My plan has always been to track my daughter’s perception of racial self-worth through her barbie-play. In other words, instead of waiting for that Mamie and Kenneth Clark moment when I sit looking horrified as I find out my kid either hates herself or has some other twisted conception of race and worth, I always wanted to get out ahead of things.
That’s the point of the dolls.
The dolls one of several mediums I use to tell her how I feel about the physical manifestations of blackness. The dolls give her a way of telling me that she hears me, and so far, she agrees.
I grab Bella (an Alvin Ailey Mattel Collector Doll) and gush about how beautiful she is (she really, really is – you should see her) and Leah chooses her as the main doll every time we play.
[Note: Bella is the doll in the video that is wearing the purple princess gown. The one Leah chooses as the doll she'd like to have the skin and hair of.]
I did a Clark-style doll test on Leah last April and was very pleased with what Leah said and did.
She had to take a bathroom break…but when she came back we continued her interview.
[Btw, I do NOT want her to be rock star when she grows up. I was just so shocked by that answer that reacted in an overly enthusiastic way! Rock Star? no. No. NO.]
We knew she could see color as early as three years old. We were sitting at the dinner table one night and out of the blue she announced, in the most self-satisfied way, “Me and Daddy are brown.” At the time we were living in Bermuda, a predominately black country, and the message was clear, she felt sorry for her whitey-Momma.
After we returned to the States a few months later, we saw that Leah continued to be aware of color but her sense of the differences seemed age-appropriate and healthy.
Because Leah is black, I will always have to fear the moment when mainstream messages break through and begin to influence her, because the message in the United States is that black women are less attractive than white women. That message comes at us from every corner, in every medium, and it is relentless. There are other harmful messages too. Blacks are less intelligent. Blacks are less moral.
I will use my own opinion and my own actions to let her know that while she might hear those messages from the larger society – those beliefs do not reign in our home and they do not reign in the homes of our friends (or they wouldn’t be our friends).
Playing barbies with my daughter tells me where she “is” in her awareness or compliance with these messages on any given day. Her play choices tell me in the biggest things in the smallest ways.
I know she finds black women beautiful because she chooses them. Why does she love the dark skinned, natural haired doll the most? Is it because I do?
Probably. My favorite dolls seem to become her favorite dolls seamlessly.
That’s fine with me. It means she knows exactly what I value. If she makes other choices that’s fine too. The most important things I can do at this point it make it abundantly clear that my values are different than the values that may seek to crush her later in life.
Should we be worried because the doll our daughter loves the most is significantly darker-skinned than she is? Leah’s skin is light brown, her favorite doll’s skin is mahogany. Leah has brown hair. Her favorite doll’s hair is black.
After all, we would definitely be worried sick if she fixated on a BBBBarbie. If that happened I would probably burn a pile of plastic bodies in a front yard bonfire.
To understand why her adoration of Bella doesn’t bother us, let’s imagine a beauty continuum. This continuum does not address weight (that would be a whole ‘nother post) – it only address skin, hair and eye color. Mentally place Leah in the middle of that continuum. Imagine mainstream images of beauty at the far right end – so let’s say BBBBarbie or Pamela Anderson Lee. We put someone like Alec Wek on the Left end.
We consider that society’s messages are always trying to pull her further and further right, and further and further from self-acceptance. So as long as she is Left of herself, we are dancing a jig at our house. When she starts to choose dolls on the right side of herself, we will feel we are in trouble.
Mainstream images and messages tell us that being white is supposed to be BETTER than being brown. Mainstream images and messages tell us that having long, straight, light-colored hair is better than having short, curly, darker-colored hair.
So, I do a sort of doll test every single day when we sit down to play and so far, every day, I mentally dance a jig.