I remember receiving a request from someone in Malawi about year ago, and this list specified that they wanted a black baby doll for their daughter. I initially searched online, but after having little success online (particularly due to price and time limitations), I decided to drop by nearby stores one afternoon to pick up a doll. I ran around to three different shops in order to find a suitable doll that fulfilled this request in American suburbia and found this task to be daunting: a lot of the ‘black’ dolls were for older kids, featuring black dolls in urban hip-hop clothes; some were too scary looking for a little girl, featuring mean looking eyes; other black baby dolls were overpriced; some were the type that would fall apart easily at the hands of a two-year old (those terrible twos); and lastly, others were just poorly constructed – looking like they had been thrown together at the factory as an after thought. I also found that placement was poor – I had to look for them at the bottom of the shelf or sift through the white dolls to find the same model in black (I didn’t see any other shades represented either – it seems human beings only come in two shades in the doll world). A few weeks later when I traveled to Malawi and South Africa, I noted the noticeable absence of multi-ethnic dolls, particularly, dolls that resembled dark-skinned or black African people. I observed that in most major stores in both countries, dark skinned dolls were few, if present at all. Where were all the Black dolls?
More recently, I came across a news article about a group of elderly Canadian women (mostly ‘white’) that were making dolls to send to Africa as part of their weekly charity work. My first reaction was that this was a noble gesture and productive way of spending one’s golden years. However, after close inspection of the photo that accompanied the article, I had to pause in my tracks. The majority of the dolls that were depicted in the photos, were dolls that did not look like the majority of little African girls or boys in terms of skin tone. The article did note that they included ‘ethnically sensitive’ brown skinned dolls as well as multi-colored ones (including blue and green). I still wondered how many didn’t have the option and were forced to receive a doll of a different ethnicity just so that they could have one. I also wondered how many would receive one of the unnaturally colored blue, green, or rainbow ones that was technically looked like them but was the color of a Smurf, Martian or human – (with jaundice) which is equally problematic for an impressionable mind. Needless to say, given these recent experiences, I came to the realization that children in those two countries (and I am sure it’s the same for other African countries) do not get the opportunity to play with dolls (or action figures in the case of boys) that resembled like them. Whilst black African parents should do their utmost to raise children that are not biased or prejudiced and let them play with dolls of different colors that represent the continent, I think that it is highly problematic when black parents are left with no alternative but to have their children play with dolls that don’t resemble them. I also think its problematic when in some cases, the only doll they will ever have doesn’t look like them.
I recall a story about a white American father, Joey Mazzarino, a Sesame Street writer and puppeteer, whose daughter, an Ethiopian-American girl, had an attitude change towards her own hair, when she started playing with Barbie. Like most girls, she wanted to look like Barbie! He eventually produced a Sesame Street video ‘I Love My Hair’, that aimed at showing her someone that looks like her as a Sesame Street puppet. The psychological impacts linking a dolls color and attitudes towards color and self identity have been chronicled time and time again. Starting from the original Kenneth and Memie Clark studies in the 1950’s to current reproduced studies that have the same results. Therefore one cannot argue that children don’t know the difference between races at such a young age – they do. In the Clark experiments Bblack American (african-american) children wanted to identify with the doll that was considered good and attractive, so the doll that they consistently chose didn’t look like them. Over the years, subsequent studies show that black children and latino children in the U.S consistently chose white dolls over black ones. Many point directly at the black dolls when asked to point at the less attractive or ugly doll. This experiment highlighted racial dynamics in the U.S. and showed the totalizing standards of beauty transmitted in American culture to children from a young age (See article/video about study). I have not heard about a similar experiment being conducted in Africa across different African settings (rural, urban populations), but I would be curious to see such a study conducted in present day Africa on present day Africans. However, it is plausible to deduct, given the history of domination on the continent, that the psychological affects of this should be damaging to a girls self esteem and African standards of beauty.
I am certain from a business perspective, the importers of these products like large retailers (Game/PEP stores) in Africa, are banking on the purchase of these items by white Africans or white expatriates who they think have the money to purchase these dolls (although I did take note that the Chinese owned businesses are also well stocked with white dolls as opposed to black ones). However, I would like to know if they actually conducted any market research to see who is purchasing the dolls and what the preferences of customers are or if they were based on general assumptions. How would they then find out if perhaps, the customers are the black affluent Africans that have no choice to buy their dolls from there bought these. Perhaps, they are losing sales from the countless number of people that have to come overseas to buy black dolls – it a continent with a population of 1 billion. I would be curious to see if Africans are unknowingly spending their hard earned cash in the market locations as well in order to buy their kids ‘western’ fashioned toys that will negatively impact their kids in the long run. The new trend in business has been to market products to the ‘bottom billion’ Beside for Africa, there is a large market of African diasporic citizens in the Caribbean and in Latin America (Brazil alone hosts the second largest country of black African diaspora citizens). Therefore it is possible to achieve economies of scale for a budding entrepreneur. I have seen a few start ups that are attempting to serve this niche, but more can be done. At this juncture in our histories, we should encourage products that serve out markets and not just be a sponge for failed products or mass marketed products. We should also begin to look at some Trojan gift horses in the mouth and consider their long term effects. There is room for improvement in this area. We should not be content with Dark-skinned dolls missing from our store shelves. What we need to see on the African market are the dolls with the braidable hair that are packaged with a head wrap and signature chitenje (kitenge)* whether from charity or retailers.