Dolls help affirm a child’s self identity.
While my MiniMocha goes to a child care center that has some racial diversity, our particular preschool class is not. I struggle with this every day. Where we live puts Mini’s educational path on a certain trajectory. It’s a mixed blessing for a lot of reasons. Anyway, I certainly understand that kids do not understand race nor have social constructions of race crept into the way they see the world. Kids just see one another. Mini loves her friends, so I am okay with it until one day–I pick up her up from school and she is playing with a white baby doll.
Now, I remember my own dolls that were either really black or really white and nowhere in between. I remember not wanting the black dolls because the white dolls had the prettier hair. Times have changed and Mini’s dolls are all differing shades of brown. The silky hair does not reflect our hair, but I have no problem “kinking” it out myself to more closely reflect our natural hair. For example, Mini got a beautiful brown doll for her birthday that had long wavy hair that looked nothing like our hair. I gave it a home hair treatment and boom: Hair that looked a little more like our natural hair.
Now, I would have no problem if Mini chose a white doll to play with as long as she chose it from an array of dolls. Enter anxiety. My thoughts…Oh no. Will she grow to dislike her tight, soft curls and brown skin?
Should I home school?
Where did I go wrong?
All of these thoughts raced through my mind.
So what did I do? I took a deep breath.
I approached her teachers who are also women of color. I explained my concern and why it was important to me. They said they had seen brown dolls in the school but didn’t have any dolls in that particular class. That information totally sent me over the edge. I immediately began looking for a new school. I teach and train on issues of racial equity, and I believed I had failed my daughter.
Again, deep breath.
Next step, I made an appointment with the school’s director. Enter more anxiety. I was so nervous about the meeting, which is completely ironic considering that I talk and train about structural racism for a living. I talk about race all the time.
I met with the center director. Our conversation begins with my concern about fostering a healthy self image for girls of color and why doll color matters. I referenced the famous studies on the matter, in which when given a choice most black children in the study chose white dolls.
A visual on why race matters for dolls
The resolution? It turns out that the school orders these particular dolls in sets and that particular set had become separated. She assured me of the school’s commitment to diversity in its toys and teaching aids. I left the meeting thinking: “OK…You’ve got one week to demonstrate that or I am moving her and, I am watching the clock.” Tick Tock.
Several days later, I walked into Mini’s class and there she was holding a beautiful brown baby doll. Her teacher beamed and told me that the dolls had just come in that day, and that she picked out the brown one and had not put it down. I smiled and teared up.
I know my kid. And, race matters.
Dr. Joanna Scott