Having a multicultural doll ghetto is not enough

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Dawn Friedman

Recently I wrote on my blog about trying to find an African American Polly Pocket for my 3-year old daughter. My efforts were only slightly successful – I did find a brown-skinned Polly, kind of. But she could more easily stand in for a white girl with an olive complexion. The comments on my blog and on other blogs made me want to talk more about why I want regular old popular dolls, like Polly Pocket, to step up to the plate and add many-hued faces to their product lines. To do this, I have to tell you some not-so-flattering things about myself.

When I was about eight or nine I found a doll that I wanted and the reason I wanted her is that she had dark brown hair (like me) and blue eyes (like me). It really bothered me that all the dolls back then – the 70s – were blondes. All those Baby TenderLoves I had (and I had a ton) had lemon meringue hair and big sky blue eyes and you know, it really bothered me. Ok, I was a little smug that the dolls’ eyes were blue (not hazel like my big sister’s) but what was with the blondes? I definitely felt (although I didn’t have the word) under-represented. Having a bunch of self-esteem in spite of myself, I was pretty willing to say that the doll manufacturers were the ones with a problem although in the back of my mind was the rotten idea that blondes really did have more fun and more value to boot.

Now at around this same time I spent a lot of time flipping through the Sears wishbook – you know that big fat catalog that came out around the holidays. There were the ubiquitous blonde dolls, of course, and I noted that some of these dolls had this little add-in picture to the side of the exact same doll only painted brown.

I got a very clear message from this: Black kids? Even less valued than brown-haired pink-skinned kids like me. Being a child raised on Sesame Street and Stories for Free Children meant that I didn’t think black kids had less value; in fact, good liberal child that I was, I decided I would be extra-nice to the poor black kids who lived in dirty city streets (like on Sesame) and who had to make do with Bless You Baby TenderLoves dipped in brown paint.

Yes, I learned my do-good racism young, nourished in part by the Sears wish book and its lack of ethnically diverse dolls.

And this is why I made sure that my kids (bio and adopted, white and black) had an ethnic mix of dolls (and Playmobil and books, etc.). In short my daughter has many dolls that look like her and quite a few that don’t. You might say – as people have said – that it’s enough to stock her room with these dolls and forego those Pollies. Only I disagree because to me it’s just like those Baby Tenderloves and their lemon meringue hair because it’s not just my daughter I’m worried about.

Personally I don’t like Polly Pockets. I don’t like their impossible-to-get-on shoes or their emphasis on fancy clothes or the “collect them all!” mentality but my daughter likes them and her friends like them, which means that Polly Pocket is a part of our lives. And the absence of a decent African American version (as detailed at Abebech’s blog here) means that lots of little kids are getting the message that I got pouring over that Sears wishbook: That non-white kids are not valued.

People sometimes think that the issue is about having the right kind of dolls and so they share (and I’m grateful for the sharing) sites like Dolls Like Me and MulticulturalDolls.com and the fabulous blog, Multicultural Toybox and that’s a help but still, what the hell is up with Polly Pocket? It’s not enough to have a toy ghetto – I want the multicultural dolls at Target. I want them at Toys R Us. I don’t want my kids to get by seeing non-white dolls shunted over to the side, one brown-skinned Cabbage Patch baby against a sea of redheads and blondes. I don’t want them to get the message that Asian children get one doll while white kids get three in the collection. I mean the Groovy Girls are swell and all but if you love Polly you’re not going to be fooled when someone shoves another Petula in your arms and tells you to quit crying over that sorry Shani.

Happily, retailers are starting to make changes even if it is the almighty dollar inspiring them. Kmart is launching a multicultural line of dolls because, “About one in three Americans is a minority, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.” In other words, multicultural shouldn’t be an alternative anymore.

Want to let the makers of Polly to know that it’s time to catch up with our kids? You can always do what I did and contact Mattel.

Dawn Friedman is a writer and mother to two children. Her articles have appeared in Salon.com, Yoga Journal, Brain Child and the Greater Good and she is the op-ed editor at Literary Mama. She is also the founder of OpenAdoptionSupport.com and since the adoption of her daughter in 2004 has become passionate about the need for adoption reform. She blogs at this woman’s work.

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