When I was a young girl, I loved Barbies.
I had so many barbies. I remember counting them one time; it was upwards of 70 Barbies. Mattel has a Barbie for any kid. There is fun hair color Barbie. There’s artist Barbie. There’s surfer Barbie. There’s a teacher Barbie. There are Barbies inspired by your favorite Disney princesses. I loved them all, all except one: Black Barbie.
When I was a kid in the late ’80s and early ’90s, there was only one option for a Black Barbie. Really.
All of my Barbies were blonde and blue-eyed, except for Ariel with her unmistakable red hair. I didn’t see a problem with this until I got Black Barbie from a family member. I didn’t want it. She didn’t look like the other Barbies. None of my friends had a Black Barbie. Barbie couldn’t be black. Barbie could be sun-kissed tan and ready for a beach vacay with Ken, but not black with dark hair and eyes. What makes this thought of an elementary school-aged child even more strange? Black Barbie looked more like me than any of the other 70 Barbies I owned. Why did I not want her?
Children See. Children Do.
Media aimed towards children was not saturated with black characters in the late ’80s and early ’90s. When I thought about sitcoms and cartoons with a majority black cast from my childhood marketed to elementary-aged children, I could only come up with Family Matters and The Cosby Show. I did a quick survey of my Facebook friends who also grew up in the same era, and they returned with the same but also chimed in with a lot of media more appropriate for adults and teens like In Living Color and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. They also mentioned a handful of shows that had a “token black character” like Power Rangers, Hey Arnold, and Rugrats. The shows they said that made a conscious effort to incorporate black culture regularly were “Sesame Street,” “Reading Rainbow,” and “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
These were variety shows, though, not story-based media that could lead a child to believe that people who looked like them were important enough to have a television show made with people who looked like them. Kids want to be the lead character, not the sidekick. I was no different. I wanted to be like the Barbie everyone had. I wanted light skin, straight blonde hair, and light eyes.
Did playing with all-white Barbies as a child hinder my sense of self-worth because my skin was brown?
I believe so. I spent much of my life trying to downplay my ethnic features and to fit in with “white stereotypes.” The Doll Test from the 1940s asked white and black children their preference between dolls with white skin and dolls with brown skin. (Note: these were dolls painted brown because there were no brown dolls then). The majority of kids, from both sides, chose the white one. Black children were often ashamed of the brown one.
Dr. Clark, the facilitator of the test, studied how this preference took a negative impact on the self-confidence of young black children. The study inspired another one in 2010 that used photos instead of dolls. Although 60 years after the 1940’s test, children still showed a white bias. No child deserves to feel like they are unworthy or unwanted because of the color of their skin.
Having a child made me realize the importance of a Black Barbie.
I am embarrassed to admit that I was in my 30’s (parenting my own doll-loving child) when I realized the importance of Black Barbie. By this time, Barbie had gone through a transformation, and there was more than one Black Barbie. There were several, all kinds of shades, with kinky dark hair, long and short. Discovering this made me feel empowered. I was PROUD of what I looked like for the first time, maybe ever. There were several dolls that kind of looked like me now. I was worthy of having a bunch of barbies made to look like me, not just one. Other girls could have dolls that look like my daughter and me and enjoy making up stories for them instead of hiding them in the corner of their closets.
Thankfully, they are making room for Black Barbies.
Shelves in the stores now have a variety of dolls for kids to choose from. I feel empowerment not only for black and brown children but children of all shades. Toymakers are putting value in an area where little has been placed in the past. Black and brown kids don’t have to feel shame when their friends only have white dolls. Toy chest diversity is evolving. Now, toy boxes are filled with a better representation of how the world really looks. This diversity in toys not only helps girls and boys of color feel worthy early on in life but introduces diversity to white children who may not encounter much in their day to day existence.