Snow White and the Seven Barbies: Where are the dolls of color?toddler-times
It was Sue Chehrenegar’s son who noticed the absence of characters with darker complexions in the books she was buying for her grandchildren.
With a husband who hails from Iran and a daughter-in-law whose family came to the United States from Mexico, the Los Angeles, California grandmother has spent the years since digging deep into the shelves of local bookstores and toy stores, grateful for a burgeoning ethnic- or heritage-based product market.
According to U.S. Census figures, the number of multiracial people in America rose 3.4 percent last year to about 5.2 million in the U.S., making “multiracial” the fastest-growing ethnic group in the nation. It’s a group that includes kids like Chehrenegar’s granddaughter Layla and grandson KJ, but they’re not the only ones benefiting from what Toy Industry Association Spokeswoman Adrienne Citrin calls a growing trend.
The last year alone has seen the introduction of a new “Jewish” version of the popular American Girl doll series and Disney’s introduction of its first black princess, Tiana, set to hit theaters this year in The Princess and the Frog.
Ethnic diversity in children’s television programming – and the related toys, lunchboxes and foodstuffs – has increased drastically since the days of the lily-white Flintstones. Pointing to Hispanic Dora the Explorer and the multi-ethnic Karito Kids dolls, Citrin said the trend has “been around for a couple years.”
“But they’re really becoming more mainstream,” said the spokeswoman for the not-for-profit trade association for producers and importers of toys and youth entertainment products sold in North America. “Kids’ worlds are filled with different colors, and a girl may want a doll that looks just like her, but also one that looks just like her best friend, so she can make them play together. The lines are blurring.”
Dolls are an obvious start because race is a human trait – and dolls are the first line in mirroring human life in toy form. They’re second only to the pages of books where characters of color provide a window to a conversation with kids.
“One of the reasons I started writing children’s books is so my grandkids would have books and things that represent them,” explains Irene Smalls of Boston, author of a series of children’s books for children of color including Jonathan and His Mommy, and My Nana and Me. Published by Little, Brown, the books are in direct opposition to those of Smalls’ 1950s childhood in Harlem, when everything on the shelves of her school featured blond-haired, blue-eyed white children.
“As a child of the tenements, I felt invisible,” Smalls recalls. “My world, my family, my life had no value is the underlying message of books like that.”
Scientists have long posited that children develop their understanding of the ways of the world through playtime, pointing to play as a cultural activity. Children play at grown-up life, be it in toy kitchens or building houses out of blocks, and that can reflect what they’re absorbing from their every day. Broadening the availability of ethnicities in recreational activities in turn broadens kids’ look at the world.
“Dolls are our first way for children to experiment with imagination and story-telling . . . it’s a way to care for something else,” explains Dr. Jennifer Hartstein, a Manhattan-based child psychologist. “Dolls that are ethnically similar can encourage this and enhance a child’s experience.”
There’s a natural inclination, as Smalls experienced as a child, to want to find something a child can identify with. In turn, that demand is what’s driving the market. It enabled Smalls to find a publisher for her line of books back in 1991, and for toy manufacturers to expand their current lines to represent a more diverse crop of kids.
“As I started to grow the business, I often felt like I was repeating this phrase ‘Do these dolls come in Latino, African American etc.’,” says Jeanette Lauture, a mother of biracial twin girls and owner of a toy shop in Montclair, NJ. “Two years ago the frequent answer would be no, but now I see some manufacturer’s commitment to offering more diversity with their products.”
Susan Emanuel, owner of online store My Kids Quarters of Pickering, Ontario, says the demand from parents enabled her to do something she’d wanted to do for her own mixed-race daughter – start a new line of clothing that would feature cartoon characters that look like the wearer. The response to her t-shirts, dubbed the Sports Kids because each cartoon is an athlete, has been overwhelmingly positive – as much from the kids as from the adults buying for them.
“I was preparing an Amy Sports Kid T-shirt for one of [my daughter] Chelseyah’s friends who is a quarter black, a quarter white and half Filipino,” Emanuel relates. “Her friend came into my office while I was selecting a skin tone that I thought was close to hers and she said to me, ‘Is that me?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ She said, ‘No, that’s not me, I’m darker.'”
Emanuel adjusted the skin tone of the cartoon, and the girl’s grin went wide. “She delightedly said, ‘That’s me!!!'” Emanuel says with her own grin. “This attention to detail on the children’s part is the reason we tell customers that we’ll adjust the skin tone to match their child because it’s important to me that the children wearing the T-shirts see themselves reflected.”
But even as the picture brightens, parents are unanimous in their call for the market to broaden its efforts to bring ethnicity to the masses. The books and toys on the shelves are still too few and far between.
There’s been a 60% decline in the number of children’s books published for children of color. Emanuel is the first to warn that it’s hard to find a diverse selection. For her own daughter, the options were black Barbie or a black Cabbage Patch . . . that’s it. Pickings are likewise slim on the shelves of the local bookstore. In 1991, Smalls found success as publishers were making a “real push” toward diversity. Since then, there’s been a sixty percent decline in the number of children’s books published for children of color.
Smalls finds books featuring children of color at the library and in smaller bookstores or online at sites like Blackbooksdirect.com. Her own books are available in major retailers, but they’re still somewhat the exception to the rule.
“It is very odd that in a increasing multi-cultural society, ethnic books and toys are hard to find in the major bookstores,” Smalls noted. “By 2050 American society will be a minority majority society with Latinos, African-Americans and other groups making up the majority of the population.”
The news is better in major metropolitan areas than small towns. Chehrenegar has had somewhat better luck in Los Angeles, where she’s found books for her grandkids at secondhand book fairs that fit the bill and in the Christian bookstores or their local Baha’i bookstore. Those weren’t options when she was raising her own children.
When that sort of diversity is explored through the toy and bookshelves, kids can find not only themselves but faces they might not see otherwise if they live in less ethnically diverse neighborhoods. And that’s where the mass market appeal of ethnic offerings is there – because it isn’t just parents of non-white children who are asking for them.
“Dolls that have a similar ethnic makeup as a child may actually promote diversity,” Dr. Hartstein explains. “Children may not always see their own differences. Look at any nursery school or kindergarten class: most kids don’t get caught up in color. Dolls help children identify with themselves and with others, and may promote conversations about why one doll is brown while the other is white. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the end result is more acceptance?”