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Snow White and the Seven Barbies: Where are the dolls of color?

Snow White and the Seven Barbies

Where are the dolls of color?

by Jeanne Sager

September 22, 2009

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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.

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