origin and diverse heritage. I remember these girls doing traditional Irish dancing and people bringing foods from around the world. People were also from various socio-economic status, but most of my classmates were from upper-middle-class households.
The significance of that is that I didn’t grow up with a large Us vs Them complex. I expected people to know me for who I was, not what I was. I was not “a black girl.” I was me. While that early childhood experience was sort of a bubble, I am quite sure that if I had been presented with a “black” doll and “white” doll, I would have said something like, “Tell me more about the dolls. Where are they from? What are their interests? Then I can tell you who I like more.”
I then had the experience of going to an HBCU for college. That black experience in college was something super cool. Most of my classmates were African American from all over the country who were seeking higher education. Coming from a very diverse microcosm that was my elementary and high school experience, this all-black world was something I had never experienced outside of my own home. It was fun and full of character, but it did NOT MAKE ME want to do one thing.
I DON’T want to live in Wakanda Forever.
People aren’t a monolith. People are all different, shaped by their different heritage, family and social life and experiences. That’s what makes us individuals. I wouldn’t want to live in a society where everyone was the same. Diversity in society is just as important to me as knowing people with similar backgrounds. That’s what makes life interesting.
I think the benefit of living in a Wakanda all-black Eutopian society only exists because in THEORY it is free of racism and judgment. Ironically, many have postulated that Wakandans would NOT except African Americans in the same way as they welcome their own, so there goes that theory. While there is power and pride in representation, representation does not equal exclusion.
Back to the doll thing.
I don’t want my children to only have black dolls.
I also don’t want them to only have white dolls. I want them to have a diverse array of dolls. Let’s talk about Moana and where she is from. Cultural competency starts at an early age. Understanding that my black children aren’t inferior is just as important as understanding that people exist with various appearances and from various backgrounds all around the world and right here in our city.